Recently, Humanist and philosopher John Shook said it very simply, and I have to agree with him: Humanism cannot support the death penalty. His full article is linked and I would suggest that everybody with an interest in justice read it, but one part bears repeating here: Humanism stands for valuing the lives of all, individual human rights, justice for everyone, and governments that defend all of their people. These grounds alone are sufficient for abolishing the death penalty.
As a member of Humanists of Rhode Island, I am proud to live in a state that saw this simple truth over a century and a half ago, when, in 1852, Rhode Island became the second state (after Michigan) to abolish the death penalty. Though proponents, to our shame, re-established the death penalty in 1872 and later in 1973, in 1984 the death penalty was once more off the books. Since then proponents have made several attempts to reintroduce this penalty, but so far to no effect. The Rhode Island Secretary of State has a great little article on the history of the death penalty in Rhode Island. Rhode Island took such a forward looking because of a tragic mistake. The state executed John Gordon, an innocent man. Though there is no way to undo such a wrong, on June 6, 2011, Governor Lincoln Chafee signed a pardon that officially admitted that Rhode Island had not given John Gordon a fair trial, and probably executed an innocent man. Upon signing the pardon, Chafee said:
John Gordon was put to death after a highly questionable judicial process and based on no concrete evidence. There is no question he was not given a fair trial. Today we are trying to right that injustice. John Gordon’s wrongful execution was a major factor in Rhode Island’s abolition of and longstanding opposition to the death penalty. Today, as we pardon John Gordon, we also recognize and uphold that commitment.
In addition to Rhode Island’s proud tradition of religious and philosophical tolerance, which guarantees a persons right to freedom of and from religion, there is another Humanist current we can take justifiable pride in: Our commitment to the value of human rights. Be proud of this tradition and feel free boldly proclaim your opposition to the death penalty as both a Humanist espousing reason and compassion, and as a Rhode Islander, valuing a tradition steeped in human rights and fairness.