Bishops lament return of federal executions

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Catholic leaders have condemned the federal government's announcement last week that it will resume of executions after an almost two decade-long hiatus.

"I am deeply concerned by the announcement of the United States Justice Department that it will once again turn, after many years, to the death penalty as a form of punishment," said Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, chair of the U.S. bishops' domestic justice and human development committee, in a statement released July 30. 

Attorney General William Barr on July 25 announced that executions of federal death-row inmates would resume for the first time since 2003, with five executions scheduled for December 2019 and January 2020.

"Under Administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals, including these five murderers, each of whom was convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding," said Barr, who is a practicing Catholic and a member of the Knights of Columbus.

Federal executions are rare, with only three occurring in the modern era and the last one being in 2003, the Death Penalty Information Center reports. The federal death penalty was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1972 in Furman v. Georgia, but revised federal death penalty statues were reinstated in 1988.

In 2014, President Obama ordered a Department of Justice (DOJ) review of the federal death penalty after several botched executions by lethal injection in states including Oklahoma and Ohio. However, executions will once again take place and more will be scheduled in the future, the DOJ said Thursday.

In 2018, Pope Francis approved updated language for the Catechism of the Catholic Church calling the death penalty "inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person."

In paragraph 2267, the Catechism acknowledges that the death penalty was "long considered an appropriate response" to grave crimes by legitimate authorities after a fair trial. However, it says, there is now an "increasing awareness" of human dignity even after such crimes have been committed, as well as more secure means of detention by societies that keep open the possibility of redemption.

When the change was announced, bishops across the United States welcomed the change. Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles said at the time that he was "grateful for Pope Francis' leadership in working for an end to judicial executions worldwide," and that the revisions "reflect an authentic development of the Church's doctrine that started with St. John Paul II and has continued under emeritus Pope Benedict XVI and now Pope Francis."

"The Scriptures, along with saints and teachers in the Church's tradition, justify the death penalty as a fitting punishment for those who commit evil or take another person's life," Archbishop Gomez wrote.

In his statement on Tuesday, Dewane noted that last month, at their annual Spring meeting, the U.S. bishops States voted overwhelmingly to adopt updated language "reflecting this position" in the U.S. catechism for adults.

"I urge instead that Federal officials take this teaching into consideration, as well as the evidence showing its unfair and biased application, and abandon the announced plans to implement the death penalty once more," he said.

The Federal Death Penalty Act of 1994, enacted as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, expanded the list of eligible death penalty offenses.

One of the five inmates, Daniel Lewis Lee, was convicted in 1999 by a federal court jury on "numerous offenses, including three counts of murder in aid of racketeering." Lee was a member of a white supremacist group, robbing and killing a family of three in gruesome fashion, the DOJ said.

Lawyers for Lee said Thursday that the crime for which he was sentenced to death was actually orchestrated by a different member of a white supremacist group, who only received a life sentence; they argued that Lee did not conduct the murder, and that evidence used against him during the trial was later overturned by DNA testing.

Morris Moon, Lee's attorney, stated that "the trial judge, the lead prosecutor, and members of the victims' family all oppose executing him and believe a life sentence is appropriate," but the federal government ordered prosecutors to proceed with a death sentence. Furthermore, Lee suffered "relentless" abuse and trauma as a youth, he said.

Another of the five inmates, Wesley Purkey, raped and murdered a 16 year-old girl and bludgeoned to death an 80 year-old woman, the DOJ said. Purkey's lawyer said on Thursday that he suffered serious abuse and trauma at a young age, and now "suffers from a multitude of mental and physical disabilities, including dementia" at age 67.

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According to the DOJ, inmate Lezmond Mitchell murdered a 63 year-old woman and forced her nine year-old granddaughter to sit beside her corpse on a 30 to 40-mile drive before murdering her as well. Mitchell's attorney said that he is a member of the Navajo nation, which opposes the death penalty in its own jurisdiction, and which has opposed the sentence.

Mitchell is "the only Native American on federal death row," his counsel said. He was eligible for the death penalty because carjacking resulting in death is a federal crime.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC), Federal administration of the federal death penalty is geographically-concentrated in the South, with more than half of federal death sentences coming from just three states-Virginia, Texas, and Missouri. Additionally, the three federal circuit courts comprising that region-the Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth-are responsible for 42 of the 61 current federal death sentences.

More than half of current federal death row inmates are African-American, Latino, Asian or Native American, the DPIC said.

The Catholic Mobilizing Network last Thursday called the DOJ decision "unconscionable," arguing that the death penalty system in the U.S. "is tragically flawed."

"The actions of the Federal government are meant to represent the values of the American people - values of equality, fairness, and for Catholics, above all, a belief in the sanctity of human life," stated Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, Executive Director of CMN.

"The resumption of executions at the federal level flies in the face of these values, and promotes a culture of death where we so desperately need a culture of life," she said.

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