Pope Francis' call for mercy goes unheeded as executions move forward

Protesters against the death penalty gather in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington June 29. (CNS photo/Jonathan Ernst, Reuters)

Last night Kelly Gissendaner was executed by the state of Georgia despite a plea for mercy from none other than Pope Francis. A letter sent on the pope’s behalf, and signed by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, the Holy See’s nuncio to the United States, was delivered to the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Parolees as they considered her request for clemency.

The letter asked that the board “to commute the sentence to one that would better express both justice and mercy.” It cited words from Pope Francis’ speech to Congress last Thursday, in which he said that "society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes."


It was not enough to convince members of the parole board, which said in a statement, “After carefully considering the request for reconsideration, and meeting with Gissendaner’s representatives again today, the Board has voted to let the decision of February 25, 2015, denying clemency stand.”

Ms. Gissendaner is the first woman executed in Georgia in 70 years. She was convicted in 1998 for hiring her boyfriend to kill her husband. Her boyfriend was given a life sentence in exchange for his testimony against Ms. Gissendaner. Former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Norman Fletcher, who denied an appeal from Ms. Gissendaner in 2000 when he sat on the court, has since said he regrets his decision. In said in a statement that the sentence is too harsh given her role in the crime, and noted that since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 Georgia has not executed someone who did not actually carry out the murder.

Family and supporters pleading for her life point to the spiritual transformation Ms. Gissendaner underwent in prison. In 2010 she took up theology courses provided by Atlanta-area divinity schools, even striking up a friendship over letters with Professor Jürgen Moltmann, a German theologian. Professor Moltmann had the chance to meet Ms. Gissendaner in 2011, when he gave the commencement address for the prison’s graduation ceremony. He told The New York Times, “If the State of Georgia has no mercy, she has received already the mercy of Heaven.”

One Innocent Man?

Richard Glossip is scheduled to be executed today, but he is not asking for mercy; he wants justice. Like Ms. Gissendaner, Mr. Glossip was convicted of orchestrating the murder of another person. In 1997, Justin Sneed, a maintenance worker at a Best Budget Inn, killed the motel’s owner. Mr. Sneed claimed that Mr. Glossip had hired him to do it, and, like Ms. Gissendaner’s boyfriend, was given a life sentence in exchange for his testimony against his alleged conspirator. Unlike Ms. Gissendaner, Mr. Glossip has maintained that he is innocent during his 17 years on death row.

So is Oklahoma about to execute an innocent man? Helen Prejean, C.S.J., believes so. Sister Prejean, well known for her work to end the death penalty, first met Mr. Glossip on Jan. 5, when he asked that she accompany him in his final hours if he is executed. She said yes, but has been working tirelessly to see that that say never comes. 

On a special page dedicated to Mr. Glossip’s case on Sister Prejean’s website, you can find facts about his conviction, as well as the case for his innocence. The points in his favor include: he did not commit the murder; there is no physical evidence connecting him to the crime; Mr. Sneed has every reason to implicate Mr. Glossip; Mr. Glossip received poor, underfunded representation from a public defender.

On that page you will also find a countdown to the time of Mr. Glossip’s execution. As I write this there are eight hours and 44 minutes to go. At that time, absent any intervention from the Supreme Court, a man of dubious guilt will be put to death by a lethal cocktail of drugs whose safety and effectiveness has been called into question by many. (Oklahoma’s lethal injection protocol came under scrutiny last after the botched execution of Clayton Lockett last year. In June, the Supreme Court upheld in a 5-4 decision the protocol in the case Glossip v. Gross.)

Last Thursday, I stood on the lawn of the Capitol, watching Pope Francis’ historic speech to Congress on a jumbotron. On that day the pope called the United States “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” and set before us four individuals that exemplify these best of this country. It was hard not to be proud to be an American at that moment.

But the pope also set forth a challenge:

I am convinced that this way is the best, since every life is sacred, every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes…. I also offer encouragement to all those who are convinced that a just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.

The United States is ranked fifth in the number of executions it carries out each year, behind China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. In Oklahoma, 10 innoncent people have been exonerated from death row. Even if Mr. Glossip is not innocent, we must ask ourselves, what do we gain from his execution? And if he is innocent, what do we as a country lose?

UPDATE (5:20 p.m.)

After the Supreme Court declined to stop the execution of Richard Glossip this afternoon, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin had issued a stay of execution. Mr. Glossip's execution is stayed for 37 days while the state reviews its lethal injection protocol. 

"Last minute questions were raised today about Oklahoma’s execution protocol and the chemicals used for lethal injection," Gov. Fallin stated in a press release. "After consulting with the attorney general and the Department of Corrections, I have issued a 37 day stay of execution while the state addresses those questions and ensures it is complying fully with the protocols approved by federal courts." 

Richard Glossip new execution date is Friday, Nov. 6.

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