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The death penalty is a burden of shame for the United States. It must end

The death penalty denies the sacredness of human life, forever foreclosing on the opportunity for redemption.

Protesters against the death penalty gather in Terre Haute, Indiana, on July 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

(RNS) — Last night, on Dec. 10 at 9:27 p.m., Brandon Bernard was pronounced dead at the federal prison complex in Terre Haute, Indiana. Cause of death: lethal injection.

Tonight, Alfred Bourgeois is scheduled to be put to death in the same place by the same means. 

State-sanctioned killing — what we politely call capital punishment — has been used in the United States since at least 1790. That was the year Thomas Bird was put to death for “murder on the high seas.” Since then, over 350 more people have been put to death by the federal government. Thousands upon thousands more have been executed by the states. Men and women. Young and old. All religions. All races. All killed at the hands of our government.

As a Quaker, I believe the death penalty denies the sacredness of human life, forever foreclosing on the opportunity for redemption. It cannot be a part of a criminal justice system riddled with bias and human error. As the leader of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, I guide an organization working for the permanent abolition of capital punishment. But as a human — as a parent and a mother — I know we have no right to kill. Vengeance does not bring justice. 

Not too long ago, there was good reason to believe capital punishment in the United States was on its last legs. There were no federal executions between 1967 and 1977. The Supreme Court struck down the death penalty outright in 1972, only to reverse itself four years later. But the federal government did not kill again until 2001, when Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was put to death.

In total, there have been 11 federal executions since the 1976 reinstatement. Sadly, that is rapidly changing.

Nine Americans have been executed by the federal government so far in 2020, with four more people scheduled to die before President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated.

The Trump administration seems determined to execute as many people as it can before its time is up on January 20, 2021. They are so determined, in fact, that this month a rule change was pushed through to allow federal executions by methods other than lethal injection, including death by firing squad and electrocution. This paves the way for faster, more and easier federal executions.

Thankfully, the president-elect has been firmly against the death penalty for decades. While it was only a minor issue during his campaign, he nonetheless made it clear he supports the abolition of the death penalty. So, while the current escalating use of the death penalty during the presidential transition is an unconscionable abuse of power, it just might be we are at long last witnessing the death penalty swan song we have lobbied so long to achieve.

The question is, why now? Is expediting the execution of prisoners one more act of presidential authoritarianism Donald Trump wants to take advantage of while he still has a chance? It seems that way, laying bare yet again what a petty exercise in human vindictiveness and violence the death penalty truly is.

Capital punishment is a relic of the past for democracies. That it still exists in the United States when the vast majority of the developed world has long since done away with it is a burden of shame. Capital punishment does not make us a stronger nation. It does not deliver justice but, rather, perpetuates violence and vengeance.

The fact is, state-sanctioned killing has always been, and always will be, immoral. It should be abolished in every legal jurisdiction across the country. It does not serve justice but, rather, makes those who carry it out believe they struck a blow for justice. Look no further than the new firing squads and electric chairs to see the reality of the matter.

Civil rights activist Bryan Stevenson famously asked: “The death penalty is not about whether people deserve to die for the crimes they commit. The real question of capital punishment in this country is do we deserve to kill?” Since the time of Thomas Bird the answer has been no. These newly scheduled executions should be stopped and the death penalty abolished once and for all.

(Diane Randall is the general secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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