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Justice: Why We Fight California’s Death Penalty

By Jo’Ann De Quattro, SNJM

Did you know that the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976, the same year that it was eliminated in Canada?

This November, Californians have an opportunity to vote for a ballot measure that would replace the death penalty with life in prison without parole. A similar proposition was defeated by a small margin in 2012.

Currently, there are 747 people on death row in California. While our state leads the country in the number of death row inmates, 13 people have actually been executed since a 1978 ballot initiative reinstated the death penalty in California. In July of this year, Ron Briggs, a former county supervisor whose family authored that initiative 40 years ago, wrote an article in the Sacramento Bee saying he has reversed his position and now considers the policy “destructive to our great state.”

Opposition to the death penalty is nothing new for the Sisters of the Holy Names. In 1998, our former California Province went through an extensive process that resulted in a vote to take a Corporate Stand Against the Death Penalty. We stated:

We, members of the California Province of the Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, believe that the death penalty is immoral and should be abolished. We further believe that an alternative to capital punishment is a sentence of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Pairing action with words, 109 California Sisters also signed the “Declaration of Life” – a notarized document stating that if the Sister who signed is murdered, the death penalty will not be sought to punish the perpetrator. These declarations remain in effect.

Part of our rationale at the time was the impetus of our community’s 1996 Chapter Act:

Called to be prophetic witnesses to the Gospel, we commit ourselves to work to change structures which oppress life wherever it is threatened.

Today, the Sisters of the Holy Names in California join 26 other communities of women religious who have endorsed Proposition 62, the Justice That Works Act, which seeks to replace California’s failed death penalty with life in prison without parole. It provides certain justice and requires convicted murderers to work and pay restitution to their victims’ families. According to the state Legislative Analyst’s Office, passing the Justice That Works Act would save California taxpayers $150 million a year.

Unfortunately, California voters will be choosing between two competing initiatives. Also on the ballot is the opposing Proposition 66, which attempts to hasten executions, severely limiting appeals to death sentences. Legal scholars believe that proposal will be declared unconstitutional.

Proposition 62 is supported by the California Catholic Conference and the Catholic Bishops of California. This is an affirmation of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ 2005 statement, A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death, which initiated the U.S. Bishops’ Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty.

Believing that a culture of life is also a culture of forgiveness, we oppose the death penalty because of what it does to those guilty of horrible crimes as well as for what it does to us as a society. Reliance on the death penalty diminishes us and is a sign of disrespect for human life.

Pope Francis has said, “In the Eucharist we experience the forgiveness of God, and the call to forgive. We celebrate the Eucharist not because we are worthy, but because we recognize our need for God’s Mercy.” Francis has also decried the sentence of life without parole as a “hidden death penalty.”

While we wish we could abolish the death penalty completely, it seems that for now at least, we have the opportunity to stop the execution of people, some of whom could be declared innocent in the future. DNA technology and new evidence have proven the innocence of more than 150 people on death row in the United State. In California, 67 people have had murder convictions overturned because new evidence proved they were innocent.

Join us in our efforts to pass this legislation in California! YES to Proposition 62, NIX to Proposition 66!

Illustration credit: Peg Averill (Liberation News Service, War Resisters League, Offset, Mid 1970s, New York, NY). Courtesy of Center for the Study of Political Graphics.