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Bishops Seek End to Death Penalty — You Can’t Protect Life by Taking It

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

WINDSOR TERRACE — Drive south about two hours from the Diocese of Lafayette headquarters in Indiana, and you’ll wind up at the Terre Haute federal prison — the site of 10 federal executions since the government resumed the practice in July.

It’s something Lafayette Bishop Timothy Doherty said the state’s bishops discuss often.

“Since last year, every time the Indiana bishops have talked or met it’s been a topic of conversation. Both because we’re in the national spotlight and people wonder what we are thinking, but also because of the local spotlight,” Bishop Doherty told The Tablet. “These are our people. They are our prisoners, our guards, but the prisoners are also our parishioners in some way.”

There were three more federal executions scheduled at Terre Haute this week. As of 11:59 p.m. Jan. 12 all three had been delayed. Bishop Doherty said he was “glad” to hear the news.

The stay on the execution of Lisa Montgomery, 52, was appealed by the Trump Administration Jan. 12. At that point, the Supreme Court had already overturned an earlier stay on the execution after a federal judge ruled “(Montgomery’s) current mental state makes her unable to understand why the government seeks to execute her.”

Montgomery was then executed Jan. 13 early in the morning.

Montgomery was given a death sentence in 2007 after being convicted of a 2004 premeditated murder-kidnap scheme. According to the Department of Justice, Montgomery fatally strangled a woman who was eight months pregnant, cut open her body and took her baby.

The executions of Cory Johnson and Dustin Higgs, scheduled for Jan. 14 and Jan. 15, were delayed by a federal judge until at least March 16 so they can recover from COVID-19.

Johnson, 52, was sentenced to death in 1993 for seven murders he committed a year prior. According to the DOJ, Johnson shot all seven victims in “furtherance of his drug-trafficking activities” when he was a part of a large drug-trafficking ring based in Richmond, Virginia.

Meanwhile, Higgs, 48, was sentenced to death in 2000 for the kidnap and murder of three women in 1996. According to the DOJ, one night he offered to drive the women home from his apartment, but instead drove them to a secluded area where he ordered a friend to shoot and kill all three of them.

The Trump Administration resumed federal executions in July after a 17-year hiatus. President-elect Joe Biden has suggested he’s opposed to death penalty, and it’s been reported he’s likely to bring back the moratorium on federal executions.

However, even if the federal government halts executions, capital punishment is still legal in 28 states.

“(The bishops) still have to fight at the state level and still work hard to overturn the presence of the death penalty in our states that still have it. It’s extremely important.” Said Archbishop Alexander Sample of Portland.

In a conversation with The Tablet, Archbishop Sample reflected on the relationships he has with the death row inmates in Oregon, particularly four Catholics he’s visited on multiple occasions. Sample even confirmed inmate Gary Haugen — sentenced to death in 2003 for two murders.

“It’s a very personal issue when you meet people that yes, have done terrible things. Yes, they admit they’ve done terrible things, but I have seen really a conversion of heart. I’ve seen men who have completely been transformed by the mercy of God and a part of that is because their sentences haven’t been executed,” Archbishop Sample said.

“It’s not to take away the horror of some of the crimes that some of these men have committed. It’s not meant to disrespect the victims of these crimes either. But for me, meeting face to face with these people, these men and women and hearing their stories, hearing about what they’re life has been like. We’re all responsible for our own human behavior, but some of these people have grown up under horrific conditions and had a life that has sort of warped them in some ways and we can’t write them off as human beings,” he added.

Drawing from those experiences, Archbishop Sample made it clear that it’s not enough for bishops to speak about the moral issue itself and relay Catholic teaching to try and change people’s minds. He said it’s more important to humanize the inmates.

“What’s most effective is telling the story of individuals that touches people, touches hearts,” he said. “We can do a better job of helping people come to know who these men and women are in prison instead of stereotyping them and saying they’re all bad people.”

Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice also drew on his experiences visiting Florida prisons to say there should be more of a focus on mental health.

“If someone goes to visit, as I have, the inmates in some correctional facilities you’ll see clearly that the state has closed down facilities that have provided help to those suffering from mental illness,” Bishop Dewane said. “When they’re not given the help, they act out and are put in prison and that is why when you go to prisons you can quickly observe some of this is not necessary.”

Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami called it an “illusion to think that we’re going to protect life by taking it.”

He noted that the use of the death penalty puts the U.S. in the same category as China, Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

“We’ve always been saying as an alternative to the death penalty is life without parole,” Archbishop Wenski said. “The issue should really be what’s necessary to protect society and do we protect society by killing people and it would seem that our criminal justice system is such that we can protect society from the truly dangerous by incarceration.”

According to Bishop Felipe Estévez of St. Augustine, it’s also time to revamp the prison system’s approach to rehabilitation.

“We should have the best practices in terms of rehabilitation where the prisoner or inmate becomes a new person and is able to make a conversion, have a change of heart and become a productive member of society and a chance should be given for that to happen,” he said.

Bishop Doherty said that education on the death penalty is still most important.

“Vocabulary is going to be very key. Do we do this for revenge? Does it correct society? Does it lessen instances of crime? In many instances, capital punishment doesn’t do what we want except for vengeance,” Bishop Doherty said.