Death Penalty Opposition Grows

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Jonathan Hoffman, convicted in a shooting death in North Carolina in 1995, earned a new trial in 2004 and then had all charges against him dropped in December 2007 when prosecutors ruled they didn't have enough evidence against him. That decision was made, in part, when the prosecution's former star witness recanted his testimony and admitted that he had lied to retaliate against the defendant.

Hoffman is the latest of 126 death row inmates since 1973 who have been released from death row because new evidence, or a lack of it, was discovered.

That number alone, representing a wide range of cases showing an array of deficiencies, ineptitude and incompetence in the justice system when it comes to dealing with capital offenses, ought to be enough to inspire a major federal initiative to end the death penalty.

No one is expecting any such action soon. But forces, including the persistent realization of how wrong our justice system can be when it condemns someone to death, are beginning to significantly alter the conversation.

New Jersey, for instance, became the first state in decades to abolish the death penalty when Gov. Jon S. Corzine signed a bill Dec. 17, declaring an end to what he termed "state-endorsed killing."

Of the 36 remaining states that have the death penalty, a number have suspended executions until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on whether the normal procedure for lethal injections violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

In another development, the Vatican intervened to aid those seeking a resolution at the United Nations (see story, Page 15) in favor of a global moratorium on the death penalty. The resolution was sponsored by 10 nations, eight of which are Catholic majority states where bishops and Catholic associations have been in the forefront of the battle against the death penalty.

While the resolution passed in the General Assembly with 104 nations voting for it, one sad and telling element of the story is that the United States was among the 54 nations that opposed the nonbinding resolution, joining the likes of China and Iran, where state-sanctioned killing still occurs.

While the U.N. resolution will have little practical consequence in countries that still permit capital punishment, it nonetheless provided a valuable measure of the state of the question globally and of the significance the church places on ridding the world of the practice.

At one point in the process, Egypt tried to scuttle the resolution by introducing an antiabortion amendment, something the Vatican, of course, would love to see approved by the General Assembly. …