U.S. bishops renew call for end to death penalty

Good Friday statement reflects growing concern

April 03, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In their first statement in 19 years focusing exclusively on opposing the death penalty, the nation's Roman Catholic bishops issued a call yesterday to "all people of good will, and especially Catholics," to work to end capital punishment.

The statement -- timed to coincide with Good Friday observances and also calling for compassion for crime victims -- reflects a growing concern about capital punishment among the bishops, as well as the continuing impact of Pope John Paul II's denunciation of the death penalty during his visit to St. Louis in January.

Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, said in a telephone interview that the pope's words helped prompt the statement, written by the bishops' 55-member Administrative Board, which represents the National Conference of Catholic Bishops between the group's twice-yearly meetings.

"One of the things we're trying to do is expose the myth that we as a society gain something through the death penalty," said the cardinal, who is chairman of the bishops' Committee on Domestic Policy.

Polls show that a clear majority of Americans, and a majority of Catholics among them, support the death penalty.

But twice in the last 14 months, calls by prominent religious figures to spare a convict from execution have touched off wide debates over the uses of capital punishment.

In February 1998, the conservative religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, along with others, unsuccessfully urged Texas officials to spare the life of Karla Faye Tucker, a murderer who had become a born-again Christian in prison.

More dramatic was Pope John Paul's successful appeal to Gov. Mel Carnahan of Missouri to show mercy to Darrell J. Meese, a murderer who was to have been executed two weeks after the pope's visit.

On Jan. 28, the morning after the pope spoke to the governor, Carnahan, a Democrat who had approved 26 previous executions, commuted Meese's sentence to life without parole.

As a national body, the bishops have opposed the death penalty for three decades.

In yesterday's statement, the bishops said they were concerned about the size of the nation's death row population and the increasing pace of executions as condemned prisoners exhaust their appeals.

"Throughout the states, more than 3,500 prisoners await their deaths," the bishops wrote. "These numbers are deeply troubling. The pace of executions is numbing. The discovery of people on death row who are innocent is frightening."

The bishops said they also hoped to persuade people that capital punishment "is often applied unfairly and in racially biased ways."

Pub Date: 4/03/99

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