Opposing the Death Penalty is a Pro-life Issue

Friday, Oct. 01, 2021
By Jean Hill
Director, Diocese of Salt Lake City Office of Life, Justice and Peace

As we enter Respect Life Month, Utah Catholics have a unique opportunity to profess our pro-life teaching in an area where few others dare to tread – the death penalty.

While Utahns across faith traditions are vocal proponents for unborn life, only a select few raise their voice to preserve the lives of inmates on our death row, all of whom have been there for at least two decades.  

Supporting the right to life for death row inmates is not easy. Their crimes involve decisions not only to take life, but often to do so in unusually cruel ways. Despite their grave sins, however, we believe in the sanctity of every life and the ability of God to make final determinations about a person’s eternal fate, without our efforts to hasten a person’s judgement day.

It is also important to recognize that the death penalty doesn’t impact only the inmate, it also takes the joy of life from family members of victims. Every death penalty hearing results in widespread media attention, forcing families to relive the horrendous events that stole their loved one from them. The frenzy prevents family from fully grieving their loved one and can leave them mired in anger for generations. When, as too often happens, the perpetrators become the subjects of multiple books and movies, the pain for victims is amplified.  

The case of Ron and Dan Lafferty is a prime example. Ron and Dan killed their sister-in-law Brenda and her baby, Erica, in an act of religious fanaticism. Though both brothers were engaged in the killing, most Utahns are more likely to remember the name of Ron Lafferty, who served a tumultuous existence on death row until his death from natural causes in 2019. Dan Lafferty’s name, on the other hand, slipped for the most part from the public mind following his double life sentence. He is still serving this sentence nearly 40 years since the 1984 murders, but without the regular updates on his status that kept his brother and their grisly crimes in the news.

As the case of the Laffertys illustrates, giving states the power to kill citizens has several negative effects.  Not only does the death penalty keep victims’ families in a constant state of hurt and anger, it has been conclusively shown to have no deterrent effect on potential criminals, is significantly more costly with few executions ever coming to fruition despite the expense, and has ended with inmates across the nation being exonerated in 185 cases and counting.  

Utah legislators continually admit that the only purposes served by the death penalty in our state are to give prosecutors a hammer with which to beat a suspect into a plea deal, and to extract vengeance. Neither explanation justifies taking human life, especially given that neither is particularly effective. The hammer is unnecessary if a prosecutor has the evidence needed to gain a conviction (and if the prosecutor doesn’t have that evidence, death shouldn’t be on the table). And, given the rarity of a death sentence actually being carried out, vengeance is rarely achieved. Meanwhile, convincing grieving families that a death sentence is the only way to garner justice, despite the higher likelihood that the perpetrator will never be executed, is simply cruel.

Catholic teaching on the dignity and sanctity of life is clear: Every life has equal value from conception to natural death, despite our sins, failings or flaws. Many people in the pro-life movement will come out in force to protect the baby in the womb, but Catholics have a particularly strong voice on all end-of-life issues, including the death penalty, and need to be heard in the 2022 legislative session.

During Respect Life Month, visit the Catholic Mobilizing Network’s website, catholicsmobilizing.org, to learn more about our teaching on the death penalty and stay tuned for upcoming opportunities to advocate for an end to the death penalty in Utah.

Jean Hill is director of the Diocese of Salt Lake City Office of Life, Justice and Peace. Reach her at jean.hill@dioslc.org.

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