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Pope Francis Condemns the Death Penalty While Trump Steadfastly Supports It

The United States is likely to remain the only Western nation that still uses capital punishment

Pope FrancisMass for new Cardinals, Vatican City, Italy - 29 Jun 2018

Pope Francis at the Vatican in July.

Grzegorz Galazka/SIPA/REX Shutterstock

Since becoming the leader of the Catholic church in 2013, Pope Francis has infused a progressive spirit into one of the world’s oldest and most socially conservative organizations. He’s called for action on climate change. He’s embraced marriage equality. He’s condemned President Trump on multiple occasions, most recently in response to the administration’s practice of separating children from their parents at the border. The pope continued to shake things up on Thursday, when the Vatican decreed the that the death penalty, which it described as “an attack on the inviolability and dignity the person,” is “inadmissible” in all circumstances.

“There is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes,” the announcement read. “In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, 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.”

The church had previously endorsed the death penalty in extremely limited circumstances, such as when it is “the only practicable way to defend the lives of human beings effectively against the aggressor.” The church did note that “cases of absolute necessity for suppression of the offender today are very rare, if not practically non-existent.”

Previous popes, including both Francis’ predecessor Benedict XVI and John Paul II, who served from 1978-2005, criticized the death penalty but stopped short of altering the church’s official position. In 2017, Pope Francis hinted that change might be coming, calling the death penalty “contrary to the Gospel.” Now, he’s made the church’s position clear: There are no circumstances in which the death penalty does not violate a person’s God-given dignity.

But the pope’s decree isn’t likely to move the needle — and certainly not eliminate it entirely — in the United States. Though the Eighth Amendment bars “cruel and unusual punishments,” America remains the only Western nation to allow the death penalty. Public support for executions is at its lowest point in decades, but capital punishment remains legal in 31 states. In 2017, 23 executions were performed across eight states. That number was up from the 20 executions carried out across five states in 2016, but implementation of the death penalty has been trending downward since peaking in 1998 when 98 prisoners were executed.

President Trump, however, is a fan of capital punishment, having called for the death penalty on multiple occasions since taking office. After a man killed eight people with a truck in New York City last November, the president tweeted in all caps that the man should be put to death.

A month later, he called for anyone who kills a police officer to receive the death penalty. In March of this year, he endorsed it in New Hampshire during a speech meant to address the opioid epidemic. “If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we are wasting our time,” Trump said. “And that toughness includes the death penalty.” The president went on to say that capital punishment would be reserved for the “big pushers, the ones who are really killing people.”

The president also aruged for the death penalty on numerous occasions prior to taking office, usually via tweet. In 2012, he wrote that Jared Lee Loughner, who killed 19 and severely injured Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona, should be put to death. He fired off similar tweets regarding James Holmes, who killed 12 in an Aurora, Colorado, movie theater in 2012; Drew Peterson, a former law enforcement officer who in 2012 was convicted of killing his wife; and the Boston marathon bombers. In 2014, he suggested a man be beheaded.

In 1989, Trump took out a full-page ad in The New York Times and other papers implying that he supported the death penalty for the “Central Park five,” a group of black and brown teenagers who were falsely convicted of assaulting and raping a female jogger in New York City and were later exonerated because of DNA evidence.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions supports capital punishment, as well. After Trump called for the death penalty for certain drug offenders in March, Sessions agreed that states should “seek the death penalty wherever appropriate,” and later instructed prosecutors to keep it in play when handling drug cases. The order contradicts the Supreme Court, which has ruled that the death penalty should not be considered except in cases that involve homicide.

Despite the support from Trump and Sessions, use of the death penalty isn’t likely to increase significantly any time soon. Even if more felons were to be sentenced to death, there are plenty of obstacles to actually following through with executions. One of which is the ability of states to secure lethal injection drugs, which pharmaceutical companies are increasingly hesitant to provide. In recent years, several executions by lethal injection have been botched — such as that of Clayton Lockett, who had a heart attack as he was being executed with an untested mixture of drugs in 2014 — and lawsuits have alleged that injections are just as inhumane as firing squads or other antiquated means of administering the death penalty.

Though executions aren’t likely to spike under the Trump administration, the death penalty is certain to remain legal for the foreseeable future. Prior to Trump taking office, many hoped the Supreme Court would at some point rule that the death penalty was unconstitutional. Justice Anthony Kennedy was said to have been divided on the issue, but now that he is retired, his replacement — whether it be Brett Kavanaugh or someone else — is not likely to rule against capital punishment. Neither is Trump’s first Supreme Court selection, Neil Gorsuch. In fact, he’s already ruled in favor of it. Gorsuchs first significant ruling since assuming his seat on the court was voting to deny a stay request from death row inmates facing execution in Arkansas. American exceptionalism also applies to human dignity, apparently.

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