“We recognize that the pain, suffering, and loss of life caused by Mr. Zagorski more than thirty years ago has negatively impacted many people, and we agree that the state has a right to expect punishment for those crimes,” Bishop Mark Spalding of Nashville and Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville wrote in an Oct. 10 statement, released before the Supreme Court’s decision.
“However,” the bishops underscored, “we remain firmly opposed to the use of the death penalty in all cases.”
The bishops cited the teaching of the Church and the statements of several popes, particularly Pope Francis’ August change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church which now teaches that "the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”
“The Catholic Church teaches that the death penalty is simply not necessary when society has other means to protect itself and provide a just punishment for those who break civil laws. Rather than serving as a path to justice, the death penalty contributes to the growing disrespect for human life,” the two Tennessee bishops wrote.
Zagorski’s clemency application included sworn statements from six of the jurors from his trial in 1984, who said that had the option been available to them, they would have given Zagorski life in prison without parole.
Today, all 30 states that impose the death penalty give jurors the option of life without parole; in Tennessee life without parole can now be imposed at the request of just one juror. Zagorski’s attorneys argue that he would have been given that sentence rather than death if it had been an option in 1984.
At that time, the only sentencing options available to the jury were life in prison with the possibility of parole, or death, according to the Nashville Scene.
The wife of one of Zagorski’s victims has stated that she did not oppose clemency being granted. In addition, his application included a statement from a prison correctional officer detailing Zagorski’s apparent improvement of character while in prison. The counselor described a notable occasion when Zagorski helped to break up a fight between other inmates.
Governor Haslam said in a statement denying the clemency petition that Zagorski’s good behavior in prison did not excuse the murder of the two victims.
Zagorski was originally scheduled to be put to death by lethal injection Oct. 11. Just three hours before the execution was scheduled to take place, Governor Haslam issued a ten-day delay for the state to consider his request to die by electric chair rather than lethal injection.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit had granted a stay of his execution the day before, Oct. 10, after the Zagorski’s lawyers argued that he had been given ineffective legal counsel during his trial.
Later in the evening of Oct. 11, the Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeal’s decision and declined to hear Zagorski’s case, which would have considered the constitutionality of the state’s lethal injection protocol.
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Justices Sotomayor and Breyer disagreed with the court’s opinion, citing evidence that the drugs used in lethal injections caused severe pain and led to “inhumane” executions.
“Capital prisoners are not entitled to pleasant deaths under the Eighth Amendment, but they are entitled to humane deaths,” Justice Sotomayor wrote. “The longer we stand silent amid growing evidence of inhumanity in execution methods like Tennessee’s, the longer we extend our own complicity in state-sponsored brutality.”
Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, Zagorski’s execution is likely to go ahead at the end of the ten-day delay imposed by Gov. Haslam, during which the state will consider the inmate’s request to be put to death by electrocution. Once that decision is made, the state Supreme Court will then issue a new execution date for Zagorski.
Tennessee last carried out a three-drug lethal injection execution in August, the state’s first since 2009, after Governor Haslam denied a clemency request from Billy Ray Irick. The drug used in that execution, midazolam, has widely been reported to cause extreme pain during execution.
In July, ahead of Irick’s execution, Bishop Spalding and Bishop Stika were joined by Bishop Martin Holley of Memphis and wrote a joint letter to Gov. Haslam asking him to put an end to the death penalty in the state.