No, It’s Morally In­de­fen­si­ble

The Washington Post Sunday - - Close To Home - — Francis X. DiLorenzo Rich­mond — Paul S. Loverde Ar­ling­ton Francis DiLorenzo is bishop of the Catholic dio­cese of Rich­mond. Paul Loverde is bishop of Ar­ling­ton.

Our na­tion ap­pears to be in the midst of a much­wel­comed soul search­ing re­gard­ing the use of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. We only wish Vir­ginia would take note. Per­haps our com­mon­wealth’s 400th an­niver­sary will pro­vide a mo­ment to re­flect — not only on our sto­ried con­tri­bu­tions to this na­tion, but also on the fact that, since Jamestown, our state has ex­e­cuted nearly 1,300 peo­ple, the most of any state; and that since the re­in­state­ment of the death penalty in 1976, our state has ex­e­cuted 98 in­di­vid­u­als, sec­ond only to Texas.

We need look no farther than our neigh­bors for signs of grow­ing skep­ti­cism about cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment.

To our north, a com­mit­tee re­cently came within one vote of send­ing leg­is­la­tion to re­peal the death penalty to the floor of the Mary­land Se­nate.

To our south, ex­e­cu­tions are on hold in North Carolina — one of 11 states in which cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment re­cently has been sus­pended.

Here in Vir­ginia, some lead­ers seem in­tent on the ex­act op­po­site. Ear­lier this year, the Vir­ginia Gen­eral As­sem­bly en­acted leg­isla­tive pro­vi­sions that sought to ex­pand the state’s death penalty statute. Com­mend­ably, Gov. Ti­mothy M. Kaine (D) ve­toed each of those pro­vi­sions. Re­gret­tably, the leg­is­la­ture over­rode some of those ve­toes.

We read­ily ac­knowl­edge the need for our crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem to en­sure that one who has been con­victed of a heinous crime be ren­dered in­ca­pable of re­peat­ing it. At the same time, we be­lieve the death penalty must be viewed as a “last re­sort,” to be used only when — in the words of Pope John Paul II — “it would not be pos­si­ble oth­er­wise to de­fend so­ci­ety.”

No mat­ter how hor­ren­dous the crime, if a so­ci­ety can pro­tect it­self with­out end­ing a hu­man life, it should do so.

With Vir­ginia’s life-with­out-pa­role sen­tence and mod­ern in­car­cer­a­tion sys­tem, that pro­tec­tion is pro­vided. The life­sen­tence al­ter­na­tive is unique in its abil­ity to pro­tect state res­i­dents while up­hold­ing the dig­nity of ev­ery per­son, even the one con­victed of a bru­tal crime. Ac­cord­ingly, we are con­vinced that — in our time and place — the death penalty is un­nec­es­sary and in­ap­pro­pri­ate, and that death sen­tences should no longer be im­posed or car­ried out in Vir­ginia. When­ever an ex­e­cu­tion is sched­uled in Vir­ginia, we have called for a com­mu­ta­tion of the death sen­tence to life with­out the pos­si­bil­ity of pa­role.

To those who do not share our con­vic­tion, we would hope to agree on this much: Given Vir­ginia’s un­usu­ally fre­quent re­course to the death penalty, the last thing needed is to widen its scope.

On April 4, this point seems to have res­onated with the 14 mem­bers of the Vir­ginia Se­nate who were re­spon­si­ble for up­hold­ing the gov­er­nor’s veto of the most far-reach­ing death penalty ex­pan­sion to reach his desk. This ac­tion is a small step in the right di­rec­tion. May it lead our com­mon­wealth on the road to more sober re­flec­tion on its past use of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment and to a new di­rec­tion for its fu­ture.

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