June 26, 2020

Rescheduled executions ‘add violence on top of violence’

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson offers a reflection at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Terre Haute on Nov. 5, 2019, during a prayer vigil for five federal prisoners originally scheduled for execution in December 2019 and January 2020 at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute. One received a stay of execution, while a preliminary injunction halted the other four. Those four executions have been rescheduled for this summer. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson offers a reflection at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Terre Haute on Nov. 5, 2019, during a prayer vigil for five federal prisoners originally scheduled for execution in December 2019 and January 2020 at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute. One received a stay of execution, while a preliminary injunction halted the other four. Those four executions have been rescheduled for this summer. (File photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

The federal Department of Justice (DOJ) announced on June 15 that the executions of four prisoners have been rescheduled for July and August at the Federal Correctional Complex (FCC) in Terre Haute, within the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Five executions were originally slated to take place in December 2019 and January 2020. One inmate received a stay of execution. In the other four cases, lawyers challenged a new protocol for the executions, resulting in a preliminary injunction.

In April, an appeals court overruled the preliminary injunction, leading to the recent rescheduling of four of the executions: Danny Lee, Wesley Ira Purkey, Dustin Lee Honken and Keith Dwayne Nelson.

“We offer our sincerest prayers for the murder victims and their loved ones,” Archbishop Charles C. Thompson said in a statement regarding the announcement. “The suffering and sorrow that family and friends of such victims have experienced is heartbreaking. We must do what we can to help them heal from the deep and personal wounds they have suffered.”

In his statement, the archbishop noted the wording of Pope Francis’ August 2018 revision of paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

“The basis of this revision is consistent with the teachings of the last three popes, namely, Pope St. John Paul II, Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis,” Archbishop Thompson explained. “The Church has consistently held up the dignity of the person and sacredness of life from the moment of conception to natural death.”

Rather than condoning criminal behavior and despicable acts of evil violence, he said, the “underlying Catholic teaching on this particular matter is grave concern for the care of souls of all involved—including the judge, jury, prison personnel, families of these officials and society itself. Taking the life of any human being, even one who is guilty of grave crimes against humanity, weighs on the conscience of both individuals and society as a whole.”

When Deacon Steven Gretencord heard the news of the rescheduled executions, he felt “profound sadness.” Deacon Gretencord has ministered to men on death row at the FCC in Terre Haute for nearly 10 years.

“Our country has just gone through a time of terrible turmoil in the racial confrontations because of our lack of respect of human life,” he said. “And now our country is doing it again, not respecting lives by carrying out executions. We’re trying to bring about healing, and we don’t bring about healing by killing.

“That’s where my profound sadness comes in,” Deacon Gretencord explained. “The fact that I know these men, yes, that hurts. But on a spiritual level, the concept of execution makes no sense. It’s archaic. It serves no purpose. It’s not a deterrent—that’s been proven time and time again.”

Providence Sister Barbara Battista, who serves as Justice Promoter for the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, said she was also “surprised” by the timing of the announcement.

“I do think it’s important to put this [rescheduling of the executions] in the context of the violence that has been and is being inflicted on communities of color across the nation,” she said. “Eyes are being opened across the country to the depth of the violence and how long it’s been happening.”

Sister Barbara said the Sisters of Providence and many others see this decision “as another act of violence.”

“We know the criminal justice system is deeply flawed, racially biased, and in fact, innocent persons have been executed,” she said. “It’s not debatable—the facts are there.

“To resume executions in the midst of this awakening just adds more violence on top of violence.”

In the statement issued by the DOJ, it is noted that the four inmates in question have exhausted their number of appeals, “and no legal impediments prevent their executions.”

Sister Barbara, however, said that her “sources, folks who work for the abolition of capital punishment and the death penalty, tell me in fact the inmates have not completed all of their appeals.”

Additionally, the Supreme Court expedited a cert petition (petition of writ of certiorari) on behalf of the inmates seeking to overturn the lower court’s April ruling against the preliminary injunctions. On June 26, the justices will discuss and possibly decide whether to consider or decline the petition. If they choose to accept it, the upcoming executions will likely be stayed.

Still, the Terre Haute Death Penalty Resistance group, of which Sister Barbara is a member, is working on ways for citizens to petition against the DOJ decision, and on plans for those who wish to pray or protest to be allowed on the prison grounds during the executions should they occur.

Meanwhile, Deacon Gretencord noted, the focus needs to remain on the dignity of all human life.

“Yes, these men made terrible mistakes,” he said. “For some it was a matter of passion. And yes, sometimes it was even cold-blooded. But they were mistakes.

“They’re human beings. In order to teach that all life matters, we have to live it, we have to believe it and act on it.

“Their lives are just as important as any other life.”
 

(To stay informed on local actions to participate in to oppose the upcoming executions and the death penalty, search on Facebook for “Terre Haute Death Penalty Resistance.” To sign the National Catholic Pledge to End the Death Penalty, go to catholicsmobilizing.org.)

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