Exactly four weeks ago, I posted an open letter in which three Catholic bishops appeal for an end to the federal death penalty in the United States. Immediately (i.e. from the very first response), this thread became a debate about exactly what the Church’s teaching on the death penalty is and whether the pope has the authority to change that teaching. That thread now runs to 261 posts (which I am no longer reading) and I absolutely do not wish to begin another thread on this topic. Indeed, I did not intend to begin a thread on that topic in the first place. Rather, my original topic was hijacked by a small number of contributors interested in pursuing their own peculiar agenda.
What I am asking is, rather, whether anybody can provide an explanation for why the United States, almost uniquely among comparably developed countries, persists in its use of the death penalty. This issue struck me, for example, when I was watching a documentary about the Cheshire, Connecticut, home invasion murders. The husband and father of the victims, William Petit, emerged as a passionate advocate for the death penalty, despite the position of his own denomination, the United Methodist Church. Even Jennifer Hawke-Petit’s father, the Reverend Richard Hawke, seemingly ended up accepting the death penalty in this case.
In 2009 the governor of Connecticut vetoed a bill abolishing the state death penalty, and in 2012 the General Assembly agreed on a compromise that would abolish the death penalty for all future crimes (the state supreme court nonetheless ruled that the death penalty is unconstitutional in all cases). I was astonished that even in Connecticut the death penalty was vehemently supported by politicians, journalists, and the public.
The death penalty has been abolished in law or in practice by 142 countries, including all western countries and virtually all of the world’s most developed countries, including every country in the Americas (except the United States itself), every country in Europe except Belarus, and every country in Oceania, as well as all but 10 countries in Africa and many Asian countries, such as Israel, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Macau. With the notable exception of Japan, and perhaps a few others such as Taiwan, most countries that continue to use the death penalty are hardline Islamic regimes, communist dictatorships, or simply very undeveloped. India, with a population of more than 1.3 billion, has executed only four people since 1999, three of them for terrorism. The Gambia has executed nobody since 2012 (when it was ruled by Yahya Jammeh) and is now in the process of formally abolishing the death penalty.
Is anybody able to provide any suggestions as to why the United States is so resistant toward the idea of abolishing the death penalty, given that this places us very much at odds with all otherwise comparable nations in the world?