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Death Penalty Week continues

Maddie Hanna | Monday, February 28, 2005

With an awareness week on the subject underway, organizers say the death penalty’s contentious nature gives it special significance on Notre Dame’s Catholic campus, a sentiment echoed by professors who attest to the issue’s controversy.”It is important for any Catholic institution – university, school, parish – no matter how big, to put the matters of life and death front center,” said Jay Freel Landry, pastoral associate at Little Flower Parish involved in organizing the awareness week.Landry said that the death penalty debate was tied deeply to Catholicism.”To be human, in the deepest part of our hearts, is to seek reconciliation. I believe that’s the mission of the Church, to seek reconciliation with all people and with God,” Landry said.Kate Leahy, chair of Notre Dame Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and member of the week’s planning committee, said the week was crucial in order to stimulate discussion and critical thought among students.”I think we all see some kind of ‘cosmic’ sort of justice in the death penalty,” Leahy said. “I think events like this are important to show that there are all kinds of reasons we should get rid of it – moral, economic and legal.”Regarding the Catholic perspective, Leahy said that recent events where Pope John Paul II has spoken out against the death penalty directly impact Notre Dame students.”I personally consider these events part of our duty to build that consensus [to end the death penalty],” Leahy said.According to theology professor Todd David Whitmore, the Pope’s statements regarding the death penalty have become increasingly “rigorous.””While the prospect of the death penalty isn’t closed outright, the Pope says he can’t see any situation when it would be necessary,” Whitmore said.Whitmore said that with the possibility of life without parole, “it seems that society is duly protected.”Although the Pope has made his opinion on the death penalty clear, Whitmore said that he feels many Catholics simply ignore his beliefs.”I think most Catholics are aware of the Pope’s stance – I think they just fail to live up to their Christian vocation,” Whitmore said. “Vengeance is still winning out.”A Gallup Poll in October 2004 found 66 percent of Americans in favor of the death penalty, a drop from 80 percent in 1994.This drop in support is primarily due to new DNA testing techniques that found some people innocent after being sentenced to death row, political science professor David Campbell said.”Public opinion on most issues doesn’t really change much over time, but the death penalty happens to be an exception to that,” Campbell said.Campbell said there has been a fair amount of variability in public opinion towards the death penalty in the past 50 years, largely related to crime rates.However, despite these shifts in opinion, Campbell noted that at no point were a majority of Americans not in favor of the death penalty, which is currently practiced in 38 states.”I would be surprised if public opinion in the U.S., at least in our lifetimes, changes against the death penalty,” Campbell said.In the near future Americans could expect to see greater protections instilled making it more difficult to execute and changes to the appeals process, Campbell said.Whitmore said that while the death penalty is contentious, there is not as much debate on the topic as he thinks there should be.”In some respects, I wish it [the death penalty] were more contentious,” he said. “I wish more Catholics would be follow the Pope in his judgment about the lack of any need for the death penalty and be more vocal about that.”According to Death Penalty Awareness Week organizers, this is the first time an event like this has occurred on campus. Speeches and panel discussions featuring the death penalty will continue through Wednesday.