The death penalty


With the surprise victory of Governor James Hodges, a Democrat, over Governor David Beasley, a Republican, one thing has not changed; both are in favor of the death penalty. This, of course, is not surprising. As I wrote months ago, one issue that would not be, and I might add that was not debated in the campaign was the death penalty.

I do not think there is one elected political official in South Carolina who would publicly announce opposition to the death penalty. This is, in my mind, a sad state of affairs because this is an issue that needs to be debated so that the truth of what is happening might be made known. Unfortunately it most probably will not be debated because it would require great courage for an elected official who is against the death penalty to say it publicly.

Not long ago, a number of elected Democratic officials were not afraid to speak out against the death penalty. There were not just “liberal” Democrats from up North but recognized leaders in our own state. Three that came immediately to mind are two former governors, John West and Richard Riley and a former candidate for governor, Joseph P. Riley.

On Jan. 16, I wrote Governor Hodges asking him to use his power as governor to stop the execution of Mr. Joseph Atkins who was scheduled to be executed on Jan. 22. I asked him to consider the reasons why John West and Dick Riley were opposed to the death penalty before he made his decision. I wrote: “Unfortunately, too many Democrats, like President Clinton, possibly for political reasons, abandoned this position. I beg you to consider the expressed reason of those Democratic leaders who once opposed capital punishment as you consider my request that you save the life of Joseph Atkins.”

The governor answered my letter ignoring my plea to consider the reasons two of his Democratic predecessors as governor rejected capital punishment.

He wrote: “I support the use of the death penalty because I believe that the ultimate crime deserves the ultimate punishment. Under the laws of the state of South Carolina and under the United States Constitution, the death penalty is viewed only for a limited number of particularly serious crimes, and each conviction and death sentence received careful scrutiny by the state and federal courts.”

I might be wrong but I sincerely think the governor is aware that his assessment of the death penalty doesn’t describe the situation in this state. True, some who kill, which I presume is what he means by “the ultimate crime,” receive the “ultimate punishment,” but all convicted of killing innocent people will not be put to death. Many will not even have to face a jury to spare them the “ultimate punishment.” A solicitor can decide not to seek the death penalty for whatever reason. He or she can even enter into plea bargains that can make time spent in prison less than many must serve for much lesser crimes.

The governor is also aware that poor people not able to afford adequate legal defenses usually end up on Death Row. The governor also knows he can use the above answer and not only avoid a debate on its merit but gain votes for being tough on crime.

As a citizen of South Carolina, I quote our state motto, “As I Breathe I Hope.” Yes, as I breathe I hope that soon we will again be at least open to debate on how foolish it is to kill people to prove that killing is wrong.

Msgr. Thomas R. Duffy is pastor of St. Michael Church in Garden City and dean of the Pee Dee Deanery.