By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Movement on a bill to reinstate the death penalty in Iowa prompted Iowa’s Catholic bishops to update their statement opposing the legislation.
An adult convicted of first-degree murder, kidnapping and sexual abuse against the same victim who is a minor could receive the death sentence, according to proposed legislation (SSB 1004), which passed a Senate subcommittee Jan. 14. Individuals with mental illness or intellectual disability would not face the death penalty.
The bill advances to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration, said Tom Chapman, executive director of the Iowa Catholic Conference (ICC). “More than 125 people participated online during the death penalty meeting (Jan. 14),” he said. “Only one person supported it.” The ICC, the public policy voice for Iowa’s bishops, spoke in opposition of the bill.
Chapman told The Catholic Messenger that he does not know the reason for the introduction of this particular bill but a bill to reintroduce the death penalty has been filed in each of the past few legislative sessions. Efforts to reinstate the death penalty began in 1970 — five years after the Iowa Legislature abolished it, according to Iowans Against the Death Penalty.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Judiciary Committee pass the bill but it’s too soon to tell if or when,” Chapman said. “Once it would pass the Judiciary Committee it would be eligible to be debated by the entire Senate. However, it does not have to be brought up for debate.” He noted that the committee passed a bill in 2019 to reinstate the penalty.
In their updated statement, the bishops of Iowa said:
“We speak in opposition to the use of the death penalty in any form and to its possible reinstatement in Iowa.
It is a duty of the state to punish offenders and defend the common good. Nonetheless, in a modern society, ‘More effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2267). The catechism adds, ‘Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.’
In addition, the application of the death penalty has been deeply flawed in our country:
• More than 160 persons have been found innocent while on death row. It is likely that innocent persons have been executed.
• “There is racial bias. More than three-fourths of death row defendants have been executed for killing white victims, even though African-Americans make up about half of all homicide victims.
• The use of the death penalty is a long and costly process, more expensive than life without parole.
We know there is a special need to offer sympathy and support for the victims of violent crime and their families. However, we oppose reinstatement of the death penalty in order to send the message that the cycle of violence can be broken without taking life. We ask the people of Iowa, and especially members of the Catholic Church, to join us in opposing capital punishment out of respect for our common human dignity and in light of the teachings of Jesus about vengeance.”
The statement was signed by Archbishop Michael Jackels of the Archdiocese of Dubuque; Bishop Thomas Zinkula of the Diocese of Davenport; Bishop R. Walker Nickless of the Diocese of Sioux City; and Bishop William Joensen of the Diocese of Des Moines.
Chapman encourages Catholics to express their opposition to the death penalty bill by contacting their Iowa Senator by email (www.iowacatholicconference.org/voter-voice) or by leaving a message for them at the Senate switchboard at (515) 281-3371.