Just weeks after the Aug. 22 stay of execution of Marcellus Williams, students from several Catholic high schools in the Archdiocese of St. Louis participated in a “teach-in” on the death penalty with two Missouri death row exonerees: Reggie Griffin and Joe Amrine. The teach-in provided an opportunity for these students to learn about and examine the injustices that exist within this broken system of justice.
The month of October provides an especially opportune time for us all to reflect on the brokenness of the death penalty, and to renew the call for an end to its use: Oct. 10 marked the 15th annual celebration of World Day Against the Death Penalty, and in the Catholic Church, October is known as Respect Life Month.
This year’s World Day Against the Death Penalty theme, “Poverty and Justice: A Deadly Mix,” is especially fitting.
When Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens stayed the execution of Williams and appointed a board of inquiry, the extent to which the death penalty in Missouri is a broken system of justice was once more made clear.
Williams found himself on death row for a crime he likely did not commit. Williams grew up poor and suffered childhood abuse and trauma, and received woefully inadequate counsel at trial, where much of this mitigating evidence was not brought up.
Williams is not alone, and may join the four other individuals who were exonerated from Missouri’s death row due to their innocence.
Racial disparities are also particularly prevalent in Missouri’s death penalty. African-Americans are overrepresented on Missouri’s death row, accounting for only about 11 percent of the state’s total population, but making up one-third of the inmates facing capital punishment.
The situation in Missouri is not unique. Rather, it illuminates one of the most egregious aspects of the death penalty in our country: Capital punishment harms the innocent and marginalized.
The death penalty represents a deeply broken and flawed system. In total, 160 innocent people have been exonerated from death row since 1973. For every nine people who have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, one person has been exonerated.
Poverty is perhaps the single most significant factor to determine whether someone will receive a death sentence. Nationally, almost all death row inmates were unable to afford their own attorney at trial. Public defenders often find themselves with unmanageable caseloads and few resources. Mitigating factors that stem from or lead to poverty, such as severe mental illness, intellectual disability, or childhood abuse and trauma, are sometimes overlooked or ignored.
The death penalty denies our call to be a people of life. It violates the God-given dignity of the human person and favors vengeance over reconciliation and transformation. In fact, on Oct. 11, Pope Francis said, “The death penalty is inadmissible because it attacks the inviolability and the dignity of the person.”
As we celebrate the step toward justice that was made on Aug. 22, we are reminded by events like the recent teach-in that there is still much more work to be done. Across the country, a disturbing 10 executions were scheduled for this month; some have already been carried out, though some have been stayed or postponed. We must take a stand for mercy and justice and work to end the death penalty. In light of the calls for justice in the St. Louis community these past few weeks, eliminating the death penalty is one obvious proposal that would make the system more just.
Catholic Mobilizing Network (catholicsmobilizing.org/about-us), the national Catholic organization working to end the death penalty and promote a more restorative criminal justice system, has amplified this call through an initiative: The National Catholic Pledge to End the Death Penalty. We urge all people of faith and goodwill to join Archbishop Robert J. Carlson and other faith leaders in signing the pledge to educate, advocate and pray to end the death penalty.
Karen Clifton is executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network. Marie Kenyon is director of the Peace & Justice Commission of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Karen Nolkemper is executive director of the Respect Life Apostolate of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.