The Oct. 25 execution of 26-year-old Reyhaneh Jabbari, an Iranian woman who stabbed and killed a man she said tried to rape her, has sparked outrage around the world. According to reports, Jabbari was sentenced to death in accordance with the Qisas (revenge) law based on Islamic scriptures.
In murder cases, Qisas gives the murder victim’s family the right to take the life of the killer. Despite efforts to sway the slain man’s family, Jabbari was hanged.
Jabbari is the latest in a string of state-sponsored executions around the world. While members of democratic nations scoff at religious extremism exhibited in countries such as Iran, capital punishment is still part of the U.S. justice system.
Public attitudes toward capital punishment are changing. In 1994, a Gallup poll showed 80 percent of respondents supported the death penalty. The most recent Gallup poll, released Oct. 23, shows 63 percent support. In Wisconsin, capital punishment was abolished in 1853. Six states have eliminated the death penalty since 2007, according to Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.
Part of the shift on attitudes about capital punishment as a deterrent for crime can be attributed to statements by religious leaders and church teachings on justice, forgiveness and the sacredness of life.
One of the first, and most quoted statements in opposition to capital punishment, came from St. Pope John Paul II. During a papal Mass at the Trans World Dome in St. Louis in 1999, John Paul stated that the dignity of human life “must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.”
“Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitely denying criminals the chance to reform,” he said. “I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.”
Since that day, other Catholic leaders have issued statements against the death penalty. In 2005, the U.S. bishops launched “Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty.” In a statement explaining their campaign, the bishops noted, “At a time when respect for the sanctity of human life is undermined in many ways, the church’s opposition to the use of the death penalty is an important witness in support of a culture of life.”
Botched executions in Arizona last July — when Joseph Wood was injected with a drug cocktail that took nearly two hours to kill him — and in Oklahoma last April — when Clayton Lockett died of a heart attack some 40 minutes after receiving his lethal injection — have led more people to question the humanity of executing criminals.
Pope Francis is the most recent religious leader to voice his opposition to the death penalty. “It is impossible to imagine that states today cannot make use of another means than capital punishment to defend peoples’ lives from an unjust aggressor,” he told representatives of the International Association of Penal Law Oct. 23.
Citing the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis said capital punishment is allowed when no other recourse is available for defending human lives. However, he added, “cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
While we can point fingers at the ruthless and sometimes barbaric treatment of people in other countries, we cannot forget that capital punishment is no different in the gallows of Tehran’s Evin prison or the death chamber of Arizona’s Florence State Prison.