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Chaplain to Death-Row Inmates Says Use of Death Penalty in U.S. Must End

Dale Recinella, a Catholic correctional chaplain for Florida’s death-row inmates, is seen in this undated photo. (Photo: CNS photo/courtesy Maurice Beaulieu)

By Maurice Baulieu

ORLANDO, Fla. (CNS) — A Catholic chaplain to Florida’s death-row inmates used a virtual forum to focus on his most significant lifetime pursuit — raising awareness about the wrongness of America’s use of the death penalty.

Dale Recinella’s presentation encompassed the importance of maintaining all life, from conception to natural death. He spoke to his viewers fervently and seriously.

“As Catholic Christians positioned in the opening throes of the third millennium, we are first and foremost a bulwark of the God-given dignity of every human life, the God-given value of human life,” he said.

“We are the guardians of the culture of life. We have to be because we find ourselves and this faith stance under constant pressure and assault from the culture of death,” he added.

His presentation was one of 11 given Oct. 24 during the 34th annual Culture of Life Conference, a daylong even organized by the Respect Life Office of the Diocese of Palm Beach, Florida, in conjunction with the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops.

Recinella follows Pope Francis’ outlook that because all human life is sacred, death-row inmates deserve to be respected and valued and not have their lives ended by state powers regardless of what atrocities they may have committed.

“Capital punishment is indeed a respect life issue and here in Florida, the Catholic bishops have given us tremendous guidance on this issue. Pope Francis has now revised paragraph 22:67 of the Catholic catechism,” Recinella said.

“(The pope’s) thinking,” he continued, “is that today capital punishment is unacceptable however serious the condemned’s crime may have been. ‘The death penalty, regardless of the means of execution, entails cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment. Furthermore, it is to be rejected to the defective selectivity of the justice system and in the face of the possibility of judicial error.'”

One of Recinella’s points touched on what he called “one of the most consistent and pervasive myths” about the death penalty: It is financially “cheaper” than life in prison.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “A critical part of perpetuating that myth is the notion that if we just execute people quickly, it would be cheaper than putting them in prison. The problem is that even with our existing system of appeals, we do not have a good record for putting only guilty people on death row.”

He said capital punishment is not an “error free system,” like many might assume. “Since 1973, more than 173 people who had been wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death in the U.S. have been exonerated. (In Florida) in that same time frame, 30 people have been exonerated and released from our death row, more than any other jurisdiction.”

Another myth Recinella addressed was that lethal injection provides a “painless and humane” method of ending a death-row inmate’s life. Autopsies conducted on lethally injected inmates suggested the prisoners suffered greatly and with horrible pain.

“For years in my death penalty talks in Florida, I have said the fact of the matter is there is no nice way to kill people,” he explained. “Now I prefer the way Pope Francis says it: ‘However administered, the death penalty is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.'”

Many people believe the presence of the death penalty in a state will deter criminals from engaging in terrible crimes. However, Recinella said, “It’s just not real.” In fact, the National Academy of Sciences has “concluded that past studies have failed to prove or disprove a deterrent effect by capital punishment.”

Recinella closed his lecture by explaining how racial bias plays a major part in America’s involvement with the death penalty because of lynching.

“In places where executions are prevalent today, extra judicial lynchings used to be quite common. Lynchings, of course, were often racially motivated. The racially biased process of lynchings laid the foundation for the racially biased death penalty,” he said. “The death penalty is a direct descendant of lynching’s and other forms of racial violence and racial oppression in America.”

Recinella ended with a Catholic saint to solidify his message. “In his masterpiece of integration of Western theology and philosophy, the ‘Summa Theologica,’ St. Thomas Aquinas stated clearly and point blank that the execution of an innocent person is intrinsically evil.”

As a death-row chaplain, Recinella has witnessed many executions, including those of men guilty of their crimes. But he said he also has “witnessed the execution of a person I was absolutely convinced was innocent.”

Yet, in every execution, he said, one thing is always certain: An execution offends respect for human life.

“I believe all us pro-life Catholics in Florida have our marching orders. We need to end the use of the death penalty and the use of abortion in the Sunshine State. That is our mission,” Recinella said. “That is our call. And that is at the core of our stand for respect life.”

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Beaulieu is on the staff of the Florida Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Orlando.

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