Catholic leaders denounce court’s rejection of federal death penalty appeal

People hold signs during a candlelight prayer vigil Dec. 8, 2019, held to oppose the Trump administration's plan to reinstate the federal death penalty. (CNS photo/David Maung)

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- When the Supreme Court announced June 29 that it would not hear an appeal by federal death-row inmates challenging the method to be used in their upcoming executions, a longtime advocate against capital punishment said the court "abdicated its legal and moral responsibilities."

"This means that the federal government will likely execute four people" starting in July "using an untested lethal injection protocol during a global pandemic without any real oversight from the Supreme Court," tweeted Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph of Medaille.

Advertisement

The unsigned three-sentence order from the court said Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor would have heard the inmates' appeal.

The inmates had appealed a lower court order allowing the federal government to proceed with executions using a single-drug protocol. The federal executions, which have not taken place since 2003, are set to resume in mid-July.

[Don’t miss the latest news from the church and the world. Sign up for our daily newsletter.]

When Attorney General William Barr announced last year that the federal government was reinstating the federal death penalty, he said the executions would use a single drug instead of a three-drug protocol carried out in most recent federal executions and by several states. This execution method was challenged by some of the federal death-row inmates. Last November, a federal judge said this protocol injection went against the Federal Death Penalty Act.

In April, a federal appeals court lifted a lower court ruling that had prevented the execution of federal death-row inmates.

Three of the executions are scheduled to take place in July and one is scheduled for August. The inmates -- Danny Lee, Wesley Ira Purkey, Dustin Lee Honken and Keith Dwayne Nelson -- have been convicted of murder.

After the announcement that the court was not taking up the inmates' appeal, the Catholic Mobilizing Network, a group that works for an end to the death penalty, tweeted: "The Catholic Church teaches that the death penalty is 'inadmissible' in all cases because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,'" quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

[Want to discuss politics with other America readers? Join our Facebook discussion group, moderated by America’s writers and editors.]

The group also urged those in opposition to the resumption of federal executions to sign a joint statement to Barr and President Trump, https://bit.ly/3eJn0P1, that had more than 2,700 signatures as of June 29.

Sister Prejean also tweeted that the Department of Justice has said it is "pursuing justice for victims' families by pushing to execute Danny Lee. That could not be further from the truth. The victims' family is begging the government to NOT execute Danny Lee. The DOJ's statements are not truthful."

On June 24, the mother and grandmother of two of the three victims Lee was convicted of murdering, in 1999, wrote to Trump asking him not to execute Lee, saying it would only bring her family more pain.

"We feel Mr. Lee’s execution would dishonor the memory of my daughter Nancy Ann and my granddaughter Sarah Elizabeth," she wrote.

Ruth Friedman, an attorney for Lee, who is the first of the federal prisoners scheduled to be executed, said in a June 29 statement that despite problems with the death penalty and "even as people across the country are demanding that leaders rethink crime, punishment and justice, the government is barreling ahead with its plans to carry out the first federal executions in 17 years."

"Given the unfairness built into the federal death-penalty system and the many unanswered questions about both the cases of the men scheduled to die and the government's new execution protocol, there must be appropriate court review before the government can proceed with any execution," she added.

When Barr announced the end to the moratorium on executing federal inmates, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops spoke out against it as did Indiana's Catholic bishops since most of the federal death-row inmates are imprisoned at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana, which is where most of the federal executions are scheduled to take place.

In the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, Deacon Steve Gretencord, who ministers to inmates on death row at the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute, told The Criterion, the archdiocesan newspaper, he was “surprised a little bit” by the Supreme Court’s denial of the cert petition. “I thought the courts would be rethinking the value -- or lack of value -- of executions in the criminal justice system. So I’m surprised in a very sad way.”

In a June 18 statement on the upcoming executions, Indianapolis Archbishop Charles C. Thompson said: "The taking of life, no matter how 'sanitary' or 'humane,' is always an act of violence."

"While the church is certainly concerned with the soul of every person, including those on death row, I make this plea against the death penalty out of ultimate concern for the eternal soul of humanity," he said.

We don’t have comments turned on everywhere anymore. We have recently relaunched the commenting experience at America and are aiming for a more focused commenting experience with better moderation by opening comments on a select number of articles each day.

But we still want your feedback. You can join the conversation about this article with us in social media on Twitter or Facebook, or in one of our Facebook discussion groups for various topics.

Or send us feedback on this article with one of the options below:

We welcome and read all letters to the editor but, due to the volume received, cannot guarantee a response.

In order to be considered for publication, letters should be brief (around 200 words or less) and include the author’s name and geographic location. Letters may be edited for length and clarity.

We open comments only on select articles so that we can provide a focused and well-moderated discussion on interesting topics. If you think this article provides the opportunity for such a discussion, please let us know what you'd like to talk about, or what interesting question you think readers might want to respond to.

If we decide to open comments on this article, we will email you to let you know.

If you have a message for the author, we will do our best to pass it along. Note that if the article is from a wire service such as Catholic News Service, Religion News Service, or the Associated Press, we will not have direct contact information for the author. We cannot guarantee a response from any author.

We welcome any information that will help us improve the factual accuracy of this piece. Thank you.

Please consult our Contact Us page for other options to reach us.

When you click submit, this article page will reload. You should see a message at the top of the reloaded page confirming that your feedback has been received.

Advertisement

The latest from america

The Diocese of Richmond has responded to the call to care for our common home with a project that will soon generate 1.6 million kilowatt-hours of solar electricity every year.
Erika RasmussenSeptember 24, 2020
Speculation that President Trump will name Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court has revived interest in her charismatic Catholic group. Michael O’Loughlin looks at the history—and the myths—of People of Praise.
Michael J. O’LoughlinSeptember 24, 2020
After months of Zoom liturgies, I am beginning to think people-watching at Mass can itself be an opportunity for deeper communion.
Colleen ConnollySeptember 24, 2020
To realize Ginsburg’s vision for authentic equality between men and women, we will have to point our children to those who recognize the unborn life not as a hindrance but as the reason for greater solidarity with one another.
Erika BachiochiSeptember 24, 2020