Catholic leaders decry Barr’s decision to revive federal death penalty

U.S. Attorney General William Barr is seen at the 2019 Prison Reform Summit in the East Room of the White House in Washington April 1. Barr ordered the reinstatement of the federal death penalty July 25 for the first time in 16 years. (CNS photo/Yuri Gripas, Reuters)

Running against national trends both in public opinion on capital punishment and states opting to end its use, Attorney General William Barr has cleared the way for the federal government to resume executions. After a nearly two-decade lapse in federal executions, the move, according to a Department of Justice statement to the press, brings “justice to victims of the most horrific crimes.”

Mr. Barr has further directed the acting director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Hugh Hurwitz, “to schedule the executions of five death-row inmates convicted of murdering, and in some cases torturing and raping, the most vulnerable in our society—children and the elderly.”

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The attorney general ordered the B.O.P. to adopt a proposed addendum to the Federal Execution Protocol that will allow executions in the federal system to resume, “which closely mirrors protocols utilized by several states, including currently Georgia, Missouri, and Texas.”

According to the Justice Department, the new protocol replaces the three-drug procedure previously used in federal executions with a single drug—pentobarbital. According to the D.O.J., since 2010, 14 states have used pentobarbital in over 200 executions, and federal courts, including the Supreme Court, have repeatedly upheld the use of pentobarbital in executions as consistent with the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

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“The move by the administration to resume capital punishment after two decades is simply wrongheaded. As Catholics, we’re unconditionally pro-life, and this move is an affront to the sanctity and sacredness of human life.”

“Congress has expressly authorized the death penalty through legislation adopted by the people’s representatives in both houses of Congress and signed by the President,” the attorney general said. “Under administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals, including these five murderers, each of whom was convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding. The Justice Department upholds the rule of law—and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”

Speaking for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Most Reverend Frank J. Dewane, bishop of Venice, Fla., and chair of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, issued a statement in reaction to Mr. Barr’s decision:

In 2015 Pope Francis, echoing the views of his predecessors, called for ‘the global abolition of the death penalty.’ He went on to state that, ‘[A] just and necessary punishment must never exclude the dimension of hope and the goal of rehabilitation.’
The Catholic Bishops of the United States have echoed this call for many years, including their 2005 statement, “A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death.” In light of these long held and strongly maintained positions, I am deeply concerned by the announcement by the United States Justice Department that it will once again turn, after many years, to the death penalty as a form of punishment, and urge instead that these Federal officials be moved by God’s love, which is stronger than death, and abandon the announced plans for executions.

Catholic death penalty abolitionist Helen Prejean, C.S.J., was on her way to Alaska for celebrations commemorating 62 years without the death penalty in that state when she learned about the Mr. Barr’s plan to restart executions later this year. She called it “disheartening” to learn that “the administration has chosen to follow the death road, when the life road calls us to work for justice for all.”

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In a statement released to the press on July 25, she said, “For decades we have been gradually shutting down the machinery of death until it is rarely used, a geographical freak practiced by outlier counties. And now, here we have the federal government revving up the death machine.

“The seemingly measured statement from the D.O.J. belies the fact that this is a rush to kill: they plan three executions in one week using a new, untested—and not yet approved—lethal injection protocol.

Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy is the executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, a national organization working to end the death penalty that works closely with the U.S.C.C.B. “The move by the administration to resume capital punishment after two decades is simply wrongheaded,” she said. “It promotes a culture of death rather than a culture of life. As Catholics, we’re unconditionally pro-life, and this move is an affront to the sanctity and sacredness of human life.

“The death penalty has been falling out of favor with the American public,” Ms. Vaillancourt Murphy said. “The county has been moving in that direction for 10 years, so this declaration by the attorney general is contrary to the way the country is moving.”

Sister Helen Prejean: “We know that the death penalty is deeply flawed, with a terrible history of racism in its implementation and an equally terrible history of errors, resulting in many innocents on death row.”

Ms. Vaillancourt Murphy said state-by-state momentum against the death penalty continues to build. In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner is asking the state supreme court to declare the death penalty in Pennsylvania unconstitutional, arguing that it is applied in a racist and capricious manner and discriminates against low-income defendents.

Washington State abolished the death penalty in 2018, and New Hampshire repealed it in May. California, which has the highest number of people on death row in the nation, declared a moratorium in March. “For the last couple of years there’ve been less than 50 death sentences and fewer than 30 executions,” Ms. Vaillancourt Murphy said. “We just keep decreasing on all fronts.”

“The fact that the administration is moving in this direction” comes as a surprise, she said. “It seems to be unthinkable, untimely and not reflective of the way the rest of the country is rethinking this practice.”

Public support for capital punishment peaked in 1994 at 80 percent but has been declining steadily since then. According to Gallup, public support for the death penalty——56 percent were in favor last year—has reached lows not seen since 1972. Ms. Vaillancourt Murphy noted that the attorney general’s announcement was made just a few days before the anniversary of Pope Francis’ dramatic refutation of the death penalty and the church’s recasting of Catholic catechism on capital punishment. On Aug. 2, 2018, Pope Francis declared that the use of the death penalty was inconsistent with Catholic teaching, calling it “inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.”

“We know that the death penalty is deeply flawed, with a terrible history of racism in its implementation and an equally terrible history of errors, resulting in many innocents on death row,” Sister Prejean said. “We also know that it does not offer the healing balm to victims’ families that is promised.”

Noting the “power to take the life of our fellow citizens,” placed into the hands of government, she asked: “What confidence can we have that our governments can be trusted with such power? When a penalty is absolutely final, surely we must seek a flawless system, and what government, what group of people, can deliver that?”

Mr. Barr is Catholic and according to a questionnaire he completed for his confirmation hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier this year, he is a member of the Knights of Columbus and served on the board of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, D.C., from 2014 to 2017. He also served on the “National Catholics for McCain” and “Catholics for Romney” political committees.

In 2014, following a botched state execution in Oklahoma, then-President Barack Obama directed the department to conduct a broad review of capital punishment and issues surrounding lethal injection drugs. It remains unclear today what came of that review and whether it will change the way the federal government carries out executions. That review has been completed and the executions can continue, the department said.

Executions on the federal level have been rare. The government has put to death only three defendants since restoring the federal death penalty in 1988, the most recent of which occurred in 2003, when Louis Jones was executed for the 1995 kidnapping, rape and murder of a young female soldier.

Annual executions in the United States since capital punishment’s restoration by the Supreme Court in 1976 peaked in 1999 with 98 executions. The use of capital punishment since then reached a low of just 20 across the country in 2016. In 2017, 23 people were executed, and 25 suffered the ultimate punishment in 2018. Nine people have been executed so far this year in the United States.

Capital punishment has been abolished or suspended throughout Western Europe and in 170 nations around the world. The United States is among a handful of nations—including China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Iraq—that continue the practice.

With additional reporting from The Associated Press and national correspondent Michael J. O’Loughlin. Updated on July 25, 2019 at 5:03 p.m. EDT with new attribution for U.S.C.C.B. statement and comments from Sister Helen Prejean.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Jones
4 weeks 1 day ago

It is no surprise to me that the Trump Administration got here. Trump has repeatedly stated admiration for Duterte's state killings. He has never admitted even unnecessary haste in his personal demand as a private and uninvolved citizen that five black boys be put to death for a crime they had only just been arrested (and for which they were eventually cleared). His admin is untroubled by the state killing of Jamal Khashoggi. He is in love with Kim of North Korea. I expected to hear Trump and his adminstration get here sooner or later

He is NOT pro-life and never was. He is pro-death penalty (and he is pro-choice on abortion and contraception.) I fully expect all the other Catholics in his heavily Catholic inner circle to remain silent or actively defend this. I fully expect Mike Pence to remain silent or to support this. Because none of them are truly prolife. They are anti-abortion.

Fred Keyes
4 weeks ago

Well said. As glad as I am that Trump has made moves that help choke off the numbers of abortions, his aim in doing so appears to be cynical and really not all that effective, at least not yet.

The end doesn't justify the means. And from a spiritual point of view the evil thus accomplished has been a brilliant move by the devil; i.e., to influence someone to do something ostensibly good in exchange for unexpected evils; capital punishment; unprecedented acceptance of greed; persecution of immigrants; acceptance of lies (a sure sign of you-know-who); murders; coddling of dictators who blatantly abuse human rights, and worst--such a barrage of evil actions that we grow numb to all of it..

Mike Macrie
3 weeks 2 days ago

You think the Country made a Faustian bargain by electing Mr. Scratch ? Well maybe we need a Daniel Webster to get our soul off the hook.

J Jones
4 weeks 1 day ago

Duplicate

john abrahams
4 weeks 1 day ago

Like many believers & unbelievers I subscribe to banning the death penalty and remain grateful to America Magazine for staying on 'top
of things'. However I wonder about the choice of photo here showing Barr
looking like a fiend. That's stacking the deck against him. Throwing darts
at the man by choice of a raw photo isn't needed to underscore the argument against capital punishment. To my eyes & for what it's worth. "Damn little" my parrot just screamed at me.

J. Calpezzo
4 weeks 1 day ago

I thought the photo of Barr was overly flattering. It didnt even show his horns.

Kevin Clarke
4 weeks ago

This was the only option surfacing at our primary news photo source when this article was ready to post.

J. Calpezzo
4 weeks 1 day ago

This article completely misses the point. The only question is: how many of Trump’s racist supporters approve of the death penalty?

Douglas Howe
4 weeks ago

?

Anne Marie DESMARAIS
4 weeks 1 day ago

I recently read a feature about the AG in which he stated that his Catholic faith "informed" all his actions. He clearly was tuned out on this one. Has he read the Catechism of the Catholic Church? Has he read the writings of the last three popes? I will pray for Mr. Barr that the Holy Spirit may enlighten him to the meaning of "pro-life". His defense of the Trump Administrations immigration policies and programs suggest to me that Mr. Barr may be a bit of a "Cafeteria Catholic".

Rudolph Koser
4 weeks 1 day ago

The AG has never followed his Catholic faith in any thing including lying and working for a President of very questionable morality. He's a right wing hack. The bishops again have issued a statement that already is in the trash can. Until they show some action, their so called pro-life statements are useless. They only seem worried about fetuses but doing more than issue a few unread statements about other issues, they are MIA. It's no wonder the Church is shrinking as people easily pick up on hypocrisy.

Michael Bindner
4 weeks 1 day ago

Barr is the bright shiny object who made sure the Mueller hearings happen

JOHN GRONDELSKI
3 weeks 3 days ago

The day I hear these same words applied to Andrew Cuomo et al., I'll take the comment seriously.

THOMAS Heyman
4 weeks 1 day ago

Rather than voicing disapproval, the church leaders need to get their duffs and put their actions where their words are. They need to go to DC and picket the DOJ building in their priestly street garb so there is no doubt as to what they are. None of the people Barr caters to read America or care what it says. plain and simple. Barr has already sold down the river his longtime friend Robert Mueller, someone much more honorable and ethical as Barr.
Funny how our hierarchy are willing to refuse communion to politicians who espouse a woman's right to choose but give politicians a waiver when they favor the death penalty. but hen again no one has ever said out institutional Church is not often hypocritical and bears little resemblance to the message of Jesus in respect of how to treat our neighbors (in this case our imprisoned neighbors) as laid out in Mathew 25: 34-46. Barr is the quintessential Republican Catholic frauds who have doubled down like so many others including Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan in serving Donald Trump and his perfidious administration. By the way the official position of the Knights of Columbus does not endorse Pope Francis's call for a ban on capital punishment. surprise! surprise!

Mike Macrie
3 weeks 2 days ago

No it was never a Surprise to me because to join the Knights of Columbus you must be a card carrying Republican. I decline many times and said I rather join a different Catholic Society like the Saint Vincent DePaul Society.

Michael Bindner
4 weeks 1 day ago

Life without parole is slow execution. Execution is quicker and protects other prisoners and guards from sociopaths. It is essentially euthanasia. No one who can be rehabilitated should be executed or be lifer.

Karen Zeleznik
4 weeks 1 day ago

Hey, Catholic priests tried to tell the congregations to vote for DJT. They should hang their heads in shame. Does no one realize that any anti-abortion position held by DJT is only to support himself? He does not care about anyone. As you sow, so shall you reap. You helped create one issue voters. Now, you need to fix it.

J Jones
4 weeks 1 day ago

Karen, I agree 100%. The RCC and its focus on abortion and the LGBT community taught a craven candidate exactly how to purchase the Catholic vote. And it was purchased at minimal cost and discomfort to this candidate because he simply does not care about moral issues.

Shayne LaBudda
4 weeks ago

Aren't the bishops going to suggest that their priests bar Barr from receiving communion now?

Mark Land
3 weeks ago

No they won’t dare, too worried about calling out any Republican criminal due to being too worried about that cash coming in from the tax cuts to the rich which they also endorse!

Adeolu Ademoyo
4 weeks 1 day ago

In my response I will rely on the 2016 voting data of the 2016 election by demographic. These data are from Pew Research Center-Online-dated August 9, 2018. It is titled "An Examination of the 2016 electorate based on validated voters." I will show the religious affiliation of the voters. The report says that: (i) 56% of the Protestants(including evangelical voters) claimed they voted for Donald Trump, while 36% claimed they voted for Hillary Clinton; (ii) 52% of Catholics claimed they voted for Donald Trump, while 44% of Catholics said they voted for Hillary Clinton.
Conversely, a solid majority of the religiously unaffiliated – atheists, agnostics and those who said their religion was “nothing in particular” – said they voted for Clinton (65%) over Trump (24%).

The Pew Research Center report also says and I quote . "Within the Protestant tradition, voters were divided by race and evangelicalism. White evangelical Protestants, who constituted one out of every five voters, consistently have been among the strongest supporters of Republican candidates and supported Trump by a 77% to 16% margin."

My Conclusion:
If as a Christian you voted for Mr. Donald Trump in 2016, then you voted for this-Mr. Barr's decision. You-as a Christian called Mr. Donald Trump a Christian. Hence, you said you were voting on "faith" grounds, and you voted for Mr. Donald Trump on "faith" grounds! It means that as a Christian you voted that the Federal Government should return the death penalty. And it has happened. Elections have implications.

May God, the God of reconciliation, the God of forgiveness, the God of unity, the God of love, the God of peace, the God of joy, the God of kindness, the God of mercy, in His infinite mercy continue to forgive us, comfort us, bless us and be kind to all of us in spite of everything we thought or did not think, said or did not say, did or did not do, given our mortality, weaknesses, and brokenness. God Bless.

J Jones
4 weeks 1 day ago

Adeolu - you have a clear mind and a Christian heart

William Bannon
4 weeks 1 day ago

No death penalty is what the two largest Catholic countries have for decades prior to these last three Popes. Brazil and Mexico have no death penalty and the former recently had 63,850 murders in one year while China had 7,990 with 7 times Brazil’s population. So Brazil, non death penalty, has 8 times China’s murders with 1/7th of China’s population.
Non death penalty Austria has almost the identical murder rate of China but has no extreme poverty from whence most murders arise. USA poor blacks in the ghetto do 50% of USA murders but are a small percent of the USA population. Three Popes have alleged that prisons are now very orderly. Google Brazil or Mexican prisons and read about them...the 2 largest Catholic populations. See how orderly they are. The recent three Pope change on the death penalty came from Popes being desperate to find some admiration from the liberal West. Note that not one of the three Popes addressed Romans 13:4...anywhere in any document and Vatican II stated that both testaments in all their parts have God as their author and that “ this teaching authority is not above the word of God but serves it”. Ahhh yes...ideals from Vatican II. The Church is now getting murder victims killed wherever she is pivotal on this issue and you can see from Brazil 64k murdered in a year, that the Inquisition deaths relatively will be a lesser scandal than this one which is coming from the liberal ideas within the Church. Prisons are only safe in Europe where mild affluence obtains and there are only recently the arrival of the very poor. China and Brazil have millions of desperately poor but China protects victims who number half that of the usa with its 10 years of appeals...20 in California...2 in China.

Douglas Howe
4 weeks ago

Thanks that was very helpful.

William Bannon
4 weeks ago

You’re welcome. I fought a burglar five years ago and had a home invasion this May in which I brought a 12 gauge to the fight and the invaders were not dog gone, they were long gone after breaking all three locks at 2am...NY harbor area. God was good.,.they ran. Shotguns...thugs know the multi hot pains they bring to the torso...if one lives that long.

rose-ellen caminer
4 weeks 1 day ago

December /January seems quite a way off. Hopefully[{Jesus] this Barr policy will never get implemented. Hopefully Barr's Catholic faith informed by anti execution activists in the church , can effect a change of conscience in him. And/or hopefully the ACLU and other anti execution groups will prevail in derailing his policy if not abolishing once and for all altogether this barbarism.Now is the time for our prayers, and activism.

Mike Fitzpatrick
4 weeks 1 day ago

At Mass we pray for respect for life and also for the abolishment of the death penalty but we do not pray for the abolishment of abortion?

Opting Out
4 weeks ago

It is truly barbaric that Barr took this action. Indefensible. Killing begets killing be it in vivo or in our hearts. America is nation of rage and yet Americans wonder how we got here. Connect the dots

Jeremiah Alphonsus
4 weeks ago

This mag is against capital punishment, but is for communism (don’t deny it); hence this mag supports the most murderous political system ever spawned.

William Bannon
4 weeks ago

Jesuits...I had them 8 years in their schools...after that, I read the whole Bible. You’ll see Christ affirm an Old Testament death penalty in Mark 7:10. The verse is invisible to many Jebbies.

Judith Jordan
3 weeks 6 days ago

William Bannon----
Hopefully, you frequently read and studied the Bible with others. Both Catholics and Jews believe in this as studying the Bible alone often brings errors in interpretation. This has been shown during pioneer days when ministers, often with little or no education, traveled the country side to teach the Bible to others. These ministers often “interpreted” irrational and incongruous beliefs that some people still abide by today.

https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/05/jesus-death-penalty/361649/

https://sojo.net/articles/5-reasons-why-jesus-people-ought-oppose-death-penalty

William Bannon
3 weeks 5 days ago

Yes Judith, I read the entire Bible sitting in Panera Bread with 4 Jesuits and 4 Carthusians for balance. The Church is now getting murder victims killed in the poor areas of the world because three Popes alleged that prisons are now safe (they are in Europe only...and in China...they are horrendously murderous in Brazil...check on that)/ they alleged that deterrence is only about deterring the murderer you convicted (the rest of the world thinks it's about deterring future murderers)/ and you Judith didn't read Mark 7:10 but think I'm going to read your links. Good luck with that. Til 1952 with Pius 12...Rome talked like moi. In the very early Church of the first several centuries, Romans 13:4 was not yet declared the inspired word of God.." not without reason does the state carry the sword for it is God's minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who does evil." (The Greek for sword there is used for the sword in Acts 12:2 as the Romans executed James).
Now Vatican II said both testaments with all their parts have God as their author (DV/3/11)...and in the same Dei Verbum it said of the magisterium, " this teaching authority is not above the word of God but serves it"...Chapter 2 sect.9. Saint JPII placed himself above Romans 13:4 when he told the whole world in 1999 in St. Louis that the death penalty is cruel and unnecessary (he did zero research on the murder rates in Catholic Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela, El Salvador, Guatemala, etc....the worst murderous and non death penalty part of the earth by UN figures). You are worried about me who did read the whole bible but you are not worried about a Pope telling the world that the death penalty is cruel despite God giving multiple death penalties to the Jews (void now) and giving one to the Gentiles in Gen.9:5-6 which is reaffirmed in Rom.13:4. so your concern about Bible interpretion is a tad skewed in favor of a Pope who repeatedly dissed certain aspects of the Bible (see him on wifely obedience in DM,TOB and on the dp in EV.)

Oz Jewel
3 weeks 1 day ago

For a nation with a horrendous rate of homicide, this is clearly an improvement on the pathetic creeping limp-wristed softness on serious crime spreading through the first world.

This is
- about ADULTS
- about GRAVE SERIOUS CRIME
- it is about LAW ENFORCEMENT

Every maximum security prison in mainland USA contains many persons who are multiple murderers who kill people in prison.
Currently, they have a licence to kill.
What they do is kill people who are imprisoned for crimes that do not deserve the death penalty who are incarcerated in the same walls with no escape and no protection.

An administration that protects the lives of inmates from murder is applying due diligence to their responsibilities.

Mark Land
3 weeks ago

This is what happens when the Bishops not only endorse, but also preach alt right wing ideologies from the pulpit. With right wing fascism at our doorstep in America and criminals taking over the Republican Party, it is imperative Bishops begin to speak out against right wing politics and ideologies.

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