Statement in Support of HB 316 and SB 279: Death Penalty

By Most Rev. Edwin F. O'Brien, Archbishop of Baltimore

House Judiciary Committee (03/17/2009)

Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, I offer this testimony as Archbishop of Baltimore, and chairman of the board of the Maryland Catholic Conference.

I am here today to express our support for the full repeal of Maryland’s death penalty, as proposed by House Bill 316. Recognizing that the Senate-passed version of this bill offers a small step toward this goal, I also want to express our support for the amended Senate Bill 279, as a measure that may at least help to prevent the execution of an innocent person.

I wish to be clear, however, that our opposition to the death penalty goes far beyond the very compelling concern about that risk. Our Church’s long-standing advocacy for death penalty repeal in Maryland rests upon our consistent advocacy for laws that respect all human life – even that of the convicted criminal.

I acknowledge at the outset that I am something of a late-comer to the position I espouse here today. Until relatively recently, my view about capital punishment was the view of most Americans I suppose: I thought it served a purpose. If nothing else, I thought it was a deterrent – the prospect of its imposition would prevent the wrongful taking of human life. But that was then.

In 1995, the year the Holy Father visited Baltimore, Pope John Paul II published an encyclical letter he titled Evangelium Vitae, the "Gospel of Life." In it, he called upon Roman Catholics, other people of faith, and all people of good will to respect life, God’s great gift, and to defend it at all of its stages, from conception to natural death. Woven into the fabric of that exhortation was an appeal to end capital punishment – to stand against the killing of even those who have committed murder and, in doing so, have affronted God’s dominion and denied their own and their victims’ God-given humanity. If other bloodless means of punishment is available to protect society from murderous violence, the Pope said, then these should be employed as being more in keeping with the common good. In contemporary society, he said, such means are at our disposal.

I had the privilege of hearing this appeal from Pope John Paul in person during his 1999 visit to St. Louis, when he declared 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 definitively denying criminals the chance to reform." This was a real moment of conversion for me, a turning point, so to speak.
The Pope’s emphatic guidance, reflected in the Church’s official Catechism, and in the teaching of the Church at the national and local level, has had a clear effect upon the Catholic community, particularly upon those of us who are joined to the Holy Father in priesthood. I can attest not only personally to its impact, but have seen that in the years since Evangelium Vitae, Catholic opposition to the death penalty and support for a "bloodless" alternative to executions each has grown sharply.

I can’t say for sure whether the Holy Father’s persistence in this cause has also affected general popular opinion in the matter. Regardless, one recognizes that other factors are contributing to a dramatically changed popular regard for capital punishment. For this is far more than a religious or sectarian issue. These factors are the principal focus of the findings you now have before you from the Blue Ribbon Commission on Capital Punishment. Its members included Bishop Denis Madden from our Archdiocese, and other individuals, far more qualified than I, who have provided you with additional practical, legal, and economic arguments for repealing capital punishment in our state.

Those factors - the increasing evidence of error in death-penalty proceedings, the demonstrable biases which infect so many death-penalty proceedings, and the inequities which too often mark defense efforts in death-penalty cases - have weighed heavily in the formation of my own conscience. I expect that this is true in a good many other cases, as well, and I hope it is true in yours.

The thorough and compelling findings of this commission deserve your serious consideration, both now, and in the future. While today may not be the day that we adopt their final recommendation to repeal our state’s death penalty, I hope and pray their work will mark a significant contribution toward our state taking that future step.
With that said, I wish to return to my statement in support of Senate Bill 279. I urge you to support this measure as a positive step forward, and one that, again, will help to prevent the terrible prospect of mistakenly taking an innocent life through the death penalty.

I should like to make only one additional point. It has to do with those who most directly suffer the consequences of murderous violence.

Having served as Archbishop for the Archdiocese for the Military Services, I know something of the pain that untimely death causes. It is often inconsolable, and though it diminishes with time, it endures. And while those who lose a loved one in war feel this pain keenly, and a lasting sense of loss, these are at least rendered explainable by a lost loved one’s involvement in national purpose.

But for those whose loss is an outcome of wanton violence, there is no such assumption, no explanation. The families and loved ones of murder victims have a special claim on our prayers, a special need for the caress of our helping hands, a special need for our encouragement to seek solace, understanding and ultimate judgment in a loving God. And so in closing, I offer them a special word of respect and compassion, and my heartfelt prayers for their final peace.