[Deathpenalty]death penalty news----N.J., FLA., ALA., USA
rhalperi at mail.smu.edu
Mon Nov 21 16:37:09 CST 2005
Report: Death penalty cost $253M and executed no one in NJ
In the 23 years since New Jersey reinstated the death penalty, the law has
cost taxpayers about $253 million and executed no one, according to a new
"Money For Nothing? The Financial Cost of New Jersey's Death Penalty" was
released Monday by New Jersey Policy Perspective, a research group.
The report broke down the death penalty-related costs as follows:
-County prosecutors/state Attorney General's Office: $180 million;
-State Public Defender's Office: $60 million;
-State Department of Corrections: $6.8 million;
-Court Costs: $6.5 million.
That works out to $4.2 million for each death sentence imposed in New
In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the 40 state death penalty
statutes that existed at the time, ruling that giving juries complete
discretion over sentencing conflicted with the Eighth Amendment ban on
"cruel and unusual punishment."
New Jersey, which first adopted capital punishment in 1796, passed a new
death penalty law in 1982 that conformed to the high court's mandates.
Since then, New Jersey jurors have returned death verdicts 60 times. 10
people are now on death row at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.
Most of the others have had their death sentences overturned and replaced
with life in prison.
One died of natural causes and another was killed by a fellow death row
On a related topic, state Sen. Raymond Lesniak said he hopes to get a vote
on a measure he wrote that would abolish New Jersey's death penalty law.
"We should abolish the death penalty to remove our potential to kill
innocent people," he said. "By replacing the death penalty with life
imprisonment without parole we will ensure that murderers are kept behind
bars for the rest of their lives."
Laity, death penalty documents significant
Among other actions last week, the U.S. bishops passed 2 very different
documents - one on lay ecclesial ministry and 1 that calls for the end to
the use of the death penalty. Both are rooted in the call for Catholics to
make a difference in the world, but other similarities between the
documents are few.
"Co-Laborers in the Vineyard of the Lord: Resource for Guiding Development
of Lay Ecclesial Ministry" reflected the reality of today and hope for the
future. The document acknowledges that more than 30,000 lay people work at
least 20 hours per week in paid positions in the church in the United
States, mostly in parishes, and another 2,100-plus volunteers work at
least 20 per week in parishes.
The bishops hope that with this document, the church will be able to
provide better certification, training and "authorization," that is,
indication that permission has been given by a competent authority such as
a bishop or pastor for the person to do such work in the church.
All Catholics are called to work for the kingdom of God whatever their
station in life. For most laypeople, that is in the marketplace - the work
you do day to day and your family and friends you encounter. Some people
feel called to work within the church itself. "Co-Laborers in the
Vineyard" welcomes that reality and notes that these "lay ecclesial
ministers" have theological and spiritual callings, as well as practical
considerations. The resource document includes the theological, pastoral
and practical underpinnings for lay ecclesial ministry so bishops and
those who work with them in dioceses can make the most of this useful and
still emerging ministry.
The other document, "A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death," calls
Catholics to a different reality. The number of people involved on death
row is nowhere near the numbers in lay ecclesial ministry, but the issue
has great significance for the church and all society, the bishops say.
"When the state, in our names and with our taxes, ends a human life
despite having non-lethal alternatives, the state suggests that society
can overcome violence with violence," the bishops say in the document.
"The use of the death penalty ought to be abandoned not only for what it
does to those who are executed, but for what it does to all of society."
The document notes that more than 100 people on death row have been
exonerated in recent years due to new DNA evidence. In a workshop the day
before the bishops' meeting began, panelists pointed out that the death
penalty has been applied unfairly in our country. The death penalty system
is so flawed that it may not be able to be fixed, according to Bishop
Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, N.Y., who chaired the committee drafting
Nonetheless, "A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death" makes two key
acknowledgments: First, although rooted in the sanctity and dignity of
life, capital punishment is not equal to other issues such as abortion and
euthanasia, which are intrinsically evil. Second, this campaign is aimed
at ending the use of the death penalty, noting that states do have the
right to have capital punishment laws; it is just that the bishops and the
church are calling on government not to exercise that right.
Catholics may in prudential judgment support the right of the state to
have the death penalty, but those who do are being challenged to
reconsider that support. The U.S. bishops, Pope John Paul II in
"Evangelium Vitae" and other statements and the "Catechism of the Catholic
Church" clearly note that the circumstances under which such ultimate
penalty is necessary are so rare as to be nearly non-existent in this day
These 2 very different documents each speak to Catholics about our role in
the world. They remind us that we must be the salt of the Earth, the light
for the world.
Whether we take our baptismal call to the marketplace, whether we take our
mission into lay ecclesial ministry or whether we work for change in a
specific way, such as an end to the death penalty, once we are baptized
into the body of Christ, Catholics must become "Co-Workers in the Vineyard
of the Lord."
(source: The Florida Catholic)
New data stir old debate ---- 193 death row inmates put state 6th in
nation; 34 executed since 1977
Alabama continues to have one of the largest death rows, according to a
new report by the federal government, but some experts say national
support for the death penalty is waning.
For years, the state has had the most inmates on death row per capita than
any other state. As of Dec. 31, Alabama reported 193 death row inmates,
which was 6th overall, even though Alabama ranks 23rd in population.
California led the nation in death row inmates at the end of last year
with 637, followed by Texas (446), Florida (364), Pennsylvania (222) and
Alabama continues to sentence people to death. In fact, Alabama has
sentenced 356 people to death and executed 30 people from 1977 through
2004, 9th overall. The state has executed four people this year. Texas led
all states in the number of executions between 1977 and 2004 with 336;
Virginia was No. 2 with 94.
The information was released Sunday by the Bureau of Justice Statistics as
part of its annual report of capital punishment in the United States.
Opponents of the death penalty say capital punishment is on the decline
nationally - something supported by the bureau's report. They also say
Alabama's system is evidence that the system does not work and should be
"The death penalty in Alabama has been used to kind of create an identity
without regard to what the law requires, and you see that in the data,"
said Bryan Stevenson, executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative,
which represents death row inmates on appeal. "Alabama's death penalty is
largely, in my mind, mistakes.
"We make mistake after mistake after mistake. The illegality of most of
these convictions speaks volumes in my mind why there's a need for
More than 20 inmates who were juveniles at the time of their crimes are
being moved off death row after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states
could not execute them.
However, proponents say the same evidence points to a system that is
The fact that the state has executed just 8 percent of the people it has
sentenced to death shows a deliberate process, according to the state
attorney general's office.
"It just reflects cases move at a very slow pace," said Clay Crenshaw,
head of the office's capital litigation division.
Of those sentenced to death, 113 have had their sentences overturned or
"When a case gets reversed, all that means is that there was some kind of
error contained in the record," Crenshaw said, citing as examples evidence
not being introduced or faulty jury instructions.
"It doesn't mean the system is broken," he said. "In fact, it means the
appellate courts viewing these cases have been deciding that there should
be a new trial. How would that indicate any kind of broken system?"
Stevenson said the Legislature has not passed laws that reflect Supreme
Court rulings not only regarding juveniles but also making the execution
of mentally retarded inmates unconstitutional and the question of whether
Alabama's judges sentence defendants to death even if a jury recommends
"I think there's growing pressure on the Legislature to give more serious
consideration to give some review of the death penalty," Stevenson said.
2 things make Alabama unique, he said. One, judges can override the jury's
decision in sentencing. Two, those judges are elected - many on "tough on
crime" platforms. Judges in the past have even used the people they
sentence to death as campaign advertisements.
"I think it's a heavy burden to carry," Stevenson said.
Michael Radelet, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado,
said the decline in support for the death penalty is not based on a moral
issue but a practical one. Radelet was hired by former Illinois Gov.
George Ryan after Ryan declared a moratorium on the death penalty in 2003.
Among Southern states, Tennessee has executed only 1 person and
Mississippi 6 since 1973. Others use the death penalty as consistently as
Alabama - Louisiana has executed 27 in that time, and Arkansas has
"It's more from a perspective that this isn't working," Radelet said. "One
or 2 executions a year out of all the crime is not having any effect."
(source: Huntsville Times)
Alito may alter court's death penalty stance----Citing a poor defense,
justices gave reprieve in case nominee upheld
With no fanfare, the Supreme Court this summer granted a last-minute
reprieve to a man who has spent the last 17 years on death row in
Pennsylvania. Convicted of stabbing to death a tavern owner and setting
him on fire, Ronald Rompilla had run out of appeals when the Supreme Court
In a 5-4 ruling, the court vacated the death sentence and returned the
case for re-sentencing. It marked the third time since 2000 that a loose
coalition of liberal and swing-vote justices had struck down a capital
case because of poor work by defense lawyers.
Of broader importance, the court in the Rompilla case overturned a lower
ruling authored by 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Samuel Alito,
the same man who appears likely to replace one of those swing voters on
the Supreme Court early next year.
Many observers say the case is evidence that Judge Alito, nominated to
succeed retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, would help to reverse the
court's recent trend on death penalty cases.
For conservatives, the big question is whether Judge Alito will live up to
their hopes or disappoint them, as happened with Justice O'Connor and
Justice David Souter. It was Justice Souter who wrote the opinion
reprieving Mr. Rompilla and Justice O'Connor who provided the crucial 5th
"It would be a real move backward to the court to retreat in this area,"
said Terri Mascherin, chairwoman of the American Bar Association's Death
Penalty Representation Project.
But supporters of the death penalty, including Kent Scheidegger, legal
director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, said Judge Alito would
be just the ticket to turn the court to the right.
"We will probably have a more consistent jurisprudence, sticking more
closely to principles of law," he said.
At the sentencing phase of Mr. Rompilla's trial, prosecutors told jurors
how he had earlier been convicted of burglarizing another bar, where he
raped the female owner at knifepoint. But his lawyers never pulled the
records from that case. Had they done so, they would have learned their
client was mentally ill, had been severely abused and neglected as a child
and had long confused right and wrong.
(source: Los Angeles Times)
Execution for crime the same as murder
Murder is one of the few actions that is universally viewed as unethical.
Age, race or nationality are not issues. No human has the right or the
authority to end another human's life.
But, if disapproval of murder is so widespread, then why have more people
not realized that the death penalty is murder?
Everyone has heard that "2 wrongs don't make a right." Just because a
person killed someone does not make it right to kill that person. That
isn't justice; it's hypocrisy. That's not fair; it's revenge.
If someone is convicted of a capital crime, it is the American judicial
system's job to "be the bigger person" rather than stooping to the
Because the convicted murderer is obviously a threat to society, a life
sentence without parole isn't an unjust punishment. Without the option of
parole, there would be no way for a murderer to endanger the lives of
law-abiding citizens from inside a cell.
Plus, life-imprisonment cases are typically less costly than
According to the Web site of the Death Penalty Information Center
(deathpenaltyinfo.org), "in capital trials, taxpayers pay half again as
much as murder cases in which prosecutors seek prison terms rather than
the death penalty."
A report released by the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury said,
"Death penalty trials cost an average of 48 percent more than the average
cost of trials in which prosecutors seek life imprisonment." The Web site
goes on to say that in Texas the total cost of a capital-murder trial is
"about three times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at the
highest security level for 40 years."
A study at Duke University, published on the Death Penalty Information Web
site, concluded that North Carolina spends an average of $2.1 million more
on each execution than on noncapital cases.
In the debate on capital punishment, the bottom line is simple. Killing is
The American justice system should never be swayed by the vengeful
sentiments that accompany a murder trial. The justice system should
protect the inalienable rights found in the Declaration of Independence -
the first of which is life.
Sally Symons is a senior at Forsyth Country Day School.
(source: Winston-Salem Journal)
Death Row Conversion -- Traditional opponents of capital punishment have
gained powerful and unlikely allies: American Catholics, many of them
conservatives defending a "culture of life."
ST. FRANCIS OF ASSISI CHURCH IN RALEIGH, North Carolina, is nothing like
the grand cathedrals of Catholicism past. With its cinder block walls,
translucent windows, and exposed-beam ceiling, the 9-year-old structure is
about as plain as a Quaker meetinghouse. The design is intended to put the
focus on those who attend, says Father Mark Reamer, head pastor at the
church, rather than on statues and stained glass. To that end, the pews
are staggered, an arrangement Reamer calls "confrontational seating," so
parishioners have nowhere to hide. "We are not distracted by our
surroundings," he says. "Instead, we're confronted with one another."
Perhaps the most pronounced expression of this philosophy - in evidence at
a late-morning Mass in September - is the practice every Sunday of asking
the congregation to "pray for Jeff Meyer," a parishioner who was found
guilty of murder and condemned to death in 1988, as well as "for those who
live with him on North Carolina's death row, and for the victims of
violence. At the September service, the congregation replied dutifully,
"Lord, hear our prayer." The moment passed quickly, with no discernible
reaction among those gathered. Yet the presence of the Meyer family at St.
Francis has led the church to become one of the most active Catholic
congregations in the country in opposing the death penalty. "We said,
'This is one of our own, a good person who has done a horrendous thing,'
Reamer recalls. 'We need to stand by our family.' That conviction has
vexed some and converted others among the 14,000 parishioners who call St.
Francis their spiritual home. It has spurred a range of social and
political activism at the parish and helped nudge North Carolina toward
the nation's first legislated moratorium on the death penalty in modern
history. "What they are doing down there is quite remarkable," says Frank
McNeirney, national coordinator of Catholics Against Capital Punishment, a
Maryland-based group devoted to abolishing the death penalty. "They are
really in the forefront of the Catholic movement."
St. Francis is further along than most parishes in its commitment to the
cause, but by no means alone; similar efforts may soon be commonplace.
Last spring, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops - the public face of
the Roman Catholic Church in the United States - launched an unprecedented
education drive aimed at churches and schools, as well as a lobbying
effort in state legislatures and the halls of Congress, to end capital
punishment nationwide. "It used to seem so daunting to even think about
trying to end the death penalty," says Andy Rivas, policy adviser for the
conference. "Now we see that it can happen, and it will, sooner rather
Anti-death-penalty sentiment has long been a staple among liberals within
the church, many of whom also support abortion rights. But the growing
opposition is being fueled in large part by churches like St. Francis,
among congregants who are likely to follow the teachings of Pope John Paul
II. Until his death last spring, the pope argued to Catholics around the
world that an end to the death penalty is an essential part of a "culture
of life" that would also halt birth control, stem-cell research,
abortions, human cloning, and euthanasia.
The pope's approach established common cause between Catholics and
fundamentalist Christians, who are similarly inclined on "pro-life"
issues, except - and it is a deeply held exception - the death penalty.
"God himself instituted capital punishment as a remedy for certain crimes,
at the very least murder," says Barrett Duke, vice president for public
policy and research for the Southern Baptist Convention. "All life is so
sacred that anyone who takes it is required to pay the same penalty." Duke
says he is well aware of the Catholic Churchs anti-death-penalty push and
that Southern Baptists have "respectfully agreed to disagree."
For the first time in years, the bishops annual Respect Life Month mailing
in October included a discussion of the death penalty and featured a
letter of opposition from Denver archbishop Charles J. Chaput, one of the
church leaders who, during the presidential campaign, urged parish priests
to deny communion to Catholics who favor abortion rights, including John
Kerry. The "respect life" letter does not call for similar sanctions
against politicians who back capital punishment, but the bishops were
planning at their annual gathering in November to draft their first
statement against capital punishment in 25 years.
As more Catholics question the death penalty, the split from their
brethren on the Christian right is becoming more pronounced, changing the
politics of a bedrock issue. It presents a particular challenge for
parishes like St. Francis, where many congregants consider themselves
conservative and struggle to follow the churchs teaching on capital
punishment. "With the death penalty, the argument is that they weren't
innocent," Reamer says. "They chose to commit a murder, and were talking
about the innocent unborn." But, echoing the language of the late pope,
Reamer says the solution is not an either/or approach. "We need to look at
all of the creation of life together," he says. "We can't really separate
one from the other." Versions of that thinking have appeared on the
national political stage. Whether the effect is attributable to idealism
or political calculation, some prominent officials appear to have been
swayed. Senator Rick Santorum, a conservative Republican from Pennsylvania
and a devout Catholic, leads a catechism class for his colleagues on the
Hill (nearly 30 percent of all members of Congress are Roman Catholic). He
is an outspoken defender of the death penalty but this spring qualified
his support, saying there "probably should be some further limits on what
we use it for."
Santorum's comments were soon followed by those of Senator Sam Brownback
(R-Kan.), a fellow conservative Catholic, who told U.S. News & World
Report that "if we're trying to establish a culture of life, its difficult
to have the state sponsoring executions." He suggested eliminating
taxpayer funding for abortions and executions.
"Not so long ago you couldn't get anyone to express doubts about the death
penalty," says Richard Dieter, director of the Death Penalty Information
Center and himself a Catholic. "Then you have this Catholic voice coming
in, and coming in loudly, and saying, 'This is our issue, too, and we are
firmly against it.' It sounds like something you might hear from the left
wing, but Pope John Paul was hardly a radical. And so the debate changes.
It becomes about the merits of the issue rather than some fringe idea."
Death-penalty abolitionists seem willing to accept the rightward tilt of
these potential adherents. "The church brings a strong moral voice to the
issue," says Diann Rust-Tierney, executive director of the National
Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "It is welcome and it is timely.
This is the time to push."
IN 1995, SHORTLY AFTER REAMER arrived at St. Francis as an associate
pastor, he was sent across town to visit some inmates on North Carolinas
death row. As he was led deeper into the prison, a feeling of dread and
isolation overcame him. "My first time going in was just horrifying," he
says. "All these sally ports, it was really kind of scary, not knowing
what I was getting into, who these people were." One of the first
condemned men he met was Jeff Meyer, a "calm and peaceful man," Reamer
says, "who was eager for human interaction." Reamer returned frequently
and eventually began celebrating Mass once a week for a small group of the
condemned. As time went on, Reamer became an important link between Meyer
in prison and his family at church. Though Reamer is allowed physical
contact with Meyer, the inmate's family is not. "I can touch Jeff, hug
him, shake his hand," Reamer says. "I can embrace him, and I can embrace
his mother, but they can't embrace each other."
The priest knew nothing of Meyer's crime. "I never ask the men on death
row about their cases," he says. "I guess I'd rather know them for who
they are." Meyer was sentenced to death in 1988, before Reamer arrived at
St. Francis. But when a violation of courtroom protocol led to a new
sentencing trial in 1999, Reamer sat with the Meyer family during the
proceeding. He learned that in December of 1986, Jeff Meyer and a fellow
soldier stationed at the U.S. Army base in Fayetteville, North Carolina,
disguised themselves in ninja suits and broke into the house of an elderly
couple, intending to rob them. Startled by the husband, Meyer shot him
with a blowgun and then stabbed him to death with a butterfly knife. The
pair then stabbed the victims wife to death and fled with jewelry, credit
cards, and a television. "It was very painful to hear about," Reamer says.
But sitting in the courtroom as the case unfolded, Reamer was certain that
the community's pain would only be compounded by executing Meyer. When the
jury imposed a death sentence, Reamer was despondent. "I remember
thinking, how could 12 people do this?" he says. "I certainly don't
advocate opening the prison doors and letting everyone out, but this was
real hard for me."
In most polls of the general public, between two-thirds and three-quarters
of Americans say they support the death penalty. Until recently, it was
generally believed that Catholic sentiment mirrored those figures. Then,
last year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned its own
poll, which brought back astonishing results: Catholics split about evenly
on the issue, with just under half opposed and a nearly identical number
in favor (a small percentage were undecided). Furthermore, most of the
respondents who opposed the death penalty were regular churchgoers, and
two-thirds of Catholics who attend daily Mass said they oppose capital
According to some analyses, these traditional Catholics, who are likely to
subscribe to the entire "culture of life" approach, were responsible for
George Bush's reelection last November. By posing its arguments within the
matrix of the abortion debate, the church has enlisted in a favorite cause
of the left without becoming itself more liberal. The bishops conference
is counting on these traditional Catholics to lead the abolition effort at
the grassroots level, especially because the campaign comes at a sensitive
time for the church as it struggles to recover its moral authority in the
wake of the priest sex-abuse scandal. "The one thing we feel very strongly
about is that when people talk about the death penalty, we win," says
Rivas. "We have the moral arguments that can change peoples minds."
Nowhere is that effort more crucial than in the South, which carried out
nearly 75 percent of the nations executions in 2004. North Carolinas death
row is the seventh largest in the country, housing 177 offenders. North
Carolina is also home to the nations 3rd-largest concentration of Southern
Baptists, who play a significant role in state and local politics. In this
environment, religion is a crucial factor in the push for abolition, says
Stephen Dear, director of People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, based
in Carrboro, North Carolina. "We can't, and never will, abolish the death
penalty in the South unless we have religious communities involved," says
Dear, who is Catholic. "We need to talk the language and culture of the
South." Catholics are particularly well suited to the task, says John C.
Green, senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
"Southerners are culturally conservative, and many of the Catholics who
are appearing in the South are culturally conservative as well," he says.
"Because of that conservatism, in some respects they fit in very well with
the ethos of the region. That gives them an opportunity to effect change
in other areas."
North Carolina's Catholic population is small (just 4 percent of the
total), but it more than doubled in the 1990s and continues to burgeon,
reflecting a larger trend of the migration of Catholics from the Northeast
and Midwest and Latin America to the South and Southwest. St. Francis of
Assisi, an affluent parish on the outskirts of Raleigh, has gone from a
small church and a couple of outbuildings in 1987 to a rambling, 35-acre
campus, a staff of 30, and an elementary school with nearly 600 students.
Judging from a packed house at a recent Sunday Mass, most of its members
are white, and the social-justice language employed in the parish bulletin
suggests a liberal bent. ("We reach out in a special way to those who
hunger and thirst for human dignity: the poor, suffering, and oppressed
people in our community and in our world.") But Reamer, like many of his
parishioners, is uncomfortable with party labels. "I'm not a Republican,
I'm not a Democrat," Reamer says. "It's too complex to fit into a
Shortly after Jeff Meyer's trial, Reamer worked the case into one of his
homilies. "Many parishioners were surprised, he says. They knew we were
praying for Jeff, but back then we didnt say why, so many people assumed
he had AIDS." Reamer and the other priests at St. Francis agreed to
clarify the prayer and include the other inmates on death row. That
version did not sit well with some congregants, who felt it ignored the
victims. They, too, are now included in the prayer. As the prayer evolved,
so did the congregation, grappling with an issue that Reamer says goes to
the very core of his mission as a Franciscan friar. "One of our
imperatives is to embrace society's outcasts," he says. "Those who are on
death row are being judged by one act in their lives. They are seen as
disposable, and therefore we execute them. They need our compassion."
With a membership estimated as high as 67 million, Roman Catholicism is
the largest religious denomination in the United States, accounting for
about 25 percent of the population. Within that group exists a great deal
of contention on a wide array of morally grounded issues. Some Catholics
advocate a social-justice approach to faith, rooted in a '60s-style
community activism and aid for the poor and disadvantaged; others espouse
a focus on introspection. "It's very difficult for the Catholic Church to
speak for all of its parishioners, because they are very likely to
disagree," says Green. "Not only with the church but with each other."
That sort of disagreement is apparent at St. Francis. "There are many,
many good people in this world," says Vince Clark, a retired marketing
executive who has been a member of St. Francis for 15 years.
"Unfortunately, there are also evil people, and those evil people need to
be executed." The Catholic Church traditionally condoned executions, most
infamously by burning heretics at the stake. In the 13th century, Pope
Innocent III ordered naysayers to sign a document declaring, in part, that
"the secular power can, without mortal sin, exercise judgment of blood."
Those who refused faced excommunication and death. Even now, official
church teaching stops short of prohibiting the death penalty, saying that
it is permissible in rare cases when the safety of society is threatened.
This exception causes some Catholic abolitionists great dismay. "The
wording leaves the theoretical exception there," says Dear. "People drive
a truck through that hole. It needs to be unequivocal."
Clark would much prefer it if the church put its energy into ending
abortions. "They're roaring proactive to prevent executions," he says.
"But theyre not proactive in preventing abortions. This is my upset-ment
Such dissension notwithstanding, the death-penalty issue could prove a
critical unifying force for the Catholic Church. This is especially true
in new communities like St. Francis, where Catholics from a range of
traditions are attempting to create a new and cohesive approach. Around
the time of the second Meyer trial, St. Francis welcomed a new parishioner
named Walter Winiewicz, an IBM employee who had moved to Raleigh.
Winiewicz was a lifelong death-penalty supporter. "The first time I came
to church here, we prayed to end the death penalty," Winiewicz says. "I
said, 'I can't say that,' so I stopped repeating the words." Then
Winiewicz's wife, who joined the church choir, discovered that Meyer's
mother was a choir member too. "That started it," he says. "Talking to my
wife, I think it helped both of us strengthen our decision to change."
Winiewicz had lived in Texas during the governorship of George Bush and
supported him when he ignored pleas for clemency from the pope and other
religious leaders. (Bush presided over 152 executions, more than any other
governor in modern U.S. history.) By 1999, when the governor of Missouri
granted the pope's request for clemency just before an execution,
Winiewicz was starting to come around. "I wasn't there yet, but it was
beginning to sink in," he says. "Today I can tell you that I'm not so sure
it deters crime, and I'm becoming more concerned about human life."
The same year, another St. Francis parishioner, Mary Pollard, went to hear
a talk by Sister Helen Prejean. Pollard was what she calls "passively
opposed" to the death penalty. She had seen the Academy Award-winning film
based on Prejeans book Dead Man Walking and was curious to see what the
nun was like in real life. "She just blew me away," Pollard says. "She
talked about the unfairness of the system, that it was a punishment for
poor people and for black people. I left that day, and I thought, this is
definitely a problem in North Carolina, and what can we do about it?"
She soon got her chance. Pollard was working as a product liability
lawyer, and her firm was tapped to assist on a capital appeal (its common
practice in communities that are short on death-penalty defense lawyers to
seek out deep-pocketed corporate firms for help). Pollard persuaded the
partners to accept the case, which she took on as her own. Her client,
Alan Gell, had been sentenced to death for the robbery and murder of a
retired truck driver. Pollard soon discovered that he had either been out
of the state or in jail at the time of the killing, and found a taped
statement from one of the witnesses confessing that she had made up her
story. Four years later, Gell was a free man.
The case so convinced Pollard of the immorality of the death penalty that
she quit her job and went to work for the Center for Death Penalty
Litigation in Durham. "The part of Catholicism that I embrace is the
appeal for justice, the responsibility to the least of us, forgiveness,
and turning the other cheek," Pollard says. "The church should play a role
in remedying these things in society, waking people up to the injustices,
to the things we can fix."
In the nearly 4 years since Pollard turned to death-penalty work
full-time, North Carolina has executed 15 men. This fall three more of the
condemned who have exhausted their appeals face execution. Their only
chance for reprieve is clemency from the governor, Mike Easley, a former
district attorney and a Catholic who, since becoming governor, has signed
off on 21 executions and granted clemency twice. One of this fall's cases,
that of Elias Syriani, particularly troubles Pollard. In this instance,
she says, its clear that the only justification for the punishment is
On a warm September morning, Syriani, clad in a red prison-issue jumpsuit,
his hands cuffed in front of him, sat behind thick iron bars and
bullet-proof glass and reflected on his dimming prospects for survival. An
Assyrian from Jordan who worked as a tool-and-die machine operator in
Charlotte, he was sentenced for stabbing his wife to death with a
screwdriver in front of two of their 4 young children. That was almost 15
years ago. Syriani is now 67, the 3rd-oldest person on North Carolina's
death row. He apologized for the sweat he continually mopped from his
forehead, explaining that it is a symptom of his diabetes. He referred to
his crime as "my situation" and talked about his love for his wife, and
for his children, who are now grown. Until last year, only one of them had
contacted him. Last summer, all 4 came to see him, intending to confront
him. They wound up forgiving him and now want the state to spare his life.
"I learned to live with not having a mother," says Janet Syriani, the
youngest of the four children, who was 8 when her mother was stabbed. "I
don't know if I'm going to be able to handle having another parent
murdered. Enough is enough."
In a mournful, Middle Eastern waver, Syriani sang a song that he wrote for
them in Arabic, one verse of praise for each child. He shared photos they
sent, including one of his older daughter, who is due with his first
grandchild in the spring, a child Syriani is not likely to see if his
execution is carried out as planned. "I leave everything to God," Syriani
said. "Maybe he has a miracle. I leave everything in his hands."
Cases like Syriani's lay bare the cruelty of execution, Pollard says. "You
can't say you're doing it for the victims, because they have forgiven
him," she says. "You can't say youre doing it to protect society, or even
the other inmates," because Syriani is old and unwell. "What you're left
with is vengeance."
THE CONVERSION OF ST. FRANCIS CHURCH has progressed beyond the sanctuary
and the prison cell to the halls of political power. Mary Pollard, while
she was litigating to free Alan Gell from death row, joined a group of St.
Francis parishioners lobbying state legislators to curtail capital
punishment. Their efforts are loosely coordinated by Paul Amrhein,
director of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Ministries. (His
title used to be director of Social Concerns, until he got one too many
calls seeking help with wedding plans.) It is his job to employ an
education-driven approach to changing minds, both within the parish and
within the legislature. On execution nights, he joins the protest vigils
outside the prison gates. "From a spiritual perspective, inability to
forgive is the major impediment to peoples conversion on this issue,"
Amrhein says. "We try to work on ways to get that sense of forgiveness."
>From time to time, he organizes Sunday-morning signing stations around the
St. Francis campus, with postcards and colorful helium-filled balloons and
volunteers standing at the ready to answer questions and urge support.
After one particularly successful campaign, an effort in 2001 to ban
execution of the mentally retarded, Amrhein, Pollard, and several other
parishioners showed up with a stack of 600 postcards at the office of
North Carolina senate speaker Marc Basnight, often called the most
powerful person in North Carolina politics. "He was very
pro-death-penalty," says Amrhein. "We were very calm, collected, and
Basnight seemed unmoved. After a short while, he got up to go, leaving the
supplicants with one of his aides. The aide pulled them into a side
office, Pollard remembers, grasped their hands, and asked them to pray
that the senator would change his mind. "It really seemed genuine,"
Pollard says. "We took it as a good sign." In the spring of that year, the
North Carolina legislature voted to end execution of the mentally
retarded. Basnight voted in favor of the measure. A year later the U.S.
Supreme Court (over the objections of Antonin Scalia, a Catholic and an
outspoken death-penalty supporter) found such executions "cruel and
unusual." The Court cited an amicus brief written by the bishops'
conference as evidence of "evolving standards of decency" when it banned
the practice. In 2005, the Court followed a similar line of reasoning when
it ended execution of juveniles.
In recent years, grassroots efforts such as those at St. Francis have been
key in the Catholic Churchs attempts to soften the hardline
pro-death-penalty stance that dominated the U.S. political arena for
nearly a quarter century. When Governor George Ryan of Illinois in 2003
famously removed all 167 inmates from that states death row, after
declaring a moratorium on further capital sentences, he was hailed
nationally but excoriated by many of his constituents. Church leaders
stood by him, providing constant public affirmation of his action. Local
Catholic activists, including Amrhein and others at St. Francis, organized
letter-writing campaigns and protests in support of many of the 121
condemned inmates who have subsequently been exonerated nationwide. In
2004, the bishops' conference played a key role in getting Congress to
pass the Innocence Protection Act, which provides convicted offenders
greater access to DNA testing and helps states improve the quality of
legal representation in capital cases by establishing national standards.
Although President Bush remains a death-penalty supporter, he spoke in his
State of the Union address in January of the need for "dramatically
expanding" DNA testing for capital defendants. In April, when John Paul II
died, Bush became the first president in history to attend a popes
funeral. In Florida, his brother Jeb, who converted to Catholicism before
becoming governor and has repeatedly called the signing of death warrants
the hardest part of his job, publicly fretted over whether to delay an
execution in honor of the pope - before going ahead with it.
Of the 38 states that currently permit the death penalty, bishops have
identified a handful as likely candidates for abolition. This summer state
church leaders successfully testified against a bill to reenact New York's
death penalty. Similar efforts came close to succeeding in Connecticut and
New Mexico and have also targeted Kansas and New Jersey. In North
Carolina, the goal is less sweeping: a pause to study the issue. In 2003,
the North Carolina Senate passed a moratorium measure after Basnight
experienced a dramatic change of heart during a debate on the issue on the
Senate floor. Amrhein believes the visit from the parishioners helped tip
the scales. Their efforts were not as successful in the House, where the
measure failed to come to a vote, but Amrhein says it is just a matter of
time and patience before they bring enough legislators around to pass a
moratorium. "You cant force a persons conversion," he says. "It has to be
a heartfelt, deep-gut thing."
Death by increments is the way that the death penalty is most likely to
meet its demise, says the Pew Forum's Green. "It would be very difficult
to abolish the death penalty in one fell swoop," he says. "Public opinion
isnt there. I do think that the emphasis the Catholic hierarchy has placed
on this issue is likely to inspire a lot more activism, which presents
real opportunities for change." Richard Dieter concurs: "The death penalty
is not going to end because of a moral revolution," he says. "People arent
going to swing over to the Catholic side. Most Americans dont think that
way. But theres an openness to consider it now, which the Catholic Church
has made possible. I'm not morally weak for opposing the death penalty. Im
morally strong. That is a big change."
INSPIRED BY THEIR CHURCHS TEACHING on the death penalty, a group of St.
Francis parishioners decided in the spring of 2004 to perform an
adaptation of Ernest Gaines A Lesson Before Dying. Their ambition for the
project was modest: one free performance, in the church's sanctuary. To
everyones surprise, 700 people showed up, and the play seemed to strike a
deep chord. "We kept getting calls from all these people saying, 'When can
you perform it at our church?' says Megan Loughlin Nerz, executive
director of the project. "'When can you perform it at our school?'"
The performers obliged and, with Pollards help, were able to persuade
exonerated death row inmate Alan Gell to speak after one show about his
ordeal. St. Francis parishioner Tim Throndson, a partner at
PriceWaterhouseCoopers, attended that performance and was deeply moved.
"It was incredible to see Alan standing there in front of you," Throndson
"Here was a man who was near execution. It was extremely powerful." Seeing
Gell, he says, solidified his opposition to the death penalty. Throndson
describes himself as a "compassionate conservative." He opposes abortion
and euthanasia and is a supporter of President Bush. He had no background
in theater, but he decided to get involved. He joined the board of what
had become known as the Justice Theater Project, an arts advocacy group.
He was dissatisfied when, after the Gaines play, the theater project moved
in other directions, putting on one play about the working poor and
preparing for a production of Steinbecks The Grapes of Wrath. One morning
last spring over coffee, he and another board member suggested they chuck
that plan and return to the death penalty. "It was a painful decision,
because we had to give up what wed been working on," Throndson says. "But
we did some serious evaluation, and we said, lets go back to what matters
most. It's a critical issue, one where we think we can make a difference,
probably more than ever." The project's creative leaders agree. "I was
talking to one of my neighbors, and she said, 'Anybody that kills anybody,
just fry 'em,'" says the project's artistic director, Deb Royals-Mizerk,
who often sings alongside Jeff Meyers mother in the church choir. "It
slammed me right in the face. I started thinking of Judy Meyer. My
response to her was, 'If we in the state of North Carolina were going to
kill your son, would you feel the same way?'"
Now the theater project is deep into an 18-month original production based
on interviews with people who have been directly involved with death row
and with executions. The goal, says Nerz, is to bring the debate back to
what the Catholic Church believes is the core issue: not innocence,
frailty, incompetence, or poverty, but mercy and forgiveness. "If we talk
about the death penalty in the terms of the exonerated and the poor and
minorities, are we saying that if we could right those things it would be
okay to kill?" she says. "We hope to take the debate to a different
The theater project participants, and many others at St. Francis, are
exactly the kind of Catholics that the U.S. bishops' conference is hoping
to inspire: those who are willing to move beyond receiving wisdom to
creating it. "I have a lot of Catholic friends, as well as non-Catholic
friends, I have talked to and debated about this," Throndson says. "And
every time we talk about it, I say, 'If you really believe this person is
guilty, would you be the person to push the plunger and watch that person
die? How would you feel about that?' And that's when it starts to shift."
(source: Mother Jones, December/January 2006)
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