Human Dignity vs Dehumanization: Federal and State Approaches to the Death Penalty

Posted by Alice Hugh Brown on Dec 20, 2022 10:29:26 AM

John Fitzgerald Hanson (March 22, 1972…)

Mercifully, there was no execution this month in Oklahoma.

John Hanson was to be executed December 15 for the murder of two people in 1999. He is serving a life sentence in a federal prison in Louisiana. The State of Oklahoma asked the federal government to release him, but the request was denied until Hanson has served his full sentence. This in effect means his execution warrant will expire. The state is suing for his return.

Capital punishment is handled differently by federal and state governments. The federal government’s first-ever moratorium on the death penalty was in 1972. Executions began again in 1976. Federal executions are mostly for those convicted of murder. Espionage and treason also call for execution, but there have been no such case since 1976.

President Joe Biden has expressed concern about how federal executions are carried out and has encouraged the Department of Justice to halt them, and in 2021, Attorney General Merrick Garland did so. This followed the rash of 13 executions in the last six months of the Trump administration.

Most nations (125 to 37 with 22 abstentions) signed a United Nations resolution on December 15 calling for a worldwide death-penalty moratorium. However, President Biden did not sign it. This seems to be out of step with his vow as a presidential candidate to “pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example.”

Individual states have their own laws for determining who shall receive a penalty of death. In many, the burden of determining a sentence of life or death falls on jurors. Most of the 27 states that retain the death penalty reserve it for crimes such as the murder of a child or police officer or for multiple murders.

There were 18 state-sanctioned executions in five states during 2022: Arizona, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas. The Death Penalty Information Center called 2022 the “Year of the Botched Executions.” Seven of 20 execution attempts involved procedure or protocol problems.

States with the most death-row inmates are California, Florida, Texas, Alabama, and North Carolina. North Carolina, for example, currently has 135 men and two women on death row. A group formed in 2022, Catholics for Abolition in North Carolina, (CANC) is working to change that. They first want people to pray for an end to capital punishment. They strive to educate and empower others to contact their elected officials and state their opposition to capital punishment. They also protest executions happening across the country as well as within their home state.

You can learn more about Catholics for Abolition in North Carolina on their website, Home - Catholics for Abolition in North Carolina ( There you will find “Redemption is Possible: Why I’m working to Abolish the Death Penalty in NC,” by Nancy J. Jones.

“Our (CANC) members want justice to be served but not through an arbitrary system of state-sanctioned execution. There IS a better way, and more than 70% of the world has caught on to it. When will the United States do the same?”

— Nancy J. Jones, abolitionist and CANC co-founder

Reflect: How does the arbitrary administration of sentencing and carrying out a sentence of death upset your sense of justice and human dignity?

Alice Hugh Brown

Written by Alice Hugh Brown

Alice Hugh Brown is the author of Dignity and the Death Penalty: Evolution of Catholic Teaching.

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