Professors petition against capital punishment

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Following the executions of two death row inmates last month, capital punishment has recently been the subject of much controversy, and Catholic theologians from Saint Louis University have initiated a petition to help end the policy of state-sanctioned executions.

“[The petition] has been a catalyst for a possible new movement,” Tobias Winright, co-author of the petition and associate professor of theological ethics, said.

According to the petition, which has already gathered more than 360 signatures, the two state-sanctioned executions of Lawrence Brewer and Troy Anthony Davis prompted the petitioners to call for an abolition of the death penalty.

“We urge our nation to abolish capital punishment, and we also implore our churches to work unwaveringly to end it as well as all other threats to human life and dignity,” the petition states.

Brewer, a white supremacist in Texas, was put to death for allegedly participating in a hate crime that resulted in the murder of James Byrd in 1998. Davis, a black man, was executed after being found guilty of murdering a white police officer, Mark MacPhail, in Georgia in 1989.

The petition states that the evidence presented to the jury in the Davis case was not sufficient for execution, and that serious doubts remain about Davis’ guilt.

“I was deeply troubled by [the Davis execution] and when Tobias contacted me to sign this petition, I was more than happy to oblige,” Kenneth Parker, an associate professor of historical theology, said.

Winright said that the Davis case brought forth the question of whether or not innocent persons or minorities are ever wrongly executed, and if there are alternatives to the death penalty, such as life in prison without parole.

According to Parker, the fact that executions are sanctioned by the state in particular cases does not necessarily mean it is ethically the right thing to do.

Under Catholic doctrine, murderers still possess dignity as an “image of God,” Winright said.

Parker said he is proud of the drafters of the petition for including Brewer as a life that ought to be protected.

“We have to be consistent across the board,” Parker said. “How can I care about an unborn child’s life, if I cannot care for someone like him?”

Winright said that national and world religious leaders, especially within the Catholic church, have protested the death penalty as an inhumane punishment.

On the other hand, Winright said the Catholic church will accept the death penalty in extremely rare circumstances to protect society, such as on an island where citizens have no prison in which to keep alleged murderers.

Similar petitions to the one drafted by SLU theologians have arisen in Protestant and other religious communities. Winright said that the petition has received attention from religious and secular media alike from around the world, and that he has been in contact with political leaders in Washington, D.C. to discover what effect the petition will have on a potential movement to abolish capital punishment.

Winright said that several theologians, who may or may not always agree with one another on various issues, have come together to sign the petition. A total of 17 professors at SLU have signed the petition, 16 of whom are from the theology department.

Julie Rubio, an associate professor of theology, said that she signed the petition because she has strongly opposed the death penalty since she was a teenager. Growing up in Florida, where execution by the electric chair was still in use, Rubio said she frequently questioned whether capital punishment was proper justice.

“Why do we kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong?” Rubio said she asked herself when she was growing up.

Rubio said her father, a civil rights attorney, and a high school teacher who frequently visited death row inmates influenced her to have a consistent ethic that upholds the dignity of life in issues regarding abortion, capital punishment and war.

“I believe all persons are created in the image of God and have dignity, no matter what they do,” Rubio said.

Winright said that in Europe and most other developed nations in the world, capital punishment has been abolished. However, countries including Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, North Korea and Syria continue to practice the death penalty. Currently, capital punishment is prohibited in 16 states in the U.S., while 34 states, including Missouri, as well as the Federal Government and the military, continue to uphold it.

Parker, who said he believes the death penalty does not defer crime, said that it is crucial Americans speak out against capital punishment. Others are in agreement.

“As hard as it is to show mercy to a murderer, I believe that we are called to do just that,” Rubio said.