Is the death penalty dead?

To give you a sense of the historical timing, I will begin by pointing out that Mozart was 17 years old, working as a musician in the court at Salzburg, when on Oct. 22, 1773, four slaves were hanged in Frederick, Md., for slitting the throat of their master. Their punishment served as the earliest recorded execution in my home state of Maryland. It was the first of many official governmental killings taking place in Maryland, particularly in Baltimore, home of the old penitentiary, a hulking, black stone Medieval-looking presence in the city’s center.

The methods have changed through the years, electric chair, gas chamber, lethal injection, but the results were the same. Someone committed a serious crime, and someone else took away his or her life as punishment. Killed them.

Death is final, whether by lethal injection, asphyxiation, electrocution or hanging by the neck. Life ends, never to return. Whether a criminal or a saint, death ends life. That in our supposedly educated and civilized society, our laws provide that someone else decides when and how to end the life of another has shocked and appalled me from my childhood forward. Killing is wrong, no matter how heinous the crime that sets capital punishment in motion.

I understand, of course, that this is my own point of view and that some might not agree. But some do, not least among them Pope Francis, who two weeks ago declared the death penalty wrong in all cases. Until August 2, 2018, Catholic church doctrine accepted capital punishment if it was the only practicable way to defend lives. But with his declaration, Pope Francis now changes the church’s catechism, “the book of doctrine that is taught to Catholic children worldwide and studied by adults in a church with 1.2 billion members,” according the a report in The New York Times.

The Times report also refers to Amnesty International’s statement that a majority of the world’s countries have already banned the death penalty, including all the nations of Europe and Latin America, which are home to many Catholics. So why are we still punishing people by killing them in the United States?

Capital punishment punishes all of us, the living and those it kills. It is madness. It is wrong and always has been. A civilized society deserves better.

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