The Compass: Official Newspaper of the Catholic Diocese of Green Bay
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June 15, 2001 Issue

Right direction

Despite Timothy McVeigh execution, public support is declining for capital punishment

By Tony Staley
Compass Editor

Despite the execution Monday of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh, popular support for the death penalty is declining, reported The Wall Street Journal (5/22/01) in a front page story.

The Journal noted that the change has come despite public support for the execution of McVeigh and the election of George W. Bush. In calling Pres. Bush "an enthusiastic proponent of capital punishment," it noted that he presided over 152 executions, more than any other governor in the last 25 years. (It should be noted that Bush's opponent, Al Gore, also supported the death penalty.)

It gave as reasons for changing attitudes: declining rates of violent crime; advances in DNA testing that has resulted in reversals of several guilty verdicts; and incidents of scandal in the prosecution of several major cases.

The number of executions is also falling, going from a high of 319 in 1994 and 1995, to 272 in 1999, the latest year for which statistics are available.

The public also may be disturbed in some cases by who receives the death sentence. For example, the U.S. Supreme Court last month banned the execution of a mentally retarded man in Texas.

Recent awareness of problems in capital cases, such as executing people wrongly convicted, has led to an unusual alliance of death penalty friends and foes seeking stricter standards on who can be executed, The Journal reported. For example, Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a strong death penalty advocate, favors requiring a higher standard of proof in death penalty cases, even if it makes the death penalty harder to obtain, The Journal said.

The foes hope stronger standards will decrease the number of executions, while supporters are willing to accept stricter standards if they will end the erosion in public support for the death penalty and thus keep it legal.

Both Pope John Paul and the U.S. Catholic bishops have taken strong positions opposing capital punishment, both in general and in their requests for clemency in specific cases.

Beyond that, we can look to the Bible, but not the Old Testament's "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth." Instead, as Christians, we need to consult the story of the woman caught in adultery (Jn 8:1-11). In saving her from execution by public stoning, Jesus told the people, "Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone." Notice, he did not say the first stone could be cast by someone who has never committed adultery, but rather by someone "without sin." That's the standard we need to follow.

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