National News

Bishops Lament Lame-Duck Executions

Demonstrators are seen near the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, Ind., showing their opposition to the death penalty July 13, 2020. (Photo: CNS/Bryan Woolston, Reuters)

WINDSOR TERRACE — On Monday, Dec. 7, two U.S. archbishops called on the Trump Administration to stop a handful of federal executions scheduled between then and the end of President Donald Trump’s term in office.

By the end of last week, the Trump administration had carried out two of those five scheduled executions — the ­ninth and tenth federal executions of the year, and the first executions during a presidential lame-duck period in 130 years.

[Related: U.S. Bishops Urge Trump, Barr to Stop Upcoming Federal Executions]

“We’re all sinners. Some have done terrible things. Justice is needed for peace. But executions solve nothing,” Archbishops Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City and Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas said in a joint statement.

“This Advent, the Lord comes to love us even though we don’t deserve it. Let us repent and embrace his gift. We call on President Trump and Attorney General Barr, in recognition of God’s unmerited gift of self-giving love: Stop these executions.”

Brandon Bernard, a 40-year-old from Texas, was executed by lethal injection Thursday for his role in the murder of two youth ministers in 1999. According to the Department of Justice, Bernard and his accomplices locked the couple in the trunk of a car. Eventually, an accomplice shot both victims. Bernard then lit the car — doused in lighter fluid — on fire.

The other execution was Alfred Bourgeois, a 56-year-old from Louisiana, who was executed by lethal injection Friday. He was sentenced to death in 2004 after murdering his young daughter two years prior. According to the department of justice, Bourgeois repeatedly slammed the back of her head in his truck’s window and dashboard after she tipped over her training potty. The DOJ report also cites previous abuse and torture towards his daughter.

Trump resumed federal executions in July after a 17-year hiatus. The total number of executions for 2020 now sits at 17 between the federal government and five states — Texas, Missouri, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia.

In a conversation with The Tablet, Bishop Mark Spalding of Nashville took aim at the federal government as well as states that endorse capital punishment as a means of justice.

“I’m just disappointed that the government, both federal and state, continue to rely on executions,” he said. “I don’t think it serves the cause of justice. It’s simply not necessary for us to protect ourselves in society. There are other means for us to use as punishment for those who do those heinous crimes.”

Capital punishment in Tennessee has risen in the latter half of the decade despite Spalding and his fellow Tennessee bishops routinely advocating against it. The state has executed seven people in the past three years — more than its combined total from 2010-2017.

“(Governor Bill Lee) knows where we stand, and I pray that he opens his mind more and more to the teaching of the church,” Spalding said.

Nationwide, capital punishment isn’t viewed as only a political issue. Many in the American episcopacy view it as more of a cultural one.

After Bernard’s execution Thursday, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville posted on social media that “the death penalty today is a blood-lust within society and no legal veneer can hide that.”

Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth explained that he believes it’s a cultural and moral issue, not a partisan one. For that reason, he recognizes the need to advocate and preach on the issue to laypeople, not just politicians.

“Sadly, I think the opinions of politicians on the matter aren’t that different than many faithful people. There’s a certain dominant culture in the United States because we have moved away from right reason and moved to a motivist approach to everything,” Olson said.

“As bishops, it’s not just addressing politicians and asking them to act. It’s also forming the heart and conscience of so many faithfuls who are insensitive to it or are angry because by the criminal who has committed the capital crime,” he said.

Olson said capital punishment is the issue of life that is most critically threatened in Texas. The state has had by far the most executions of any state in the past decade, with 123. The other 28 states that use capital punishment have a combined total of 208 in the same period.

Spalding wouldn’t put capital punishment above other life issues like abortion but said it is a preeminent issue under the heading of pro-life. He called it a “challenging teaching for the people in the pews.”

“I believe every Catholic has to wrestle with their faith and teaching in the church and come to taking on in its fullness, and that’s a lifelong process,” he said. “This preaching and teaching of the church right now is sometimes we feel like we’re in a secular desert, in a situation where our values, our ideals are not accepted in the wide context. Yet in the midst of that desert, we begin to preach the gospel of life.”

Olson also made it clear that bishops advocating against capital punishment doesn’t mean they want a swinging-door prison policy.

“Quite the contrary,” he said. “It reinforces the appreciation for the dignity of human life and calls those who have committed injustices to make restitution to the best of their ability for the crimes and sins.”