I guess there is no bad place to call for an end to execution. But Philadelphia, the City of Love, is a really divine place for his Holiness to denounce death.
Just this year, Governor Tom Wolf announced a halt on all executions in Pennsylvania, citing deep concerns about errors and biases inherent in the system.
A recent study shows that a majority of death sentences are coming from only 2% of US counties. Philadelphia County has the third largest death row population of any county, and we have THE highest rate of overturned death sentences in the country.
Studies consistently show that the race of the victim, the county where a crime is committed and access to financial resources often determine who will get the death penalty more than the severity of the crime. As death penalty lawyer Bryan Stevenson, founder of Equal Justice Initiative, has said: “When it comes to the death penalty, you are better off being guilty and rich than poor and innocent.”
We now have over 150 people who have been released from death row because of new evidence – the latest only this past week. Montez Spradley, sentenced to death in Alabama only to be freed from prison a decade later… innocent of the crime for which he was almost executed. Even tomorrow, Oklahoma plans to execute Richard Glossip whose case is riddled with errors, causing many to believe he is innocent (over 250, 000 have signed the petition asking for his life to be spared). Like Spradley, Glossip is being convicted solely on the testimony of one witness (who confessed to the crime and got life), and with no physical evidence linking Glossip to the crime.
Six of those 155 exonerations stories are from Pennsylvania — people who could have been wrongfully executed.
That means for every nine executions carried out in the United States, one person has been found to be innocent. What if an airline crashed one out of every 10 flights?
So this is the time to abolish the death penalty.
Despite having one of the largest death rows in the country — with 184 inmates — Pennsylvania has been losing steam when it comes to actually executing people. We’ve had only three executions since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, and the last execution was in 1999… a trend we see around the country. It may be that we are finally ready to find better forms of justice than the death penalty.
In 2014, just seven states carried out executions — three of which accounted for 80 percent of them (Texas, Missouri and Florida). Last year, death sentences in the United States hit a 40-year low, and executions were at a 20-year low.
Recent polls show that for the first time in decades a majority of Americans prefer life in prison over the death penalty. And this is even more pronounced among young people — including young people of faith, who are deeply troubled that 85 percent of executions take place in the Bible Belt. Another great reason the Pope’s voice is desperately needed on this issue – after all, Catholics have had a consistent ethic of life that shapes their thinking on issues like capital punishment… and many evangelicals are resonating with that seamless garment of a consistent life ethic.
Victims’ groups, such as Journey of Hope, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation and the Forgiveness Project, are gaining traction as they insist that capital punishment creates a new set of victims and perpetuates violence instead of healing. As you listen to them, you can’t help but be convinced that we can do better than killing to show that killing is wrong.
Just this year we saw Nebraska become the first conservative-led state in 40 years to abolish the death penalty – and several may be right behind. In many states, political conservatives concerned about the high cost of the death penalty are leading the way, pointing out that all the money wasted on the death penalty could be better used to support victims, prevent crime and repair broken schools and families.
Pennsylvania — home of the original U.S. Capitol, the birthplace of American democracy, the iconic site of the Declaration of Independence— holds an important place in American history. And a part of that history is that our Commonwealth was founded by Quakers, who had abolished slavery in 1688, nearly 200 years before it was brought to an end. And it was the Quakers who denounced the death penalty long before the rest of us, insisting that better forms of justice are possible.
I can’t help but think old William Penn would be proud of Gov. Wolf earlier this year as he made his announcement to halt all executions. Penn was a pacifist and a serious skeptic of capital punishment. His Quaker heritage held that every human being carries the essence of God, and that no one should ever take the life of another, not even the state.
As Pope Francis leads worship on JFK Boulevard in the heart of Philadelphia, a statue of William Penn will be looking down on him from atop City Hall… and I can’t help but think our Quaker forefather will be smiling – especially as Pope Francis continues to insist that every person carries the image of God in them… and that no one is beyond redemption.
I look forward to the end of the death penalty, and I hope we get one step closer to it as the Pope comes to the City of Love.