Florida bishops request clemency for death row inmate

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The Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops (FCCB) last week requested that Gov. Ron DeSantis “choose life” and stay the execution of James Phillip Barnes, who is scheduled to die Thursday, and commute his sentence to life without parole.

In a July 24 letter to the Republican governor, Michael Sheedy, FCCB’s executive director, acknowledged that Barnes’ violent crimes have brought immense grief and suffering to the families and friends of his victims. However, Sheedy said it is “more humane” to imprison Barnes for life, as it “ceases to perpetuate the cycle of violence that began by the sufferings inflicted on him in his youth, which included physical and sexual abuse.”

“In staying Mr. Barnes’ execution and commuting his sentence, you would have the support of the Church and of the many Floridians who support alternatives to the death penalty. Floridians around the state will soon be gathering in prayer for Ms. Barnes and Ms. Miller and all who have been harmed by Mr. Barnes’ actions, for him, for everyone affected by violent crime, and for an end to the use of the death penalty,” Sheedy wrote. 

Barnes, 61, strangled his wife, Linda, to death in 1997. While serving a life sentence for that crime, he confessed in 2005 to the 1988 rape and murder of Patricia “Patsy” Miller, a Melbourne, Florida, nurse.

Barnes says he raped Miller twice, killed her with a hammer, and set her bed on fire. DNA evidence linked Barnes to the killing, and he was sentenced to death in 2007. Barnes has claimed to have killed at least two other people but has never been charged in those cases, WFLA reported.

Barnes himself has dropped all legal appeals after doctors declared him competent to understand his legal situation and has said he wants to accept his punishment.

“Mr. Barnes’ willing acceptance of death, the punishment put in place by the justice system, does not absolve the state from bringing it about,” Sheedy noted.

“Simply put, no one should be executed in our modern penal system, even if they willingly accept it. The alternative punishment of life in prison without parole is a severe penalty that still provides closure to victims and protects society.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, reflecting an update promulgated by Pope Francis in 2018, describes the death penalty as “inadmissible” and an “attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” (No. 2267). The change reflects a development in Catholic doctrine in recent years. St. John Paul II, calling the death penalty “cruel and unnecessary,” encouraged 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.”

Barring DeSantis’ intervention, Barnes will be executed on Aug. 3 at 6 p.m. ET.

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