Controversies engulf capital punishment as Respect Life Month opens
Dismay overwhelmed concerned citizens including Sister Patricia Ridgley,
SSMN, of Dallas, and retired prison chaplain Deacon Harry Davis of
Beaumont when they heard about a botched execution in Ohio.
The states executioners had to stop an injection procedure on Sept. 15
after they failed for more than 2 hours to locate Romell Brooms veins
adequately for IV insertion. Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland had to order a
reprieve for Broom, condemned to death for a 1984 rape and slaying.
"That starts being in the realm of torture," said Sister Patricia, the
granddaughter of an East Texas sheriff. She has worked for almost 40 years
to abolish the death penalty in Texas. "We can protect society without
executing a human being."
That debate continues to consume capital punishment opponents and
supporters nationally and in Texas, one of the 35 death penalty states and
the far-and-away leader in executions.
October is Respect Life Month, and Oct. 4 is Respect Life Sunday. Capital
punishment, which is one of the "culture of life" issues and was the focus
of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' 2005 launch of the Catholic
Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty, appears to make almost daily
The death penalty will not take a breather for the special month; Texas
has 6 scheduled executions between Oct. 27 and Nov. 19.
Some offenders remain in a state of suspended animation, including Kenneth
Mosley, whose Sept. 24 execution was stayed to allow U.S. Supreme Court
justices to review his case. Mosley was convicted of killing a police
officer during a bank robbery attempt in Garland in 1997.
"It still appears that there are a majority of Catholics in Texas who are
for the death penalty, but there is an undercurrent and the number is
coming down" said Deacon Davis, whose prison ministry for the Diocese of
Beaumont includes the Texas Department of Criminal Justices Polunsky Unit,
the male death row facility in Livingston.
"We don't want to give up hope on offenders," he said. "But we don't want
the victimizing of the families of perpetrators It's one issue after
In theory and practice, capital punishment has galvanized recent
controversies. National experts said that executions have dropped since
the 1990s. Officials from religious and secular organizations cited the
issue of innocence, which encompasses DNA-exonerated death-row inmates, as
responsible for some proponents' reassessment of their positions.
Since 1973, 135 people on death row were freed after their cases were
re-evaluated, according to the USCCB, including 5 this year. 9 innocent
people have been freed from Texas' death row in that span.
Investigations recently concluded that Cameron Todd Willingham, executed
in Texas in 2004, had been convicted of murder by arson on invalid
"The possibility of wrongly executing someone is a terrible moral burden,"
said Sister Patricia, a member of the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur. "Our
Texas bishops have always been courageous and very clear on this issue.
The main Catholic social teaching is the fundamental dignity of each human
The USCCB's 1980 statement said that: "Abolition of capital punishment is
also a manifestation of our belief in the unique worth and dignity of each
person from the moment of conception, a creature made in the image and
likeness of God. It is particularly important in the context of our times
that this belief be affirmed with regard to those who have failed or whose
lives have been distorted by suffering or hatred, even in the case of
those who by their actions have failed to respect the dignity and rights
of others." The impact of innocence
Richard Dieter, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Death
Penalty Information Center, said that the "innocence issue" has been the
most persuasive in moving people toward anti-death penalty positions.
"DNA has really hit this home," Dieter said. He said that his non-profit
organization does not take a "moral" stand on the issue. "DNA is the gold
standard. There is a lot more awareness of the death penalty's problems."
Ray Krone became the 100th person in the country freed from death row when
he was released in Arizona in 2002. He participated in a Texas Coalition
to Abolish the Death Penalty gathering in the Dallas area in June. Krone,
who had been convicted of a bar stabbing, spoke of his life behind bars
before DNA proved him innocent.
"I never got a hot meal on death row," Krone said. "It was 3 showers a
week and 2 phone calls a month. In order to survive in that environment,
you'd better make peace with dying." He said that he believes that ending
the death penalty will require unity.
"This is still America," he said. "There's hearts and minds that need to
Dieter said that use of the death penalty is down more than 60 % since the
1990s. He said that 98 executions occurred in the United States in 1999
and 37 occurred last year. Dieter said that the life-without-parole
sentence might be an influence.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, 1,175
people have been executed nationally, with 441 of those in Texas as of
"Study after study has shown that death row is a more expensive place
because of the legal and other costs," Dieter said. "To get to that
execution, you have to invest millions."
He said that state statutes that allow life-without-parole sentences
provide a means for protecting society without killing a capital offender.
In 2005, Texas became the last U.S. state of the 35 death penalty states
to approve a statute allowing a life-without-parole sentence.
A 2006 Gallup Poll found that U.S. support for the death penalty dropped
to 65 % from 80 % in 1994. Respondents in that poll favored
life-without-parole to a death sentence, 48 % to 47 %.
A Zogby International Poll, conducted for the USCCB in December 2004,
found that 48 % of Catholics interviewed supported the death penalty's use
and 79 % expressed the view that opposition to capital punishment was
"consistent with the defense of human life."
But Deacon Davis said that he encounters Texas Catholics who have not been
swayed to oppose the death penalty even though life without parole now is
a sentencing option. He said that he asked inmates on death row if they
would prefer life without parole.
"They all said they would prefer the death penalty," Deacon Davis said.
"They said that with life without parole, 'They'll just throw away the
Argument, forgiveness and closure
Death penalty proponent Robert Blecker, a professor at New York Law
School, has written and lectured extensively in defense of capital
"The reason I support the death penalty is that, in some circumstances,
some people deserve it," he said. "Many people disparage us as
retributivists being vengeful and blood-thirsty. But life without parole
is a very odd punishment and a very difficult punishment to justify. If
you embrace life without parole, you are a retributivist."
He said that life-without-parole sentences do not indicate that those
pronouncing the sentence believe that the one sentenced can reform, mature
Broom reportedly told his lawyers that the Sept. 15 lethal injection
attempt resulted in 18 wounds on his body. His lawyers have sued the state
of Ohio, stating that another execution attempt on him would constitute
"cruel and unusual punishment." A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 30.
"Let's point out what this guy did and contrast his anxiety to the anxiety
through which he put his victim," Blecker said. "These [death row inmates]
are not innocents. Unborn children are innocents."
Blecker, who said he is not a Catholic, said that he does not view it as a
contradiction for people of faith to define a pro-life position as being
anti-abortion and pro-death penalty.
He said that he opposes lethal injection and favors a firing squad as the
"It's clearly what it is; it's punishment," he said. "Lethal injection
looks and feels too much like a hospice. It shouldn't conflate medicine
He said that punishment should take into account what that word means: "It
is fundamentally to inflict pain," he said. "The Old Testament specifies
many of the crimes that call for the death penalty."
Deacon Davis ministry also reaches out to victims' families. He said that
he has observed that forgiveness is the chief avenue to closure.
"It's a process," he said. "Jesus forgave."
He said that many death row inmates express interest in learning about the
Catholic faith. His ministry provides a modified RCIA program, he said.
"The church is there to meet their needs," he said. "A priest will come,
even within 24 hours of a scheduled execution so that someone can be
brought into the Catholic faith. It's a very beautiful ministry painful,
Grassroots efforts in Dallas
Beyond prison walls, Catholics in the Diocese of Dallas have worked to end
the use of the death penalty with new initiatives this year.
Sister Patricia was in her mid-20s when she glimpsed a question written on
a lapel button. It changed her life and her view of life.
She said she found the button's message arresting because of how it put
Why do we kill people who kill people,
To show that killing people is wrong?"
Since that day, Sister Patricia, a Dallas Peace Center committee member,
has visited death row inmates and collaborated with other organizations
that oppose the death penalty, including Pax Christi and the Austin-based
Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
"I grew up not even questioning most things about the judicial system,"
she said, citing her grandfather's law enforcement career. "What makes it
so hard is when we see something that is a terrible affront to our sense
of justice and our sense of humanity. We try to reach out to the victims
and the perpetrators."
She said she was encouraged when New Mexico abolished the death penalty
earlier this year. And she praised initiatives including the Catholic
Mobilizing Network, launched this year in collaboration with the USCCB.
The network's goal is to put the church's teaching about the death penalty
and unconditional respect for life into action.
St. Elizabeth of Hungary parishioner Mara Castillo-Lpez organized a death
row ministry in March that conducts monthly prayer sessions at the Oak
Cliff church. She said that her group is awaiting direction on how to get
permission to do more outreach work, such as visits to male inmates on
death row in Livingston.
"The good Lord told me that's where I need to be," Castillo-Lpez said. "I
leave a lot of things to the good Lord."
Michael Denson, a parishioner at St. Francis of Assisi in Frisco, has
visited death row prisoners and tried to get them pen-pals for more than
20 years. He said he was called to devote himself to capital offenders
spiritual needs since his childhood.
Denson said that he was 5 when his father died of cancer. When Denson was
9, he said he wrote a letter to Gary Gilmore, who answered young Denson.
Gilmore was executed in Utah in 1977.
"I had written to him, saying, 'Man, it has got to be scary to face
death,'" said Denson, who has witnessed an execution in Huntsville. "The
suffering for those guys is the waiting.
Deacon Davis said that his last words to a person about to be executed
pose a question.
"I'll say, 'Could you pray for us?'" Deacon Davis said. "We're still on
(source: Texas Catholic)
Inquiry into flawed arson case that led to execution on hold
The Texas Forensic Science Commission's inquiry into a flawed arson
investigation that led to a Corsicana man's execution is on hold for now,
and it's unclear how or when it will move forward, the commission's new
chairman said Tuesday.
Gov. Rick Perryappointed Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley
last week, two days before a scheduled public hearing with experts
critical of the evidence used in Cameron Todd Willingham's murder-arson
case. Bradley canceled the hearing, saying he and another new commissioner
needed time to prepare.
Critics accused Perry of upending the board to suppress questions about
the Willingham execution, which he refused to halt in 2004, despite an
arson expert's urgent warning that the investigation in the case was
troublesome. The governor rejects that, saying the replacement of
commission members when their terms expired was business as usual. He has
said there is ample other evidence of Willingham's guilt in the deaths of
his three children in the 1991 house fire.
Bradley told The Dallas Morning News on Tuesday that he doesn't know when
the board will take up its investigations again. He said he needs time to
review the commission's 2 years' worth of work and to study the role of
its members and the process they should use in moving forward.
"It is too important as a symbolic case, and as much as a real case, for
us not to finish that work," Bradley said of the Willingham case. "But at
the same time, I want to make sure the work is done in a way that is
professional and has utmost integrity."
Bradley said the timetable for the board to act is also unclear because
the governor has two more positions to fill, and he wants to wait until
all new members are on board.
Re-creating the wheel in the investigation is unnecessary, and the delay
is impeding justice for others serving time under questionable arson
convictions, said Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project,
which has used DNA evidence to free dozens of Texas inmates and has
enlisted experts to study the Willingham case.
"I can understand him wanting to do his homework, but I can't understand
in the final analysis why everything has to be brought to a halt," Scheck
Arson scientist's report
He said he believed Perry acted because the board was about to receive the
independent analysis of noted arson scientist Craig Beyler, who was hired
by the commission to review the Willingham investigation.
Beyler's report, which has been released publicly, found no credible
evidence of Willingham setting the fire. It said the arson evidence used
was based on discredited techniques once common among fire investigators
and wives' tales about how fire behaves. He was scheduled to present his
report to the commission last week.
"The Beyler report is personally embarrassing to Governor Perry. That's
the beginning and the end of it," Scheck said. "The whole point of the
Texas Forensic Science Commission was to establish an institution that was
independent and would take forensic science out of politics. And Governor
Perry has just put politics right back in it."
The commission probably would not have gone so far as to declare that
Willingham was probably innocent, though it might have eventually put a
formal stamp of disapproval on the arson investigation in his case. And it
could recommend to the Legislature standards to avoid such problems in the
No hurry to fill seats
Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said there is no current timetable
for filling the board positions.
Under state law, the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association submits a
list of 10 attorneys for the governor to select from. That list was filed
Sept. 4, with the top recommendation being the reappointment of Bradley's
predecessor as chairman, Sam Bassett.
"I recommend his reappointment under the strongest possible terms," said
forensic expert and commission member Dr. Sarah Kerrigan, in a letter
dated Sept. 4.
Bradley said he did not seek appointment to the board or the chairmanship.
His work in Williamson County is full time, and he also serves as chairman
of a statewide committee on mental health services in the justice system.
But Bradley said he is excited about the role the forensic science
commission can play in assuring the integrity of science in court cases.
The commission began in 2007, after scandals involving the shoddy work of
the Houston forensic science lab and Texas taking the national lead in DNA
Bradley said that looking back on cases to see if bad science played a
role is important, but mostly as it applies to future cases.
"It is my experience that leadership is best applied to moving forward
rather than looking back," he said.
Bradley said he can't satisfy critics who believe he was placed on the
commission to stymie the Willingham investigation.
"All I can do is reassure people that … from this day forward, all of
the decisions the commission makes will be in the best interest of
advancing forensic science in Texas and that there is no preconceived
notion of how that should be done," he said.
(source: Dallas Morning News)
Psychological report shows man accused of killing 5-year-old nephew is
prone to violence
Prosecutors trying to decide whether to seek the death penalty against
Christopher Mack in the June beating death of his 5-year-old nephew will
rely on a detailed psychological review, graphic autopsy reports, his
criminal history and other factors to make the call.
Mack, who is from Mexia and turned 22 this month, faces either the death
penalty or, if prosecutors choose not to seek it, an automatic life prison
term without parole if convicted in the death of Sinsear Kervin. The boy
was badly beaten at an apartment complex in Lacy-Lakeview where Mack's
girlfriend, Andrea Shante Thomas, was living.
Sinsear, his 2 younger brothers and 7-year-old sister, who also are from
Mexia, were under Mack's supervision, police have said. Mack also is under
indictment on two counts of injury to a child relating to injuries
suffered by Sinsear's 3- and 4-year-old brothers, whom officials say were
hit repeatedly with a belt. The 3 are now in state-supervised foster care.
Waco attorney Guy Cox, who is representing Mack, declined comment Tuesday
on an eight-page report compiled by Dr. Lee Carter from the Waco
psychologist's 7-hour evaluation of Mack on Sept. 21. The report, filed
Tuesday, lists Mack as high risk to commit violent acts in the future
because of an aggressive, antisocial personality disorder.
Prosecutors J.R. Vicha and Hilary LaBorde, who are handling the case, said
there are always many factors that come into play when trying to decide if
the death penalty will be sought. They said that process is ongoing and
that a decision has not been made.
A pretrial hearing in Mack's case is set for Friday morning in Waco's 54th
State District Court.
In his report, Carter writes that Mack, who is on felony probation in
Limestone County for endangering a child and evading arrest, was born in
Hubbard and has lived in Falls County and McLennan County most of his
He is the 3rd of 7 children born to his mother by seven fathers, and he
had no involvement with his father, who was in and out of prison most of
his childhood, according to the report. Mack's mother had her 1st baby
when she was 14 and he lived in poverty with his mother and grandmother,
neither of whom worked much, the report states.
Mack was a poor student with a flash temper and caused trouble. With an IQ
of 86, which is at the low end of normal, he told Carter that the last
grade that he completed in public school was 6th grade. His siblings and
other students reported that they feared him and reports indicate that he
pointed a gun at his sisters head when he was 14 because she would not get
off the phone.
The longest job Mack ever had was 3 months working at a McDonald's,
according to the report. He was fired after being caught stealing from the
He had a long string of juvenile arrests for a variety of offenses,
including improper sexual conduct with a child and drug offenses,
according to the report.
At 14, Mack was sent to a Texas Youth Commission facility in Mart, but was
transferred to a facility in Crockett for emotionally disturbed offenders
after he was involved in a riot at the Mart facility, the report says.
Mack served a total of about 3 years during 2 stints at TYC facilities,
during which he was cited 182 times for rules violations. After his
release, he was arrested several times as an adult, but the charges were
dismissed in many of those cases, the report says. He remains on felony
"His presentation is marked by considerable anger control problems,
relationship instability, willful rule violations, absence of empathy and
a willingness to violate others' rights and needs to fulfill his personal
desires," Carter writes in the report.
An autopsy report on the boy, received last week by Justice of the Peace
Kristi DeCluitt, shows that he died of multiple blunt force trauma. The
boy suffered at least 10 rib fractures and the right lobe of his liver was
"pulpefied," according to the autopsy.
Also, the autopsy revealed numerous contusions to his face, arms, legs and
front and back torso, a contusion to the right side of his brain and
extensive internal injuries and bleeding.
(source: Waco Tribune-Herald)