Testimony in Support of Senate Bill 279: Death Penalty Repeal

By Most Rev. Martin Holley, Auxiliary Bishop of Washington

Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee (02/18/09)

This statement is offered in support of Senate Bill 279.

I present this testimony in the absence of the chairman of our Maryland Catholic Conference, Archbishop Edwin O’Brien, who is out of the country this week and unable to attend today’s hearing. In conveying his deep commitment – and that of all of Maryland’s bishops – to the Church’s advocacy for repealing the death penalty, I draw your attention to the attached statement which he presented this summer to the Commission on Capital Punishment.

An out-of-town commitment also prevents the attendance today of Baltimore Auxiliary Bishop Denis Madden, who served as a member of the Maryland Commission on Capital Punishment. He too asked me to convey on his behalf a personal plea to support the recommendation of his fellow Commission members to end the practice of capital punishment in Maryland.

I trust our Catholic Church’s long-standing advocacy for death penalty repeal in Maryland, and our consistent advocacy for laws that respect all human life – even that of the convicted criminal – is well known to you. Our Church teaches that all human life is sacred and must be protected and defended from conception to natural death. It is a teaching which admits no exceptions – whether of a seriously deformed child in the womb, nor an elderly person suffering from grievous disease in its final stage, nor even a death-row inmate who has wrongfully and wantonly taken the life of another. It is my prayer that the repeated urgings of the Church, together with the urgings of so many other faith communities, citizens groups, and victims’ families, and together with the compelling findings that you now have before you from the Commission on Capital Punishment, will at last inspire you to take action this year to abolish Maryland’s death penalty.

I am honored to add my voice today in imploring you to take this action. I do so not only on behalf of the Maryland bishops, but also as a member of the U.S. Bishops’ Pro-Life Committee, as Chairman of their Subcommittee for African-American Catholics, and as a member of the Washington Archdiocese’s Prison Outreach Ministry. Through my work on behalf of the Church’s pro-life efforts, and as an African American, I feel keenly the harm that a culture of violence has wrought on our community, and recognize daily the dire need for a change in culture that can only be brought about through a genuine respect for all human life.

As our U.S. Bishops have said, “We oppose capital punishment not just for what it does to those guilty of horrible crimes but for what it does to all of us as a society. … We cannot overcome crime by simply executing criminals, nor can we restore the lives of the innocent by ending the lives of those convicted of their murders. The death penalty offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life.” [A Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty, 1999]

In our view as a faith community, arguments against the death penalty do not rest simply on questions regarding bias, deterrence, cost-effectiveness, and the possibility of error. The convincing evidence that other panels today will provide you on these various aspects of the Commission’s findings are undoubtedly critically important to your deliberations. But for us, the fundamental moral question remains: Are we permitted to deliberately take the life of another human being? The teachings of our Church tell us that when other punishment options that are sufficient to protect the public’s safety are available to government, we should not resort to the death penalty, not even in the case of one who takes the life of another human being and, by doing so, denies not only his own and his victim’s human dignity, but God’s dominion, as well. In the Church’s view, the human quest for justice never permits us to assume the absolute power over human life implicit in capital punishment.

The teaching of our Church recognizes the right of legitimate government to resort to the death penalty, but it directly challenges the appropriateness of government’s doing so in a society that is capable of defending the public order and ensuring the public’s safety. If non-lethal means are sufficient to protect people’s safety from an aggressor, we believe that public authority should limit itself to such means, because they are more consistent with the concrete conditions of the common good, and with the dignity of the human person. Today, as a consequence of government’s capabilities to prevent crime by rendering an offender incapable of doing harm (without taking away the possibility of his redeeming himself), the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are virtually non-existent. Since 1987, non-lethal means sufficient to protect the people’s safety has been available in Maryland capital cases in the form of life-without-parole sentences.

Maryland was among the first states to prohibit the execution of minors. It did so in 1987, the same year it added the life-without-parole sentence to the then extant sentences of “life” and “death.” Several years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court followed our state’s lead, declaring that the execution of juveniles violates the U.S. Constitution. Maryland also was among the first states to prohibit the execution of persons with intellectual disabilities. It did so in 1989. Only recently, the U.S. Supreme Court followed suit, ruling that the execution of the mentally disabled violates our national Constitution.

We come before you today with fresh hope: that you will now lead Maryland into the vanguard of states that make the logical next move, by abolishing capital punishment in our state. We ask you, our lawmakers, to act not simply out of political, practical, and legal considerations. We urge you, as women and men charged with the duty of enshrining in our laws the principles of justice and the common good, to listen truthfully to the voice of your moral conscience, informed by the light of reason, and yes, by the foundational beliefs that each of our faith communities contributes to the public square.