Oklahoma City archbishop disappointed by denial of clemency to death row inmate

Death penalty chamber A lethal injection chamber. | California Department of Corrections via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)

Shortly after Governor Kevin Stitt of Oklahoma denied clemency to death row inmate James Coddington on Wednesday, the Archbishop of Oklahoma City encouraged the state not to resort to the death penalty.

“No matter how serious the crime committed, we do not forfeit the dignity bestowed upon us by God. Governor Stitt’s denial of clemency to James Coddington is disappointing,” Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City wrote Aug. 24.

“There are other ways to administer just punishment for crimes without resorting to lethal measures that do not align with our state’s pro-life values and only serve to perpetuate the cycle of violence,” he said.

He urged prayer for an end to the death penalty and “that our leaders may have the wisdom and compassion to recognize the humanity in every person, regardless of their state in life.”

“Pray for the victims of violence and their families that God brings them comfort and peace. Pray for the soul of the condemned and those who will be involved with his execution.”

The Diocese of Tulsa plans to hold a prayer vigil outside the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester.

Coddington is to be executed Aug. 25. He was convicted in 2003 for the 1997 murder of Albert Hale. He bludgeoned Hale with a hammer when the man, his coworker, refused to give him money for drugs.

Earlier this month, the state’s parole board had voted 3-2 to recommend clemency for Coddington, changing his sentence to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

His attorneys presented evidence that he was abused as a child, and penitentiary staff have witnessed that he has been a model inmate.

Stitt granted clemency to another death row inmate, Julius Jones, in November.

While the Church teaches that capital punishment is not intrinsically evil, both Pope Francis and his immediate predecessors have condemned the practice in the West.

Regarding the execution of criminals, the Catechism of the Council of Trent taught that by its “legal and judicious exercise” civil authorities “punish the guilty and protect the innocent.”

St. John Paul II called on Christians to be “unconditionally pro-life” and said that “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” He also spoke of his desire for a consensus to end the death penalty, which he called “cruel and unnecessary.”

And Benedict XVI exhorted world leaders to make “every effort to eliminate the death penalty” and told Catholics that ending capital punishment was an essential part of “conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.”

In August 2018, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a new draft of the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s paragraph regarding capital punishment.

Quoting Pope Francis’ words in a speech of Oct. 11, 2017, the new paragraph states, in part, that “the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

Reasons for changing the teaching, the paragraph says, include: the increasing effectiveness of detention systems, growing understanding of the unchanging dignity of the person, and leaving open the possibility of conversion.

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Fr. Thomas Petri, O.P., a moral theologian at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., told CNA at the time that he thinks this change “further absolutizes the pastoral conclusion made by John Paul II.”

“Nothing in the new wording of paragraph 2267 suggests the death penalty is intrinsically evil. Indeed, nothing could suggest that because it would contradict the firm teaching of the Church,” Fr. Petri continued.

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