Missouri governor denies clemency to death row inmate despite Catholic protests

Governor Parson Missouri Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signs a bill in 2020. | Credit: Office of Missouri Governor/Wikimedia, CC BY 2.0

Republican Gov. Mike Parson of Missouri on Monday denied a request for clemency brought by convicted murderer Brian Dorsey, who is scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection the evening of April 9 in the state’s first execution of 2024.

Dorsey, 52, was arrested in 2006 and later convicted of shooting and killing his cousin Sarah Bonnie and her husband Ben. Dorsey’s lawyers argued that he was in a drug-induced psychosis, as he was suffering from chronic depression and addicted to crack cocaine at the time of the killings. 

The Catholic bishops of Missouri had strongly urged the faithful to contact Parson and ask him to stay Dorsey’s execution, citing Catholic teaching on the inadmissability of the death penalty. Had Parson granted Dorsey clemency, it would have been his first time granting clemency to a death row inmate during his six-year governorship. Missouri is among the most prolific of all U.S. states when it comes to the death penalty, having carried out four executions in 2023 alone and being one of only five states to carry out executions last year.

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 of 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.”

Dorsey’s death sentence has garnered scrutiny. During more than 17 years spent on death row, Dorsey incurred zero infractions and served as a barber for other prisoners and wardens, staff, and chaplains — trusted using potentially deadly instruments. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, a group of 72 current and former Missouri correctional officers submitted and signed a letter vouching for his character and asking Parson to grant Dorsey clemency and commute his death sentence. 

Additionally, Dorsey’s attorneys have argued that the Missouri Department of Corrections’ execution protocols, which include the practice of “cut down,” or cutting into the person to set an IV line, will prevent Dorsey “from having any meaningful spiritual discussion or participation in his last religious rites with his spiritual adviser,” the Kansas City Star reported. 

Despite his apparent rehabilitation, the Missouri Supreme Court scheduled Dorsey’s execution last December. Dorsey has appealed his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which could still halt his execution despite Parson’s denial of clemency. 

The Missouri Catholic Conference, which advocates for public policy on behalf of the state’s five bishops, said that in addition to the fact that Dorsey “endured substantial mental and physical childhood trauma,” he also has claimed ineffective assistance of counsel, as his attorneys at the time — who were being paid a small flat fee to defend him — entered him into a plea deal without contesting the possibility of capital punishment. 

In addition to submitting a clemency request to Parson, the Missouri Catholic Conference hosted a “respectful protest” outside the governor’s office at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City from noon to 1 p.m. on Tuesday. The conference had urged the public to attend the protest and to contact the governor to express their support for clemency. 

“The Catholic Church is strongly opposed to the death penalty because it disregards the sanctity and dignity of human life,” the conference noted. 

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