A Catholic organization hosted a panel discussion Monday night featuring two death row exonerees and the brother of a murder victim who all spoke about their belief that the U.S. death penalty is fallible, perpetuates a cycle of violence in society, and should be ended. 

Catholic Mobilizing Network, a national group that demonstrates against the death penalty, hosted the Oct. 23 event at Xavier University’s Bellarmine Chapel in Cincinnati in partnership with several other anti-death penalty organizations. Nearly 200 innocent people have been exonerated and freed from death row across the United States since executions resumed in 1976, the group says. 

The panelists who were death row exonerees were Randal Padgett and Debra Milke, both of whom spoke passionately about how hard it has been to suffer through their wrongful convictions at the hand of the government and how they would like to see the justice system change and move away from capital punishment.

Panelists speak at an Oct. 23, 2023, Catholic-organized anti-death penalty event at Xavier University’s Bellarmine Chapel in Cincinnati. Credit: Catholic Mobilizing Network
Panelists speak at an Oct. 23, 2023, Catholic-organized anti-death penalty event at Xavier University’s Bellarmine Chapel in Cincinnati. Credit: Catholic Mobilizing Network

The discussion took place within the context of lawmakers in the state of Ohio considering two bipartisan bills to abolish the death penalty, House Bill 259 and Senate Bill 101. The Ohio Catholic Conference, which advocates for policy on behalf of Ohio’s Catholic bishops, has urged Catholics to support the bills, noting the Church’s teaching on the importance of “upholding the inherent dignity and sacredness of every human life from conception to natural death.”

Padgett, an Alabama native, said he was “raised right” and never expected to get in trouble with the law. But in the early 1990s, when he was 40, his wife was murdered and sexually assaulted while Padgett was not at home, but Padgett was immediately pegged as a suspect. Despite evidence in his favor, he was convicted and sentenced to death in 1992. 

Padgett appealed and won his case after it came to light that the state had withheld exculpatory evidence, but despite winning his appeal on the first step, it still took nearly six years before he was freed. Padgett has said that he credits his strong religious faith with sustaining him through his ordeal.

“God tells me I gotta forgive, or I won’t be forgiven,” he said during the panel discussion. 

Milke, a single mother from Arizona, was falsely accused of the murder of her 4-year-old son. She was convicted of the crime, she says, after a detective fabricated a confession. She was sentenced to death, spending 22 years on death row. She was released in 2013 and exonerated in 2015. 

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Milke said her father worked for the state prison system and that he believed the police’s word over hers, withholding any support from his daughter during her ordeal. While her father was on his deathbed, Milke was able to write him a letter explaining that she forgave him for abandoning her to her fate, she said. Meanwhile, Milke’s mother drained her retirement fund to help her with her legal fees, she added. 

Even if a convicted criminal is ultimately put to death, families of the victims are left with pain and anger, she noted. In addition, Milke said, she was herself a victim of a horrible crime — the murder of her son — and had the additional suffering placed on her of having to fight the wrongful murder charge.

“I still don’t have my son, and I’m still suffering his loss every single day,” she said, holding back tears. 

The panel also featured Jack Sullivan Jr., a Protestant minister with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and executive director of the Ohio Council of Churches, a statewide coalition of 18 denominations. Sullivan’s sister, Jennifer, was killed in the 1990s in a shooting, a murder which to this day remains unsolved.

Sullivan, who also sits on the advisory council of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, told CNA ahead of the event that he has been protesting the death penalty by holding peaceful prayer vigils on the night of executions since the 1980s with the message: “Don’t kill in our name.” 

He said that experiencing his sister’s death — and seeing her body in the morgue — helped him to understand that he and his family “don’t want to put another family through the pain that we experienced” of having to bury a family member, even if that person is a murderer. 

“We don’t believe that killing to show that killing is wrong is morally right,” he explained. “And we also believe in the potential for human transformation as enacted by God in people’s lives.”

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“Executions are really more along the lines of vengeance and retaliation and retribution than they are justice … they don’t bring about any sense of healing or wholeness to murder victim families,” Sullivan said. 

The death penalty, he said, “creates a cycle of violence that never seems to end.”

“If anybody has any reason to support the death penalty, it would be us,” he continued, referring to the families of murder victims.

“And yet here we are as people who have been impacted forever by the murder of our loved ones…saying together, ‘We don’t believe in revenge, we don’t believe in retaliation. We believe in accountability, but not through lethal means,’” Sullivan said. 

He said he also has studied and believes the arguments that the death penalty is unequally applied in the U.S., with people of minority races and the poor suffering the most from its effects. 

“We want to make sure that the right people are arrested and tried and convicted, not the most convenient,” he added. 

Sullivan said despite not being a Catholic himself, he knows that many Protestants who oppose the death penalty were gratified by the change that Pope Francis made to the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 2018 in which he described the death penalty as “inadmissible” and an “attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

“When Pope Francis said the death penalty was inadmissible, many of us Protestants, we cheered, and we applauded Pope Francis for coming out with that understanding,” Sullivan said. 

“In a sense, he became our pope when he made that declaration.”

Sullivan also said he has been privileged to work together with many Catholic laypeople, priests, religious sisters, and others who work for an end to the death penalty.

“I see them and I salute them, and it’s a pleasure and honor to work alongside [them],” he said.