January 23, 2015

Indiana Catholic Conference continues advocacy against death penalty

A view of the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

A view of the Indiana Statehouse in Indianapolis. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

A bill to revoke Indiana’s death penalty stalled at the gate as Hoosier lawmakers decided against giving the ban a chance to move forward through the legislative process.

The Indiana Catholic Conference (ICC), the Indiana bishops’ official representative for public policy matters in the state, has a long record of working to repeal the death penalty in favor of sentencing people convicted of capital crimes a life sentence without the possibility of parole as the preferred option.

Glenn Tebbe, who serves as the executive director of the ICC, explained that the Church’s rational for a death penalty ban is two-fold. It deals with not only the consequences of the here and now for protecting society, but also looks at the hereafter.

“Although the Church recognizes the state’s right to execute criminals, the state has the ability to protect society from violent offenders with life imprisonment without parole. Therefore, the death penalty is unnecessary. Also, the Church places great value on the offender’s possibility of repentance,” said Tebbe. “It may take a person nearly a lifetime in prison, to repent. But each human life, created in the image and likeness of God, is loved by God.”

Senate Bill 136, authored by Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, would repeal the use of the death penalty in Indiana.

“The bottom line is, there is only one that dictates who should live and who should die, and that’s the man up above,” Randolph said. “So who am I to dictate who among my brothers and sisters should live or die. I’m just like everyone else who was created by God Almighty.”

Randolph said he believes the death penalty is about “vengeance seeking.”

“Two killings, two wrongs, don’t make a right,” he said. “The death penalty doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t bring anyone back to life.”

Randolph added, “I think life in prison without parole is a much more severe punishment because it gives the person more time to think about, and live with what they did. Also, it gives the person more time for repentance, and to turn their life around.”

The bill was filed and assigned to the Senate Corrections and Criminal Law panel in early January, yet the chairman of the panel, Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, said he doesn’t plan to give the bill a hearing.

“I believe the state’s use of the death penalty must be judicious, reserved for those who commit the most heinous crimes, yet the death penalty should remain in place,” Young said. For those reasons, Young said he decided not to give the bill a hearing.

Randolph said he felt the bill could move this year if enough pressure was put on Young from people who support the ban.

Randolph said that “it’s going to take outside influence” to get this bill to move. “People need to contact their elected officials on this issue.”

According to the Washington-based Death Penalty Information Center, 14 Hoosiers have been sentenced to death and await execution. Since 1979 nearly 1,500 people have been executed in the United State under capital punishment laws, 20 were executed in Indiana.

In 1995, Indiana changed its execution method from electrocution to lethal injection. Under Indiana law, the governor has authority to grant clemency.

The Senate did hear one bill which would have expanded the death penalty application when a criminal beheads or dismembers a person prior to killing them. The bill, Senate Bill 8, the death penalty aggravator bill, received a Jan. 13, hearing. Tebbe testified in opposition to the bill before the Senate panel.

“The Catholic Church teaches that the taking of life is only justified in cases of self-defense or when society has no other option to protect itself from an aggressor,” he said. “Utilization of the death penalty is not necessary when the perpetrator is in custody and when there are other appropriate means of punishment. We join the author of this bill in his effort to prevent and address the horrendous act which this bill identifies. While we join in your condemnation of this behavior, we believe there are more moral ways in which to seek restitution.”

According to the Catholic Mobilizing Network, a national organization based in Washington working to end capital punishment, 17 states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty.

In recent years, some states have repealed use of the death penalty because of the high legal costs involved in carrying it out. A report by the National Conference of State Legislatures said the state of New Jersey abolished its death penalty in 2007 largely because the state had spent $254 million on it over 21 years. New Mexico followed suit in 2009, due to cost. California has spent more than $4 billion on capital punishment since 1978, executing 13 criminals.

In Indiana, a 2015 fiscal report by the non-partisan Legislative Services Agency found that the average cost of a death penalty trial is over $500,000. In contrast, the same study found that the average trial for a life-without-parole case costs around $50,000.

(For more information about the Indiana Catholic Conference, its Indiana Catholic Action Network and the bills it is following in the Indiana General Assembly this year, log on to www.indianacc.org. Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

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