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Why we should put an end to the death penalty

The Death of Innocents An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions Sister Helen Prejean Random House: 314 pp., $25.95

January 02, 2005|Christopher Hitchens | Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and a visiting professor at the New School in New York. His latest collection of essays, "Love, Poverty and War," has just been published.

Prejean is, of course, a Roman Catholic, and she tells of her disheartening struggle to persuade her church to condemn the death penalty. She also rehearses the argument, once advanced by the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, that "the machinery of death" is so capriciously and randomly applied as to make it unconstitutional. Here her forensic and argumentative skills are weaker. There is nothing in Christian or biblical teaching that makes it incompatible with capital punishment and much Scripture that argues the other way. Many of the framers of the Constitution were influenced by Cesare Beccaria's famous Enlightenment text, "Of Crimes and Punishments," which was the first serious abolitionist book, but they did not succeed in writing this into the document, which is composed with admirable terseness and would have forbidden the practice explicitly if this had been desired. (Only the state of Michigan outlaws the death penalty in its Constitution; its homicide rate is no higher than that of any comparable state.)

It is for Congress to pass legislation removing the United States from the company of Islamic despotisms, banana republics and totalitarian dictatorships that still practice this barbarism: Alas, the recent election of so many of Sister Helen's brothers and sisters in Christ makes this outcome even more distant. *

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