Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

A call to action: working against the death penalty

By DEACON RICHARD TOLCHER, Commentary | Published October 31, 2019

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘love your enemies, and pray for those that persecute you.’”

As reflected in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus calls us to love our enemies. This is reflected in the work we do in prison ministry.

In 2018, Pope Francis revised the Catechism of the Catholic Church to make the death penalty clearly unaccepted. Number 2267 of the catechism now states, “‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and (the church) works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

God is the author of life and death. As Catholics, we are called to fight against the death penalty, as we believe in the redemption of all.

There are many myths about the benefits of the death penalty, such as costs, less crime and closure for the victim’s family. The death penalty does not cause a reduction in murder rates, and an execution costs more money than life without parole. A Marquette Law Review study also suggests that life without the possibility of parole is a “more emotionally satisfying solution” for victims’ families than the death penalty.

Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille, who is a longtime opponent of capital punishment, speaks to an audience at the Vatican Embassy in Washington Oct. 10. The embassy hosted the 10th anniversary celebration of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, a group that works to end the death penalty.

We must remember that inmates are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and those who are executed and on death row are part of our community.

Currently, there are 46 inmates on death row in Georgia. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, as of Oct. 2, there have been 1,506 executions in the United States, 73 of those executions took place in Georgia since 1976. There have been 166 exonerations since 1973, with six of those in Georgia.

While these numbers show that there is more work to do, there has been progress. Inmates now have better lawyers. In addition, as money drives the process, county defense attorneys are pressured to spend money more responsibly.

Including Georgia, there are 29 states with the death penalty. This number has dropped significantly since I have been involved in prison and jail ministry in the Atlanta Archdiocese. In 2012, there were 101 executions in the U.S. In 2018, there were 25, a significant decrease.

In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court deemed it unconstitutional to execute defendants with “mental retardation” and in 2005, it dismissed the death penalty for juveniles.

Georgians have the opportunity to get involved with legislation, particularly House Bill 702, which states in part, “Notwithstanding any other provision of law to the contrary, on and after the effective date of this Code section, the imposition of capital punishment is prohibited in this state. The sentence of any person under sentence of death on the effective date of this Code section shall be commuted to a sentence of life without parole.”

The bill was filed last legislative session after crossover day and did not move. The bipartisan group of supporters is hopeful the measure will be brought up again in 2020.

All states, except Alaska, can use life without parole as a viable alternative to the death penalty.

You are invited and encouraged to contact your representative and ask them to support this bill. Please contact Prison and Jail Ministry if you need help speaking with your legislator.

If you feel God is calling you to be involved in prison ministry, there are various ways to help and support any of the 30,000 inmates in prisons located in the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

Deacon Richard Tolcher, director of the Prison and Jail Ministry of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, may be contacted at