Teaching Our Faith — Death penalty — Attack on human dignity

Father Patrick Delahanty

These teaching editorials focus on issues that are highlighted during October’s Respect Life Month.

By now most readers may have forgotten that Kentucky even has a death penalty since there have been just three executions since 1962 and none since 2008. The reason for this lack of executions is not because there is no will to kill.

The governor and the majority of our state legislators support executions. Only a court order, issued in 2010, keeps the state from executing anyone until it produces a protocol to kill inmates that the court approves of. Some estimate that 12 or more persons, whose appeals are now exhausted, could face execution when the court is finally satisfied with the state’s protocol.

One cannot talk about the death penalty in the United States and not talk about the racism in the justice system. The death penalty screams: Black.Lives.Don’t.Matter.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) 34 percent of those executed since 1976 were Black, while nationally Black people are only 13.4 percent of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In addition to this racial disparity, there is another one of equal importance. A series of articles on race and the death penalty were published by The Courier Journal in 1995/1996. In one of the articles, there is a report about the Government Accounting Office’s review of 28 studies on race and capital sentencing, three of which were from Kentucky. The author quotes the GAO conclusion: “Those who murdered whites were found to be more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks.”

DPIC reports that since 1976 until the present, 76 percent of those executed had murdered white victims. The police, prosecutors and members of the jury plainly believe white lives have greater value than Black lives.

Fortunately, we are members of a church that proclaims all are blessed with the God-given gift of human dignity. Our Catechism teaches “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” It is gravely immoral to take a life through execution.

There are some poignant voices in our midst that challenge us to hew to the teaching of our faith.

In “No need to kill,” a 2013 booklet published by the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, nine Kentuckians reflected on what it means to lose a loved one to murder. All nine — and there are many others — condemn the use of the death penalty and support its abolition.

Long before her sister was murdered, the parents of Rita Shoulders, a member of St. Martin de Porres Church, had taught her that each person is her brother and sister in Christ. As the trial approached, Rita recalled, “My dear father said, ‘Taking his life is not going to bring my daughter back.’ ”

“Taking a life,” she said, “doesn’t make you even, it sets you apart from God.”

Maria Hines, a life-long Catholic whose brother Jerry was murdered, became very outspoken in opposing the death penalty, testifying in legislative committee meetings and speaking to audiences about her experience whenever she could.

She eventually corresponded with Dennis Eaton, her brother’s murderer, and spent two days visiting him prior to his execution.

“Over the two-day period, Dennis and I talked for 10 hours and what I came to realize was that he was no longer the same person who had killed Jerry and three others,” she said. “He had experienced a religious conversion after going to prison, and I saw that Dennis was a living example of what Christians refer to as redemption.”

In one of her letters, Maria told Dennis, “So forgiving you is not only for you, but also for me and what it would do to my own soul if I refused to forgive.”

What these victim family members demonstrate is how important it is that we live our faith out loud and call for a change in a public policy that fails to see the image and likeness of God in the faces of those who have committed very serious crimes.

In addition to the systemic racism that exists in our justice system, the use of the death penalty jeopardizes innocent life. Since 1976, 172 men and women, once under a death sentence, have been exonerated. One of these was a Kentuckian, Larry Osborne. After his conviction and sentence were overturned, then in his second trial — this time a fair trial — the jury declared him, “not guilty.”

This death sentencing system is an evil institution that those committed to the Gospel of Life should condemn and help abolish. You can reach Kentucky state legislators at 1-800-372-7181.

Reverend Patrick D. Delahanty is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Louisville and former chair of the Kentucky Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

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