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Catholic leaders plead for halt in federal executions


Scott Olson/Getty Images/AFP

John Burger - published on 07/15/20

First use of federal death penalty in 17 years carried out on Daniel Lewis Lee.

The first federal execution in 17 years was “unnecessary and avoidable,” said the leader of a national Catholic organization working to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice.

Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, who had been convicted of murdering an Arkansas family in a 1990s plot to build a whites-only nation in the Pacific Northwest, died by lethal injection on Tuesday morning at 8:07 in the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.

“The federal government relentlessly plotted its course to execute Daniel Lee despite a historic decline in public support for the death penalty, clear opposition by the victims’ family, unwavering Catholic opposition to the restart of federal executions, and an unyielding global pandemic which has already taken more than 135,000 American lives,” Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, Executive Director of Catholic Mobilizing Network, said in a statement following the execution.

The Department of Justice announced its plan to resume federal executions in July 2019, setting off a number of legal challenges. The U.S. Supreme Court announced June 29 that it would not hear an appeal by federal death-row inmates challenging the one-drug method to be used in the executions.

In a June 18 statement, Indianapolis Archbishop Charles C. Thompson, whose archdiocese includes Terre Haute, said: “The taking of life, no matter how ‘sanitary’ or ‘humane,’ is always an act of violence.”

“While the Church is certainly concerned with the soul of every person, including those on death row, I make this plea against the death penalty out of ultimate concern for the eternal soul of humanity,” Thompson said.

“What justice was served here?” asked Vaillancourt Murphy, of Catholic Mobilizing Network. “In restarting the practice of state-sanctioned executions, our federal leaders have demonstrated the pro-life values they profess are flimsy, performative, and wholly inconsistent.”

The Network pointed out that the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes.” It goes on to call the death penalty “inadmissible” in all cases “because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

“On this profoundly sad day, we lament the wrong-headed return of federal executions,” said Vaillancourt Murphy. “Despite the horrific action this morning, we know all life is sacred, and every person has dignity.”

Additional federal executions were scheduled for July 15 and 17 and August 28, but a judge on Wednesday morning halted the execution that day of Wesley Ira Purkey, who is said to be suffering from dementia. Purkey was convicted of a 1998 kidnapping and killing.

On July 7, a joint letter signed by more than 1,000 faith leaders was delivered to President Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr, urging them to halt the planned resumption of federal executions. Catholic leaders who signed including Archbishop Thompson and Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, who serves as chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Domestic Justice and Human Development Committee; Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, former president of the USCCB; Bishop Richard Pates, Apostolic Administrator of the Joliet Catholic Diocese in Illinois, and Fr. Gregory Boyle, S.J., Director of Homeboy Industries.

“As faith leaders from a diverse range of traditions, we call on President Trump and Attorney General Barr to stop the scheduled federal executions. As our country grapples with the COVID 19 pandemic, an economic crisis, and systemic racism in the criminal legal system, we should be focused on protecting and preserving life, not carrying out executions,” the statement read.

Bishop Pates commented, “The Church believes that just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation. Executions only perpetuate a deeply flawed and broken system that is counter to the Gospel call to honor the dignity of all human life.”

Archbishop Coakley wrote last year, “To oppose the death penalty is not to be ‘soft on crime.’ Rather, it is to be strong on the dignity of life.”

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