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Catholic leaders praise stays of executions for Arkansas death-row inmates


Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON — Catholic leaders praised the federal and state rulings that granted stays of executions for a group of Arkansas death-row inmates during the week of April 17.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is pictured in a 2013 photo. Arkansas, which has not executed anyone in more than 12 years, plans to execute eight death-row inmates in a period of 10 days this April before one of the state's lethal injection drugs expires. Hutchinson in late February set the four execution dates for the eight men between April 17-27. (CNS photo/Shawn Thew, EPA)

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson is pictured in a 2013 photo. Arkansas, which has not executed anyone in more than 12 years, plans to execute eight death-row inmates in a period of 10 days this April before one of the state’s lethal injection drugs expires. Hutchinson in late February set the four execution dates for the eight men between April 17-27. (CNS photo/Shawn Thew, EPA)

“After the darkness of Good Friday has come a great light,” Karen Clifton, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network against the Death Penalty, said in an April 16 statement. She said the plan to execute these men in such a short period of time brought about “an extraordinary response from so many people calling for a culture of life and an end to this practice of retribution.”

A federal judge’s April 15 ruling stopped the state from executing six of the inmates with a preliminary injunction handed down in response to a lawsuit filed by the inmates, who claimed the executions were unconstitutional because of their rapid pace and the ineffectiveness of the lethal injection drug midazolam. They claimed the sedative drug doesn’t always work and causes those who are being executed to feel pain from the use of other two lethal injection drugs.

The previous day, an Arkansas judge, responding to a lawsuit from two pharmaceutical companies, issued a temporary restraining order on the state’s executions based on evidence the state may not have obtained midazolam properly.

The state and federal judges’ rulings are both under appeal by the state. A significant delay in these arguments could indefinitely halt these executions since the state’s supply of midazolam will run out at the end of the month and state officials have said they have no source to obtain a further supply of the sedative.

But even with the court-issued stays, the executions are still possible before the end of April if the cases are sent to the Supreme Court and it sides with the state of Arkansas in its appeal.

Arkansas officials originally scheduled eight executions from April 17-27. Two of the inmates were granted stays of execution outside of the federal judge’s April 15 decision.

These executions were announced months ago by Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who said they had to be done in quick succession to use the state’s final batch of the midazolam before it expired at the end of April.

Many people have demonstrated against the state’s plan to execute these man in such quick succession, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

In an April 13 statement, Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, urged the state’s governor to reconsider the scheduled executions and reduce the sentences to life imprisonment.

“May those in Arkansas who hold the lives of these individuals on death row in their hands be moved by God’s love, which is stronger than death, and abandon the current plans for execution,” he wrote.

The bishop said the timing for these executions “was not set by the demands of justice, but by the arbitrary politics of punishment,” referring to the state’s supply of the sedative used in executions. “And so, in a dark irony, a safeguard that was intended to protect people is now being used as a reason to hasten their deaths.”

After the rulings temporarily halting the executions were issued, Bishop Anthony B. Taylor of Little Rock, Arkansas, thanked all of those who had “prayed and worked so hard to prevent these scheduled executions from taking place.”

“Let us continue to pray and work for the abolition of the death penalty in Arkansas and throughout the country,” he said in a statement. He also urged for prayers for “healing for the victims of the horrific crimes” and for the perpetrators of these crimes, saying: “The Lord never gives up on anyone and neither should we.”


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Pennsylvania governor puts off executions, says system ‘riddled with flaws’


Catholic News Service

PHILADELPHIA — Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia praised the announcement by Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf Feb. 13 that he is granting a reprieve for death-row inmate Terrence Williams, who was scheduled to be executed March 4.

In a memo, Wolf said he would extend the reprieve to each of the 186 inmates on the state’s death row as their scheduled executions approach, all pending the outcome of a study of the use of the death penalty in Pennsylvania.

Archbishop Chaput said he was grateful to Wolf “for choosing to take a deeper look into these studies and I pray we can find a better way to punish those who are guilty of these crimes.”

“Turning away from capital punishment does not diminish our support for the families of murder victims. They bear a terrible burden of grief and they rightly demand justice,” said the archbishop. “But killing the guilty does not honor the dead nor does it ennoble the living. When we take a guilty person’s life we only add to the violence in an already violent culture and we demean our own dignity in the process.”

Wolf said there was no question Williams was guilty of the 1984 murder he committed at age 18 and for which he was convicted and sentenced to death in 1986. But the governor said he was granting the reprieve “because the capital punishment system has significant and widely recognized defects.”

The governor cited the “unending cycle of death warrants and appeals,” the cost to the judicial system for the appeals process and the surfacing of painful memories for victims’ families in each step of the process.

He also noted instances of miscarried justice due to flawed convictions and sentencing in several cases.

In the 40 years since Pennsylvania reinstated the death penalty, governors have signed 434 warrants, but only three executions were carried out.

“If the commonwealth of Pennsylvania is going to take the irrevocable step of executing a human being, its capital sentencing system must be infallible,” Wolf said. “Pennsylvania’s system is riddled with flaws, making it error prone, expensive and anything but infallible.”

The reprieves would remain in effect at least until Wolf has reviewed a forthcoming report of the Pennsylvania Task Force and Advisory Committee on Capital Punishment.

“I take this action only after significant consideration and reflection,” he said. “There is perhaps no more weighty a responsibility assigned to the governor than his or her role as the final check in the capital punishment process.”

In a statement, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference said the state’s Catholic bishops have long advocated for an end to the death penalty “because the modern penal system provides alternatives to taking the lives of the guilty. Punishment should reflect our belief in the inherent human dignity of each person, and taking a life to avenge the death of another does not create a culture of life,” the statement read.

“People convicted of capital offenses must be punished effectively and appropriately for their crimes. Family and friends of victims, and society as a whole, demand this. Just punishment, however, can be attained without resorting to execution. Even the most violent offenders who commit heinous crimes still have a dignity given by God,” said the conference, which is the public policy arm of the state’s bishops.

“Society will not benefit from imposing the death penalty, nor will it be harmed by showing mercy. By turning away from the death penalty, we are embracing hope, not despair,” it continued, adding that Wolf’s announcement “breaks the cycle of violence that so plagues our society. We hope that this spirit of respect for human life is shown throughout all laws and policies of the commonwealth.”

Pittsburgh Bishop David A. Zubik praised Wolf for granting Williams a reprieve and “for effectively establishing a moratorium on the death penalty in Pennsylvania.”

“At the same time the church must remain committed to reaching out to victims of violent crimes and their families,” he said in a statement.

He added that research “has shown that it is not a deterrent to crime and that on occasion innocent people have been wrongly executed.”

“Catholic teaching affirms the dignity of every human person from the moment of conception until the last breath of natural life,” Bishop Zubik said. “No one is excluded, not even criminals who have committed a heinous act. God’s love and mercy is offered to all.”


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Bishops welcome court’s review of lethal injections in executions


WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to review the use of lethal injections in carrying out executions is a welcome move, said the chairmen of two U.S. bishops’ committees.

The court said Jan. 23 it will review the drug protocols of lethal-injection executions in the state of Oklahoma and consider whether such procedures violate the U.S. Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

“I welcome the court’s decision to review this cruel practice,” said Archbishop Thomas G. Wenski of Miami, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

“Our nation has witnessed through recent executions, such as occurred in Oklahoma, how the use of the death penalty devalues human life and diminishes respect for human dignity. We bishops continue to say, we cannot teach killing is wrong by killing,” he added.

Archbishop Wenski made the comments Jan. 27 in a joint statement issued with Boston Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Pro-life Activities.

The court will consider the case of Glossip v. Gross, brought by three death-row inmates in Oklahoma. Last year, prison officials botched the execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma using lethal injection. Lockett writhed in agony for 40 minutes before being unhooked from the drug dispenser in the prison’s death chamber and died soon afterward of apparent heart failure.

Oral arguments in the case are to be heard by the court in April.

“Society can protect itself in ways other than the use of the death penalty,” said Cardinal O’Malley. “We pray that the court’s review of these protocols will lead to the recognition that institutionalized practices of violence against any person erode reverence for the sanctity of every human life.”

“Capital punishment must end,” he added.

The U.S. bishops have been advocating against the death penalty for more than 40 years. In 2005, they initiated the Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty and continue to work closely with state Catholic conferences, the Catholic Mobilizing Network and other groups to abolish the death penalty in the United States.

Last October, Pope Francis called on Christians and all people of good will “to fight … for the abolition of the death penalty … in all its forms,” out of respect for human dignity.


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High court declines cases about same-sex marriage, campaigns, executions


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that said a New Mexico photographer violated the state’s human rights law by refusing to photograph a commitment ceremony for a same-sex couple.

The court April 7 also declined to review a case brought by the Iowa Right to Life Committee, challenging Iowa’s law prohibiting corporate contributions in state elections. A lower court had upheld the law, which bans direct contributions to candidates and committees by corporations, but allows unions to make such contributions.

And on a third issue, the court declined to take up cases over the type of chemicals that states use to execute inmates.

There was no comment from the court in rejecting the cases.

The New Mexico case had originally raised religious rights issues, but that line of legal challenge was dropped. Instead, the question the court was asked to consider was whether the state law unconstitutionally infringes on the photographers’ free speech rights.

At issue was Elaine Huguenin’s refusal to photograph a commitment ceremony for Vanessa Willock and Misti Collinsworth.

The New Mexico Supreme Court ruled that under the New Mexico Human Rights Act, Elane Photography, Huguenin’s business, is a public accommodation and therefore is subject to its anti-discrimination provisions “and must serve same-sex couples on the same basis that it serves opposite-sex couples. Therefore, when Elane Photography refused to photograph a same-sex commitment ceremony, it violated the (anti-discrimination law) in the same way as if it had refused to photograph a wedding between people of different races.”

The case has figured prominently in actions by other states to try to enact laws that would allow businesses to refuse to participate as service providers in same-sex marriages when the owners believe that to do so would conflict with their beliefs that such marriages are wrong.

In the Iowa case, the court left intact a ruling by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that said upheld the state law banning corporate political contributions. Right to Life had sued, saying the law violates equal protection principles by allowing campaign contributions from unions but not corporations, and that such bans violate the First Amendment.

The 8th Circuit had overruled parts of the Iowa law, such as some disclosure requirements, but left intact the prohibition on corporate contributions. Last week the Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling struck down dollar limits on how much an individual may contribute to a political campaign.

The court also declined to get involved in two cases questioning whether inmates have a right to know what drugs states plan to use to execute them.

A shortage of the lethal drugs used for years in executions has led to changes in the systems states use. In executions in Ohio and Oklahoma in January, witnesses reported apparently painful, lengthy struggles as inmates were killed. The cases the court declined to hear were filed by inmates in Missouri and Louisiana who sought to know the type of execution they faced.


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Catholic leaders decry executions in Idaho, Florida


BOISE, Idaho — After a last-minute delay, Paul E. Rhoades was executed by the state of Idaho Nov. 18 at the maximum security prison in south Boise.

Bishop Michael P. Driscoll of Boise said it was “with sadness and disappointment” that he learned the state carried out the death penalty for Rhoades.

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