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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Kill the death penalty?

When Illinois suspended executions pending review of its capital punishment system, momentum built for a federal moratorium on the death penalty. A bill has been introduced in Congress. Attorney General Janet Reno and Congress are studying the cases of the 21 people awaiting death for federal crimes.

A federal execution hasn't occurred since 1963. Several states, however, have put people to death (98 last year). Nearly 3,600 people await execution in various states.

In Illinois 12 prisoners have been executed since 1976, and 13 have been freed from death row since 1987 because they were found to be innocent. Nationally, 85 people have been freed from death row since 1973.

"A moratorium is justified," says Henry Talifer, an attorney and senior lecturer in philosophy at California Lutheran College in Thousand Oaks. "In more and more cases people are wrongly convicted. Also the death penalty doesn't serve any social purpose. Too many problems are associated with it: race and class, evidentiary and social problems. We're one of the few Western nations that has retained capital punishment."

The ELCA social statement on the death penalty — passed by the 1991 Churchwide Assembly — says in part: "Since human beings are fallible, the innocent have been executed in the past and will inevitably be executed in the future. Death is a different punishment from any other; the execution of an innocent person is a mistake we can't correct. ... [The death penalty] is not fair and fails to make society better or safer."


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