On February 21st, as Mario Marazziti prepared Sunday lunch at his apartment in Trastevere, he had the television on, turned to Rai Vaticano, the Italian state channel devoted to coverage of the Catholic Church. It showed an image of Pope Francis in the window of the papal apartments overlooking St. Peter’s Square. There—a fifteen-minute walk from Trastevere, via the old pilgrim road—Francis was leading the faithful in a set of prayers known as the Angelus. The Pope usually speaks briefly when the prayers are finished, and, on this Sunday, Francis called for a global moratorium on the death penalty, as part of the Year of Mercy he initiated last fall.
“The commandment ‘Do not kill’ holds absolute value and applies to both the innocent and the guilty,” Francis said. He called for politicians to work for the abolition of the death penalty, and went on, “And I propose to all those among them who are Catholic to make a courageous and exemplary gesture: may no execution sentence be carried out in this Holy Year of Mercy.”
Popes have denounced capital punishment for four decades, drawing on a much longer history of religious revulsion toward the practice; but, by calling for a moratorium, Francis turned opprobrium for the death penalty into a simple step that governments and their executives can take.
Marazziti had hoped that Pope Francis would offer a statement of support for the moratoria. He and his compatriots in the Community of Sant’Egidio, a progressive Catholic movement based in Rome, were instrumental in bringing it about. They had asked Francis to consider making such a statement in advance of a conference against the death penalty they had planned for the coming week.
It’s the sort of request that Marazziti has made of public figures many times. He is a founder of the World Coalition against the Death Penalty, an alliance of more than a hundred and fifty N.G.O.s, unions, bar associations, and other groups, which emerged out of a conference held at Sant’Egidio’s headquarters, in Rome, in 2002. Meanwhile, the Community of Sant’Egidio has made the Colosseum—where Christians were thrown to the lions—a symbol of resistance to capital punishment, arranging for it to be lit up especially brightly at night each time a government renounces the practice. Marazziti and the movement he represents have created a patchwork consensus against the death penalty, and, in countries that still have the death penalty, such as the United States—retentionist countries, the movement calls them—it is a consensus that politicians are finding harder and harder to resist.
He sat down to lunch with his family: wife, mother-in-law, son, daughter-in-law, grandson. They talked about what they had just seen and heard. After the meal, he sent an e-mail to several thousand people with whom he has made common cause over the years (myself among them). “I am very happy,” he said, and summarized Francis’s message: “No Death Penalty, no executions, during Mercy’s Year. And never again.”
Marazziti, who is sixty-three, with thick, straight hair, travels light, bringing one change of clothes, a Moleskine knapsack full of late-model mobile devices, and gifts from Italy, for friends, wherever he is going. He worked for three decades as a television producer with RAI. After Silvio Berlusconi’s ouster from electoral politics, Marazziti and several dozen other non-politicians stood for election in an attempt to infuse the government with fresh life from civil society. Now he is a member of Italy’s lower house of parliament, the Camera dei Deputati, and the president of its social-affairs commission. The February conference—called A World Without the Death Penalty—was held in the body’s chambers.
His true workspace, though, is out in the world, where he has travelled cheerfully and tirelessly since his late twenties, on efforts ranging from conflict mediation to AIDS relief to simple friendship. Most of his work is with the Community of Sant’Egidio, which emerged in Rome after the student uprisings of 1968 and now counts sixty thousand members worldwide (albeit only a few dozen of us in the United States). Its members fit humanitarian efforts into the space around their day jobs, and do so without compensation. Marazziti was long known as the Community of Sant’Egidio’s “portavoce,” or spokesman. As an elected official he has dropped the job description, which never suited him. What is he? “Humanitarian” is too starchy, “activist” too strident, “organizer” too prosaic. He is a person who goes places and does good things, making the impossible seem obvious. “Mario and Sant’Egidio walk the talk like none other,” Lance Lindsey, the administrative director of the California Appellate Project and a longtime activist against the death penalty in that state, told me.
“On the global scene, no one has worked harder with me to abolish the death penalty than this man,” Sister Helen Prejean, whose efforts were recounted in the book and film “Dead Man Walking,” said last year. In addition to helping found the World Coalition, Marazziti has befriended men on death row, some plainly guilty, others later exonerated; made “Dominique’s Story,”, a documentary (narrated by John Turturro) about death row in Texas; and written a book, in English, called “13 Ways of Looking at the Death Penalty.” (I contributed an afterword to the book.) And he has helped persuade several governors to bring about the abolition of the death penalty in their states—notably, Bill Richardson, in New Mexico, and Pat Quinn, in Illinois. “Mario and Sant’Egidio are very good at mixing policy and politics—and a little marketing,” Richardson told me. “He made the trip to New Mexico. He promised a ceremony at the Colosseum if I signed the bill, and he delivered on it. An audience with the Pope [Benedict XVI]: well, that was just icing.”
Sant’Egidio’s members knew Jorge Mario Bergoglio when he was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and since Bergoglio was elected Pope, in March, 2013, they’ve maintained a bond of friendship and mutual trust. Andrea Riccardi and Marco Impagliazzo—the movement’s founder, and its current president—met with Pope Francis before Sant’Egidio’s annual Prayer for Peace, held in Tirana, Albania, last September—two weeks before Francis’s speech to a joint session of Congress, where he spoke approvingly of the prospect of the global abolition of the death penalty. “Albania is one of the last countries in Europe to have abolished the death penalty, but we did not speak of this issue,” Impagliazzo told me. They also rescheduled a November, 2016, conference on the death penalty for February, so as to tie it to the Year of Mercy, and asked Cardinal Reinhard Marx, of Munich—one of Francis’s “group of eight” cardinal-advisers—to be a speaker. “We sent information about it through the Segreteria di Stato, well knowing the attention of Pope Francis to this issue and his longing for a world without the death penalty, asking for a message or whatever he may have thought more useful,” Impagliazzo told me. He decided not to send a message to the conference but to send it worldwide, through the Angelus. He could not have been clearer.”
“There was no arrangement, no deal,” Marazziti said. “But we were pretty hopeful that it would happen. The Pope decides, and he decided to do it. I think he wrote his own remarks.” (The papal spokesman, Federico Lombardi, S.J., did not answer a request for comment.)
In a moratorium, a government’s legislature or head of state makes a pledge that the state will refrain from capital punishment for a period of time, although the death penalty remains on the books as a legal option. At the turn of the millennium, activists against the death penalty were divided between those seeking moratoria and those who would not work for anything less than full abolition. Marazziti favored the step-by-step approach. After the World Coalition was founded, in 2002, he organized a call for a resolution against the death penalty in the United Nations General Assembly, and it passed in December, 2007. (The United States voted against it.) “Although the Resolution was non-binding, it set an international moral standard,” he explained in his book, “asserting that the death penalty was a question of human rights, not just one of internal justice. Capital punishment became an issue for the international community, and not just the ‘good souls’ at the NGO’s.”
The step-by-step approach to ending the death penalty is clearly working, both abroad and in the United States. During the conference in Rome, Marazziti summarized its progress: When the Helsinki Conference on Security and Coöperation in Europe took place, in 1975, sixteen countries had abolished the death penalty. When the Berlin Wall fell, in 1989, thirty-five had done so. In 2016, a hundred and five countries have abolished the death penalty, and another sixty have not used it in a decade. Fewer than thirty countries have carried out executions in the past few years: among them China, Japan, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Somalia, and the United States. Last year twenty-eight people were executed in the U.S., the lowest number in twenty-five years.
The death penalty is on the defensive even in states where it enjoys robust popular support—and Marazziti and his associates have had a hand in this, too. In Oklahoma, for some years, executions were performed by lethal injection with a cocktail of three drugs. Through activists with the anti-death-penalty group Reprieve, Marazziti learned that one of the drugs—sodium thiopental—was manufactured in Liscate, near Milan, by an Italian subsidiary of the drug company Hospira, which is based in Lake Forest, Illinois. Because capital punishment is against the law in Italy, and because the drug was clearly being used for non-therapeutic purposes, Marazziti and activists with the European abolition movement Hands Off Cain concluded that the export of the drug was illegal. Hands Off Cain wished to denounce Hospira. Marazziti, instead, reached out to Italy’s minister of justice and minister of health, and then entered into dialogue with representatives of Hospira. A week later, the company ceased to produce the drug in Italy. As The Atlantic has reported, Reprieve undertook a similar effort in England, and sodium thiopental became exceedingly hard to obtain, even on the black market. “This was the first crisis of the lethal-injection system in the U.S,” Marazziti said.
Challenged in the courts in the United States, the death penalty is dying in the people’s court of human rights, with Pope Francis’s call for moratoria on capital punishment just the latest strike against it. I asked Marazziti what he saw as the practical effect of Francis’s statement. “It creates a context in which politicians in difficult circumstances can do the hard thing, whether in Uzbekistan or the United States—to work for abolition, and to deal with public opinion,” he said. “And it enables us to accompany them.”
This article was originally published in the New Yorker.