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Catholic leaders in several states speak out against death penalty
Source: Catholic News Service
Published: Monday, March 16, 2009
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WASHINGTON (CNS)—Hours after the Washington state bishops urged Gov. Christine Gregoire to reduce Cal Coburn Brown's death sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, the state Supreme Court stayed the condemned killer's execution by lethal injection.
The court's 5-4 ruling March 12 rejected a lower court decision the day before and allowed Brown to join in a lawsuit challenging Washington's lethal injection protocols. The decision is expected to delay the execution at least until August.
"While our sympathies clearly and rightfully rest with the victim and her loved ones, we must not let the desire of some for retribution bind us to further violence," the Washington state bishops wrote.
Currently, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado and Maryland are among the states considering legislation to ban the use of capital punishment; Alaskan legislators recently introduced a bill to reinstate the death penalty.
In New Mexico, Gov. Bill Richardson received an estimated 4,500 phone calls and e-mails over the March 14-15 weekend as he was deciding whether to sign a bill replacing the death penalty with a life sentence without parole.
Bishop William F. Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said in a March 16 letter to Richardson that the full body of bishops urged him to sign the legislation.
"The legislation before you would help to begin building a culture of life in our society," Bishop Murphy wrote. "I hope and pray that you will...make New Mexico a leader in turning away from the death penalty with all its moral problems and issues of fairness and justice."
In response to the Alaska bill, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Anchorage sponsored a talk in early March by Rev. Carroll Pickett, a former death-row chaplain in Texas who accompanied more than 90 inmates to their deaths but eventually came to oppose capital punishment.
Republican Rep. Jay Ramras of Fairbanks, co-sponsor of the bill, told the Catholic Anchor, the Anchorage archdiocesan newspaper, that the measure had "zero chance of passing the Alaska Legislature this year or next." But he said he introduced it because he believes there are "some crimes horrible enough to merit the ultimate penalty."
In Kansas, a bill on its way to the Senate floor would repeal capital punishment for murder crimes and remove it as a sentencing option after July 1. Defendants convicted of intentional and premeditated killing in a number of circumstances—including kidnapping and an actual or intended sexual assault against a child younger than age 14—would be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The bishops of Kansas submitted written testimony in late February in support of the bill.
Michael Schuttloffel, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state's bishops, said the bill faces "significant obstacles" but "we're hopeful."
In Colorado, a bill to abolish the death penalty was being touted as a way to cut costs.
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Paul Weisman, a Democrat, said that with the money saved by repealing the death penalty the state could create a cold-case unit to investigate unsolved homicides.
"There's certainly a moral question, yes," Weisman told the Denver Catholic Register archdiocesan newspaper. "But in this recession we're also looking at whether Colorado is using its resources to the best of its ability. Should we maintain a death penalty we've used once in 33 years or should we try to solve some of the 1,400 outstanding murders?"
Jennifer Kraska, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, said she thought the bill stood a good chance of passing, although it was unlikely to reach the House floor until late March or early April.
In Maryland, Gov. Martin O'Malley in February proposed a capital punishment ban to members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. Calling the death penalty "an expensive and utterly ineffective tool in deterring violent crime," he urged committee members to allow his proposal to reach the floor for a vote by the full legislative body.
"The death penalty is fundamentally and irredeemably incompatible with the most important foundational truths of our republic," the Catholic governor told committee members during a hearing.
The governor's bill would replace the death penalty with sentences of life without parole. Although O'Malley has testified against the death penalty once before, it was the first time he had personally introduced legislation banning capital punishment.
Auxiliary Bishop Martin D. Holley of Washington, an archdiocese that includes several Maryland counties, spoke in favor of the measure during the February hearing. "Our Church teaches that all human life is sacred and must be protected and defended from conception to natural death," he told lawmakers.
On March 5 a closely divided Maryland Senate rejected abolishing capital punishment, but restricted the kinds of evidence permissible in such cases. By mid-March the House still had to vote on the measure.
In Kentucky, several legal authorities have asked Gov. Steve Beshear to declare a moratorium on executions in the state for financial reasons. The state's budget crisis, they said, makes it impossible for the Kentucky Public Defender System to provide the legal representation for those charged with capital crimes.
Spokesman Jay Blanton said in a March 10 statement that the governor "continues to believe that the death penalty is an appropriate punishment for the most heinous and violent of offenses."
In February Florida's state bishops urged their governor to commute the death-row sentence of Wayne Tompkins, but he was executed Feb. 13.
Addressing Gov. Charlie Crist, the Florida bishops said, "In pursuing justice for victims of violent crimes, the state must not be blinded by politics that diminish human dignity and the sacredness of all life, including that of convicted criminals."
They said Florida "should join the ranks of other states which have abandoned executions because they have not been a deterrent to crime and have raised serious concerns about fairness of sentencing in the justice system."
In Tennessee, when Steve Henley was executed Feb. 4 by lethal injection, a group of anti-death penalty advocates gathered at a church and outside the prison to pray and protest. Henley's last-minute appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court and to Gov. Phil Bredesen were denied.
Amy Sayward, a parishioner of St. Ignatius in Nashville, Tenn., who joined a group of about 60 people outside the prison the night of Henley's execution, said it was important to stand up against the death penalty and to show support for the inmates' families.

"They often feel so isolated," she said. "The last thing I want is for them to go through it alone."

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