"They send people to death because it is like a trophy to be exhibited: the more killed, the better it is. Elections are won this way in the United States," stated Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond, Virginia. The bishop was commenting on the case of Derek Rocco Barnabei, who is scheduled to be executed tomorrow. The bishop was severe in his condemnation of the use made of the death penalty in his country. "We have the sad privilege to live in the state that is first in the nation after Texas, in regard to executions," he said.Avvenire: You have taken up the case of Rocco Barnabei.Bishop Sullivan: Certainly, like all other cases. The pope has appealed for an act of clemency and the diocese has also contacted Jim Gilmore, the governor of Virginia. A priest has been with Rocco during this whole affair, bringing him the sacraments and the consolation of the faith.Avvenire: The DNA examination, however, has confirmed Barnabei's guilt.Bishop Sullivan: We prayed a lot for a different result, which has not come. However, in all honesty, it seems that the state made a predetermined effort to hide the proofs and, perhaps, contaminate them. The matter of the samples that disappeared and reappeared mysteriously is, to say the least, suspicious, although we do not wish to challenge the honesty of those who carried out the tests. It is clear that one cannot act this way, especially in cases where the life of a person is at stake.Avvenire: The campaign to save Barnabei was based on his presumed innocence and, when the negative result arrived, Gilmore made a statement in which he hoped to teach a "civil lesson" to the world. Following this line, isn't there a risk of giving an implicit message, according to which capital punishment is justified for culprits?Bishop Sullivan: A very delicate distinction must be made here. Of course the risk of killing an innocent person represents a very important argument for those who are opposed to executions. Public opinion responds to tragedies of this kind, which receive much attention from the media and, therefore, are used to stimulate thought. At the same time, however, it must be very clear that opposition to the death penalty is based on a general principle, which also includes the guilty. Otherwise, we end up by making distinctions that only help those who want executions to continue.Avvenire: Why are Americans, and Virginians in particular, so in favor of capital punishment?Bishop Sullivan: Because of a cultural problem and a misunderstood sense of justice. In the history of the United States, the law has often been administered in a summary fashion. There have also been distorted readings of the religious tradition. These are errors that take time to correct.Avvenire: What are the arguments in support of a general campaign against executions?Bishop Sullivan: First of all, those who believe in God, must also believe in the sacred character of life and, therefore, in the fact that it is not up to us to give it or take it away.At the civil level, we must instead emphasize the contradiction of a government that kills in order to teach citizens not to kill. In this way, justice becomes the administration of collective vengeance.Finally, at the practical level we must stress the total uselessness of the death penalty. People think that executions serve to combat criminality, but all sociological studies prove exactly the opposite: in general, murders are more numerous in states that enforce the death penalty. The greater part of those condemned are poor or members of minorities, because those who can pay for good lawyers are almost always freed. Moreover, paradoxically, executing prisoners costs much more than keeping them in prison for the rest of their lives.Avvenire: How much time will be needed for a strategy of this kind to succeed in gaining ground in American society so that it will oppose the death penalty?Bishop Sullivan: It is impossible to make forecasts of this kind. However, in the United States the movement against executions is gathering strength. It is still a very slow growth, but it is happening. In Virginia, for example, we have formed an ecumenical group against the death penalty and, precisely because of the American cultural traditions, it is important that all religious denominations unite in this respect. For the moment, the objective is to take advantage of all the defects in the system to arrive at a general moratorium.