Church speaks out as death penalty returns CNS photo by Shawn Thew, EPA The state of Arkansas hasn’t executed an inmate since 2005, but on Feb. 27, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed the proclamation of execution for eight death row inmates after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review a state ruling upholding Arkansas’ lethal injection law.
Four execution dates are now set for the eight men between April 17-27. The process has been rushed to be scheduled before a supply of midazolam — a sedative — expires. In Arkansas, death by lethal injection is administered in a three-drug cocktail. Attorneys for the inmates claim that the midazolam isn’t powerful enough to cover the pain that will result from the other two drugs. They have asked a Pulaski County circuit judge to find the state’s lethal injection law and three-drug protocol unconstitutional and are demanding that the state provide information on the source of the drugs.

Bishop’s letter

Bishop Anthony B. Taylor of the Diocese of Little Rock, Arkansas, wrote a letter to the governor on March 1, pleading with him to halt the executions and commute them to life without parole. According to Dennis Lee, chancellor for administrative affairs for the diocese, the governor has not responded. The letter also was published in both the local and diocesan newspapers.
“Though guilty of heinous crimes, these men nevertheless retain the God-given dignity of any human life, which must be respected and defended from conception to natural death,” Bishop Taylor wrote. “Pope John Paul II, whose courage and wisdom was evident even to many outside the Catholic Church, insisted repeatedly: ‘If bloodless means are sufficient to defend human lives against an aggressor and to protect public order and the safety of persons, public authority must limit itself to such means, because they better correspond to the concrete conditions of the common good and are more in conformity to the dignity of the human person’ (Evangelium Vitae, No. 56).”
Bishop Taylor acknowledged that the state was not governed by Catholic teaching but said that “the intrinsic, God-given dignity of the human person applies to everyone.”
The bishop pointed out other reasons why it would be wrong to execute the prisoners, including that it’s not an effective crime deterrent; victims’ families don’t get the “closure” they expect; the death penalty is more costly than life in prison; and that the poor are more likely to be executed.

The dignity of all

“As Catholics we are called to uphold the dignity of all life, even those who commit crimes,” according to Karen Clifton, executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network, which works to end the death penalty. In an email to Our Sunday Visitor, Clifton said, “Beyond the inherent violation of our understanding of human dignity, the reality that a drug’s expiration date is the impetus for such a cruel and unnecessary act is unacceptable.”
According to Clifton, Catholic Mobilizing Network places the needs of the victim and their loved ones in the center of their work but noted that the death penalty is not restorative. She noted that the Catholic Mobilizing Network “was founded with the strong input and guidance of victim’s families with the intention of educating Catholics about the need for healing and reconciliation not available with the death penalty.”
She pointed out that the death penalty is biased against minorities and people with mental illness and risks putting innocent people to death. “Since 1973, 157 people have been exonerated due to their innocence,” Clifton said of death row inmates.
The Catholic Mobilizing Network is appealing to the public to demand that these hasty executions be stopped. “We are encouraging everyone to call, write and email Gov. Hutchinson with letters and comments calling for him to not use the death penalty in the state of Arkansas,” Clifton said. “There have been several cases where an impending execution has been stayed due to petitions by a legal team and concerned citizens.”
Patrick Gallaher, executive director of Catholic Charities of Arkansas, told OSV that his organization had 20,000 mercy postcards printed and delivered to the governor from all over the state by various individuals and groups last year.
“The governor has been unmoved,” Gallaher said. “He seems to view his decision as ministerial: So long as the elements of procedural due process have been met and all appeals exhausted, he sees it as his duty to sign the death warrant.”
Gallaher said Catholic Charities will continue with the letter and postcard campaign and will work with the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty on formulating other activities.

A mother’s story

Vicki Schieber understands the horrible tragedy of losing a loved one to murder. Her daughter, Shannon, was raped and murdered on May 7, 1998, during her first year of graduate school. Rather than seeking revenge, Vicki and her husband, Sylvester, have dedicated themselves to a moratorium on the death penalty.
“My focus is on forgiving and trying to heal,” said Schieber, who has masters’ degrees in social work and business, and who now serves as education director of Catholic Mobilizing Network and the co-founder of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights.
“I continue to see the big difference in people who can let it go and find a way to heal and honor the loved one they lost,” Schieber said. “The ones who won’t let it go and are determined to see him [the murderer] put to death often admit that it has destroyed their lives.”
When the death penalty is given rather than a sentence of life in prison without parole, families are dragged through the courts, reliving the case again and again through the mandatory appeals processes. “I’ve seen over the years what it has done,” Schieber said. “There are so many health and marriage problems and divorces because of the need for revenge that destroys their lives.”

When Schieber received the initial shocking news, her first thought was not of forgiveness, but she soon realized that she needed to put her faith into practice.
“I am a person of faith, and I don’t believe in taking of another’s life,” Schieber said. “God chooses when we live or die. That is not our decision.”
She notes that it’s a natural human response to want to kill the murderer. “People have to come around in their own timing,” she said. “Some take longer to get to healing, and some people just let it destroy them.”
Schieber is looking for a publisher for the book she’s written, “Shannon’s Wake.” It tells of the pain but also the ripple effect of good that has come about that honors Shannon’s life