Inside USD

Professors Join National Call to End Death Penalty

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Following two executions last week, a group of USD theology professors have added their voices to a call to end the death penalty in the United States.

“We are trying to raise awareness, among Catholics especially but also for the wider public, of the injustice of capital punishment and the need for Catholics to continue to be involved in advocacy for reform of the criminal justice system in the United States,” said Emily Reimer-Barry, USD assistant professor of Theology and Religious Studies.

Reimer-Barry, along with seven other USD professors, signed a letter from some 160 professors at Catholic universities across the country including the University of Notre Dame and Georgetown University.

The executions took place in Georgia, where Troy Anthony Davis, an African-American, was put to death for the 1989 murder of Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail, and in Texas where white supremacist Lawrence Brewer was executed for the murder of James Byrd in 1998.  The Davis execution was “particularly troubling,” the letter said, because of the “serious doubt” about his guilt.

“Our letter encourages Catholics to consider the gospel mandate of love,” Reimer-Barry said. “Vengeance is not justice. State-sanctioned killing of criminals does not serve justice and will not bring true healing to victims’ families.”

The letter cites the Eucharistic celebration calling Catholics ”to remember all crucified people, including the legacy of lynching, in light of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His gospel message of forgiveness and love of enemies presents a difficult challenge, especially to those who have lost loved ones at the hands of a murderer. Yet the Gospel teaches us how to become fully human: love, not hatred and revenge, liberates us. We need to forgive and love both in fidelity to the Gospel and for our own well-being.”

Proponents of the death penalty such as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and Texas Gov. Rick Perry argue that punishment is a just one that affirms the high value of innocent life. “If you kill one of our children, you kill a police officer … you will face ultimate justice in the state of Texas,” Perry said in a recent presidential debate.

But theologians like Reimer-Barry cite the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2005 document arguing against the death penalty because “the sanction of death, when it is not necessary to protect society, violates respect for human life and dignity; state-sanctioned killing in our names diminishes all of us; its application is deeply flawed and can be irreversibly wrong, is prone to errors, and is biased by such factors as race, the quality of legal representation, and where the crime was committed; and we have other ways to punish criminals and protect society.”

Click here to read the full letter. Other coverage can be found here and here.

— Liz Harman

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