Statement by Bishop Harris on the Death Penalty, 1977

Year Published
  • 2014
  • English

Statement by Bishop Vincent M. Harris of Austin, Texas, made before Joint Committee of Texas House and Senate
March 1, 1977

I am Vincent M. Harris of Austin. While I am the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Austin, I come to you as an individual interested in the value of human life. It is true that I am a member of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops which has taken a strong stand against capital punishment. I am also a member of the Texas Conference of Churches, which only this morning renewed its strong stand against capital punishment. But I choose to come here simply as a concerned citizen of Texas.

Let me say first of all, that I strongly maintain the philosophical principle that the State does have the right to impose the death penalty. I believe that in times past the death penalty was a serious and effective deterrent to crime. However, I believe that now in the last quarter of the 20th century we must reconsider that practice. There is serious question today whether or not capital punishment is a deterrent to crime. Many who have researched the question conclude that it is not. There is also evidence to show that the imposition of capital punishment has been practiced in an uneven manner. I am told that between 1930 and 1964 54.7% of all offenders executed in the United States were non-white. Today the majority of those waiting execution on death row are poor and non-white. Thus it seems to me that it is now time for us to reconsider whether the right of the State to execute a criminal should continue to be exercised.

It seems to me that in our day and time it is much more important to strengthen respect for life in all its forms. We have the duty to help the criminal rather than just punish him. We must recognize human fallibility both in the criminal and in the courts. For myself I should rather see a thousand guilty criminals go free than to see one innocent man go to the electric chair.

Certainly every effort should be made to reform the criminal and to rehabilitate him. I would urge the Legislature to give more attention to reform and rehabilitation. I also feel very strongly that when rehabilitation of a particular criminal proves to be impossible there should be a way to keep him incarcerated. Certainly I do not advocate letting murderers

I therefore urge this Committee to take a position against capital punishment and at the same time urge the Legislature to look into the reform and rehabilitation of criminals.

I thank you for letting me make this statement.