At the very same moment Benny Joe Stevens was being put to death via lethal injection for the 1998 murder of four people, including two children, a group of people gathered on the steps of Sacred Heart Church in Hattiesburg, Miss., praying for an end to the death penalty.
Sacred Heart Parish’s Social Justice Committee sponsored the gathering, which consisted of prayer, music and a variety of readings, ranging from quotations by such notable figures as Pope John Paul II and Coretta Scott King to a statement on capital punishment from the U.S. Catholic Bishops.
“We are showing our opposition to the death penalty in Mississippi and we’re doing that in a very prayerful way,” said B.J. Sanford, who organized the event.
Not only are we showing our opposition to the death penalty, but we’re also praying for all victims of crime, specifically the victims of the crimes committed by Benny Joe Stevens, Rodney Gray and Robert Simon, the families of the victims and the families of the men being put to death.”
Gray was scheduled to be executed on May 17. Simon was scheduled to be executed on May 24, however an appeals court granted an indefinite stay of his execution.
In no way, do Sanford and those who turned out for the vigil condone what the three men did. “We want justice done,” said Sanford. “But we do not feel that justice is done by using the death penalty. Life without parole is an option in Mississippi and that’s what we’re advocating. We don’t want these men out of prison. We’re not saying that they weren’t lawfully tried and convicted. We’re saying give them life without parole.”
Sacred Heart’s Social Justice has sponsored similar vigils since 2008.
Rev. Dick Allison, retired pastor of University Baptist Church in Hattiesburg has attended each of the vigils.
“I have a friend on death row who will be facing this unless something changes,” said Rev. Allison.
“I was vocal in my opposition to the death penalty long before that. I personally believe that is not the way to handle the people who commit these crimes. I have probably spent as much of my ministry ministering to families of victims as I have to the killers and I don’t think killing the killers makes sense. I don’t think the state, in our name, should be taking lives. There are plenty of ways to safeguard the public. I know plenty of people who are the family of victims who say that (killing the killer) will never bring any kind of peace or closure.”
Printed with permission from Gulf Pine Catholic, newspaper for the Diocese of Biloxi, Mississippi.