It happened quickly. The terror, the blood, the death seemed to transform a brisk fall day into a scene of horror.
It was the worst bank robbery in Nebraska's history, and it happened 10 years ago in September, in a little town near the town where I grew up. Three masked robbers got no money but killed five citizens. The town tore down the bank building, but the grief and pain remain raw.
The anniversary was a potent reminder that the families of murder victims need ongoing support and prayer.
Another anniversary occurred in September as well. One year ago on Sept. 21, Troy Davis was executed by the state of Georgia for the murder of off-duty police officer Mark MacPhail. Davis' death was accompanied by serious questions about his guilt.
There was no physical evidence against Davis, so the case relied on witness testimony, which contained several inconsistencies even at the time of the trial. Later, all but two of the state's nonpolice witnesses from the trial recanted or contradicted their testimony, according to Amnesty International.
Many of those witnesses stated later in sworn affidavits that they were pressured or coerced by police into testifying or signing statements against Davis. One witness who did not recant his testimony was a main suspect in the shooting.
We'll never be certain that Davis was innocent. But neither will we ever be certain of his guilt, a frightening prospect since execution is an irreversible punishment. Every American should abhor the possibility of killing an innocent man.
These two anniversaries seem entwined in my mind, partly because after 10 years, the three bank robbers remain on death row. Nebraska has 11 men on death row, but the last execution was in 1997. Nationally, we are trending away from the death penalty. Connecticut became the fifth state in five years to abandon execution, and California citizens face an important referendum on the death penalty this November.
Studies show the death penalty carries an exorbitant financial cost to the state compared to the alternative: life without the possibility of parole. It's unfair to the poor — 90 percent of those tried for the death penalty cannot afford to hire their own attorney. Since 1973, at least 140 people have been freed after evidence revealed that they were sentenced to die for crimes they did not commit. What does this say about the credibility of the system?
The death penalty ultimately provides no justice to victims and discredits us as citizens. Because we must be certain of guilt, appeals drag on for years. Repeatedly, families are forced to read again the gruesome details of crime. The money spent on the death penalty could be better spent on counseling or even financial support for the victims' families.
In September, Philadelphia Archbishop Charles J. Chaput issued a strong statement regarding the futility of the death penalty.
Capital punishment “simply doesn't work as a deterrent,” the archbishop said. “Nor does it heal or redress any wounds, because only forgiveness can do that.”
Archbishop Chaput went on to say that “when we take a murderer's life we only add to the violence in an already violent culture, and we demean our own dignity in the process.”
Nationally, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has urged repeal of capital punishment. Both Blessed Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have urged an end to execution.
Archbishop Chaput put it well: “As children of God, we're better than this, and we need to start acting like it. We need to end the death penalty now.”