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Justice for all. Yes, even the poor

Will McAuliffe | Monday, October 9, 2006

This is part two in a three-part series examining capital punishment. Part three will appear tomorrow.

According to Amnesty International, 95 percent of convicts on death row could not afford legal representation. Ninety five percent. If that statistic doesn’t set off alarms in your conscience, I don’t know what will. As far as we’ve come and as much as our country claims to provide a fair trial to all its citizens, we are far from it. Despite the blatant disparity between penalties for the haves and have nots, our country still feels justified in its use of the death penalty.

Twenty years ago the United States Catholic Bishops issued a Pastoral entitled “Economic Justice for All”. Various organizations such as the Center for Social Concerns here on campus are using the anniversary to bring the issues it presents to the forefront of today’s social discussions. The letter attempts “to look at economic life through the eyes of faith” and challenge Americans to reflect on what our moral duties are in relation to unjust economics and poverty. It is through this moral lens that the death penalty stands out as an abhorrent archaic injustice, particularly in its disproportionate killing of the poor.

“Economic Justice for All” states that “All members of society have a special obligation to the poor and vulnerable.” This includes those accused of, and I would argue even those convicted of, heinous crimes. I think that one would be hard pressed to find someone more vulnerable to the mercy of the government than a poor person in a capital case. At the time that the accused stands trial, actual guilt or innocence is a moot point. They are entitled to competent representation; representation whose quality should not be so grossly based upon economic means. This is not to say that all, let alone most, public defenders are incapable of providing quality representation to their clients in capital cases. Excellent lawyers such as Thomas Durkin, a 1968 graduate of Notre Dame who will speak on campus later this semester, have dedicated themselves to the service of the poor through public defense. However, I think you’re much more likely to find a lackluster free lawyer than an incompetent, yet expensive, defense team.

While conviction of a capital crime absolutely justifies the loss of a variety of certain rights, it should not mean a revocation of basic human rights, the most basic of which is the right to life. This is clear in a variety of documents, from the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights to Economic Justice for All; from doctrines both secular and sacred. The philosophies of Camus (ironically George W. Bush’s new favorite philosopher) addressed the death penalty over 50 years ago in these terms: “Capital punishment is the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated can be compared.” Deacon George Brooks, also a speaker scheduled for later this fall, writes: “Not all murderers will experience religious conversion. Not all will repent and seek forgiveness. But whether they do or don’t, all are children of God.”

Economic Justice for All calls us “to speak for the voiceless, to defend the defenseless, to assess life styles, policies, and social institutions in terms of their impact on the poor.” It is as if the Bishops had the death penalty in mind when they wrote these words 20 years ago. After all, what graver injustice can be perpetrated on the poor of this country than the systematic state-sponsored taking of life?

I am well aware that those facing execution have been convicted by a jury of their alleged peers. But those who oppose the death penalty are not allowed to serve in the juries of capital cases. This means that those whose perspectives should be heard the most in a capital case are systematically excluded from such cases. While I realize that a sentence of death would likely not be reached were they allowed to serve as a juror in such cases, I wonder; is that so wrong? Is it at all just that someone who has examined the policy of capital punishment and opposes it not be allowed to represent the rest of the population who oppose the death penalty? A poll available on deathpenaltyinfo.org shows that 48 percent of Americans support life without parole over the death penalty while only 47 percent still would choose the death penalty. Is it just or democratic then that the majority 48 percent be excluded from this decision while the 47 percent minority sentences the poor to death?

Just as “Economic Justice for All” states that “The challenge of this pastoral letter is not merely to think differently, but also to act differently,” I say that the challenge of this Viewpoint article, though on a slightly different tier of import than a pastoral letter, is to think differently about the death penalty, challenge your present opinions whatever they may be, and to act on them.

Will McAuliffe is a senior political science major. He is co-president of NDASK, a new campaign against the death penalty. Questions about the

campaign or comments on this column may be sent to [email protected] This is the second in a three-part series of columns examining capital


The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.