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March 10, 2005 Edition

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Death penalty ruling:
A step in the right direction

You have to be 18 years old in this country in order to vote, serve in the military, make decisions about your own medical treatment, and even buy a pack of cigarettes.

But up until last week, you did not have to be 18 years old to die at the hands of the government. Nineteen states had permitted the death penalty for crimes committed by 16- and 17-year-olds.

Court ruling. On March 1, the Supreme Court in a 5-4 decision overturned the death penalty for crimes committed by juveniles. The ruling is a step in the right direction to the ultimate goal of abolishing the death penalty in every state, said Frank McNeirney of Catholics Against Capital Punishment.

Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Brooklyn, N.Y., chairman of the U.S. bishops' domestic policy committee, said the bishops' conference "is very encouraged that the Supreme Court has recognized that executing juvenile offenders is indeed cruel and unusual."

In 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that it was also cruel and unusual punishment to execute people who are mentally retarded [see June 27, 2002 editorial]. Both decisions relied in part on the fact that a majority of states had ended the practices of executing offenders who are retarded or under the age of 18.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had joined in an amicus or friend of the court brief written on behalf of 30 religious organizations. They wrote that the death penalty for juveniles permits a radical legal inconsistency "because in virtually every other area of law a person's youthfulness is taken into account."

International opinion. In addition, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child, "which every country in the world has ratified save for the United States and Somalia, contains an express prohibition on capital punishment for crimes committed by juveniles under 18."

The weight of international opinion is against the juvenile death penalty, said Kennedy, noting that the instability and emotional imbalance of young people may often be a factor in a crime.

Seventy-two young people nationwide will be taken off death row because of the new decision. More than half are from just two states: 19 in Texas and 14 in Alabama. These offenders will be subject to resentencing. Even life imprisonment is a better alternative than the death penalty, allowing the offenders an opportunity to repent. In some cases, too, new evidence has been found to exonerate persons previously convicted of capital crimes.

Wisconsin tradition. Wisconsin has the longest unbroken tradition of rejecting capital punishment. Our state abolished the death penalty in 1853 and has continued to uphold that tradition.

In nearly every legislative session, some state lawmakers try to break this tradition. This year, Senator Alan Lasee (R-De Pere) has introduced Senate Resolution 5, calling for an advisory referendum on the death penalty. The referendum would ask voters whether the state legislature should enact the death penalty for multiple and vicious first-degree intentional homicide proven by DNA evidence.

The Wisconsin Catholic Conference opposes the referendum, following the lead of Pope John Paul II and the U.S. Catholic bishops who speak out regularly against capital punishment. The bishops have lamented that "increasing reliance on the death penalty diminishes all of us and is a sign of growing disrespect for human life."

Concerned citizens should contact their state legislators asking them to oppose the referendum on the death penalty. Let's preserve this Wisconsin tradition and resist any efforts to reinstate the death penalty in our state.

Mary C. Uhler

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Pope stresses non-violence

To the editor:

George Weigel's column in the Feb. 24 Herald revealed a deep disdain for the Holy Father's words in the service of supporting U.S. war policy.

In a beautiful and inspiring message, Pope John Paul II addressed the United Nations in 1995 to praise the non-violent revolutions of Central and Eastern Europe which led to establishing democracies in those countries. Again and again the Holy Father stressed those words: non-violent revolutions.

George Weigel sliced and diced the Holy Father's words to make them seem parallel to President Bush's use of euphemisms like "spreading freedom" to defend his war in Iraq. To do this is simply deceitful and highly disrespectful toward the Holy Father.

Ron Prince, Madison

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