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In the Bible Belt, Christmas Isn’t Coming to Death Row

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When it comes to the death penalty, guilt or innocence shouldn’t really matter to Christians.  

NASHVILLE — Until August, Tennessee had not put a prisoner to death in nearly a decade. Last Thursday, it performed its third execution in four months.
This was not a surprising turn of events. In each case, recourse to the courts had been exhausted. In each case Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, declined to intervene, though there were many reasons to justify intervening. Billy Ray Irick suffered from psychotic breaks that raised profound doubts about his ability to distinguish right from wrong. Edmund Zagorksi’s behavior in prison was so exemplary that even the warden pleaded for his life. David Earl Miller also suffered from mental illness and was a survivor of child abuse so horrific that he tried to kill himself when he was 6 years old.
Questions about the humanity of Tennessee’s lethal-injection protocol were so pervasive following the execution of Mr. Irick that both Mr. Zagorski and M…

Virginia, Ohio, Nebraska, Utah: Mixed reactions to Pope Francis' death penalty declaration

Pope Francis
Virginia death penalty opponents welcome pope's new teaching against executions

Catholic officials and death penalty opponents in Virginia - which has put to death more people in modern times than any other state except Texas - welcomed Pope Francis' new teaching against the death penalty on Thursday, though the impact of the change remains unclear.

Previously, the Catholic Church has said executions could be carried out in rare instances. In a change announced Thursday, the Catholic teaching now states that executions are "inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person."

Bill Re, associate director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, said it "has long advocated for an end to the use of the death penalty in Virginia and will continue to do so."

"We take this opportunity to urge our state lawmakers to put an end to the death penalty and to make respect for life the priority in the many decisions they make," Re said.

According to the Virginia Catholic Conference, there are nearly 700,000 registered Catholics in the state, or 8.3 % of the state population of 8.4 million.

With 113 executions since the U.S. Supreme Court allowed capital punishment to resume in 1976, Virginia is 2nd in the country only to Texas, which had 553 executions during the same period.

Last year, Virginia executed Ricky Gray, who murdered a family in Richmond, and William Morva, who murdered a deputy sheriff and hospital security guard in Blacksburg.

Michael E. Stone, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, said, "The abolition movement is very pleased by the updated teaching from the Catholic Church that capital punishment is never admissible.

"This change from Pope Francis was the culmination of increasingly critical writings of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI on the death penalty. As a lifelong Catholic, I am proud of the leadership of church leaders on this life issue," he said.

Andrew Chesnut, the Bishop Sullivan Chair in Catholic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, said, "Practically speaking, the church's new policy of total opposition to capital punishment is aimed at the United States."

Chesnut said a new Pew Research Center poll shows that a significant majority of white American Catholics are in favor of the death penalty despite the church being one of the major opponents.

"The new policy will give greater ammunition to Catholics fighting to abolish it in the U.S. but will probably not sway those parishioners who support it, many of whom view the Argentine pontiff as too liberal on issues of social policy," Chesnut said.

A spokesman for the Virginia attorney general's office, which defends challenges to death sentences, declined to comment Thursday.

Richmond Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring, who won the death sentence against Gray, said he could not comment on the pope's action because of the approaching capital murder trial of Travis Ball, who is charged with the slaying of a Virginia State Police special agent.

Chesnut said that of the 52 countries that still execute convicted criminals, the U.S. is both the only major Western country and the only one with a significant Catholic population - the 4th-largest in the world, he said.

He said that as the 1st Latin American pope, Francis has put mercy and social justice at the top of his agenda, so the new position on capital punishment comes as no surprise.

"One of the fixtures of his foreign tours, including the U.S., are visits to prisons, which in his native Latin America are hellholes often controlled by criminal elements," Chesnut said.

Virginia authorities said Thursday that there have been no executions this year and none is currently scheduled.

The Virginia Department of Corrections says Virginia has 3 inmates on death row. According to figures from the Death Penalty Information Center, of the 34 states with capital punishment, Virginia has one of the smallest death rows in the country.

Source: The Daily Progress, August 3, 2018


Ohio: Joe Deters reconciled his faith with the death penalty: 'There is evil in this world'


Ohio's death chamber
Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters a long time ago reconciled his Catholic faith with the idea that sometimes he must seek the death penalty in killings that are the worst of the worst.

His faith allowed the death penalty in limited circumstances and Deters agreed that for the worst of the worst criminals, a death sentence was sometimes necessary.

But as Deters pursues a death penalty sentence against convicted serial killer Anthony Kirkland, he woke up to a published report that Pope Francis changed Catholic Church teaching about the death penalty. In a new policy published Thursday, the pope now says, the death penalty is always "inadmissible" because it "attacks" the inherent dignity of all humans.

It didn't change the mind of the longtime prosecutor.

"My dear friends who are priests don't understand what we're dealing with," Deters said. "There is evil in this world and there comes a point where society needs to defend itself."

Kirkland, he said, "would kill again if he got the chance."

Kirkland, 49, killed 3 women and 2 teenage girls before he was caught in 2009. He killed Leona Douglas, 28, in 1989, when he was 18 years old and served a 16-year prison sentence. He was released in 2003 and Kirkland started killing again in 2006. Kirkland killed Casonya Crawford, 14; Mary Jo Newton, 45; and Kimya Rolison, 25, in 2006. And then he killed Esme Kenney, 13, in 2009.

He strangled or stabbed his victims, then burned their bodies and fled. He told police, in a confession, "Fire purifies."

Kirkland was convicted in 2010 and is serving life prison terms for killing the adult women. But a death penalty sentence imposed for killing the teenagers was overturned by the Ohio Supreme Court, prompting a new sentencing.

Kirkland's defense is pleading for a life prison term, saying Kirkland is mentally ill, was abused and neglected as a child and has head injuries that account for the violence.

6 women and 6 men are hearing the case. There were 2 days of serious questioning of jurors, including how they felt about the death penalty. 12 members of the pool of 120 said they could not, for personal and religious reasons, sign off on the death penalty. And they were excused.

The Vatican said Francis approved a change to the Catechism of the Catholic Church - the compilation of official Catholic teaching. Previously, the catechism said the church didn't exclude recourse to capital punishment "if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor."

The new teaching, contained in Catechism No. 2267, says the previous policy is outdated, that there are other ways to protect the common good and that the church should instead commit itself to working to end capital punishment.

The Pope has declared the Death Penalty Inadmissible in all cases.

"The church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide," reads the new text, which was approved in May but only published Thursday.

The death penalty has been abolished in most of Europe and South America, but it is still in use in the United States and in several countries in Asia, Africa and the Mideast.

Francis has long railed against the death penalty, insisting it can never be justified, no matter how heinous the crime. He has also long made prison ministry a mainstay of his vocation.

The Enquirer reported earlier this year that Hamilton County has sent more people to death row and is responsible for more executions than any county in Ohio since capital punishment returned to the state in 1981.

The county has a larger death row population per capita than the home counties of Los Angeles, Miami or San Diego. And it has more people on death row than all but 21 of the more than 3,000 counties in the United States.

In a statewide look at the death penalty, the Associated Press reported this week Ohio Gov. John Kasich has finished dealing with executions for the remainder of his time in office, following a modern-era record of death penalty commutations.

The Republican governor spared 7 men from execution during his 2 terms in office, including commutations on March 26 and July 20. Kasich allowed 15 executions to proceed, including the July 18 execution of Robert Van Hook for a strangling, stabbing and dismembering a man he met in a Cincinnati bar more than 30 years ago.

Not since Democrat Mike DiSalle spared 6 death row inmates in the early 1960s has an Ohio governor spared so many killers during periods when the state had an active death chamber. DiSalle allowed 6 executions to proceed.

Source: cincinnati.com, August 3, 2018


Nebraska's Catholic Governor Says Pope's Opposition Won't Stop Execution


Gov. Pete Ricketts
When Nebraska lawmakers defied Gov. Pete Ricketts in 2015 by repealing the death penalty over his strong objections, the governor wouldn't let the matter go. Mr. Ricketts, a Republican who is Roman Catholic, tapped his family fortune to help bankroll a referendum to reinstate capital punishment, a measure the state's Catholic leadership vehemently opposed.

After a contentious and emotional battle across this deep-red state, voters restored the death penalty the following year. Later this month, Nebraska is scheduled to execute Carey Dean Moore, who was convicted of murder, in what would be the state's 1st execution in 21 years.

The prospect has renewed a tense debate in a state with strong Christian traditions that has wrestled with the moral and financial implications of the death penalty for years, even before the 2015 attempt to abolish it. Protesters have been holding daily vigils outside the governor's mansion to oppose Mr. Moore's execution.

Complicating matters, Pope Francis this week declared that executions are unacceptable in all cases, a shift from earlier church doctrine that had accepted the death penalty if it was "the only practicable way" to defend lives. Coming only days before the scheduled Aug. 14 execution here, the pope's stance seemed to create an awkward position for Mr. Ricketts, who is favored to win a bid for re-election this fall.

Mr. Ricketts, who in the past has said that he viewed his position on the death penalty as compatible with Catholicism, on Thursday issued a statement about the pope's declaration.

"While I respect the pope's perspective, capital punishment remains the will of the people and the law of the state of Nebraska," Mr. Ricketts's statement said. "It is an important tool to protect our corrections officers and public safety. The state continues to carry out the sentences ordered by the court."

But opponents seized on the pope's comments. Nebraska's Catholic bishops urged people to contact state officials to stop the scheduled execution of Mr. Moore and cited the pope's teaching. "Simply put, the death penalty is no longer needed or morally justified in Nebraska," the bishops wrote.

Jane Kleeb, who leads the Nebraska Democratic Party, wrote on Twitter that Mr. Ricketts "is going against the teachings of the church" on the matter of executions.

"When you have a priest on Sunday talking about how we don't believe in the death penalty, I think that will matter to people," she said in an interview. "Nebraskans are churchgoers and believe in the church and strong family units, and they believe in people paying for their crimes, but not necessarily with their lives."

In many respects, Mr. Moore, 60, has become an afterthought in the buildup to his own execution. He has been on the state's death row longer than any of the other 11 other men and is among the longest-serving prisoners on any death row in the nation's history. 

Source: The New York Times, August 3, 2018


Utahns react to Pope's death penalty change


Witness room
The Pope has declared capital punishment "inadmissible" -- and on Thursday night, Utahns reacted to the announcement with mixed emotions.

"A lot of people are kind of reeling from that, and trying to figure out what exactly to do," said Brandon Peterson, an assistant professor lecturer at the University of Utah.

For Catholics, the announcement Thursday about a change to the Catechism is a major shift.

"He's said that capital punishment is inadmissible. Primarily, because of the dignity of the human person," said Peterson.

And though the church has slowly evolved on the death penalty issue, Peterson says today's change to the catechism is a huge deal.

"Capital punishment is something that a lot of people support here in Utah," said Peterson.

The death penalty is on the books in Utah.

But the biggest impact could be for Catholic politicians who have been pro death penalty in the past.

On Thursday, New York's governor proposed ending capital punishment after the Vatican's announcement.

Yet not everybody thinks the pope's announcement is relevant to their lives.

Riddell Mackey was raised Catholic, but has since left the church.

"I don't believe a person should have the right to rape, kill and murder -- get 12 trials to go through, waste money, and then still have the opportunity to live after taking another person's life or ruining another person's life. I'm a very eye-for-an-eye person," said Mackey.

Source: good4utah.com, August 3, 2018


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"One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed,
but by the punishments that the good have inflicted." -- Oscar Wilde

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