In the wake of last year’s resurgence of federal executions that is expected to continue into 2021, several U.S. bishops have spoken out and called for an end to them.
The 10 federal executions carried out in 2020 are the first to have been done after a 17-year hiatus of the federal death penalty. Furthermore, Lisa Montgomery is scheduled to be executed next week on Jan. 12. Montgomery, who was convicted in 2004 of strangling eight-months pregnant Bobbie Jo Stinnett and removing her baby as part of a premeditated murder-kidnap scheme, would be the fourth woman in U.S. history to be executed by the federal government.
Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, issued a statement Dec. 7 decrying the resurgence of federal executions.
“We’ve asked many times to stop the federal executions. In fact, last Advent, three bishops wrote that the resumption of federal executions was at odds with this season of anticipated redemption,” the statement said. “But the executions resumed. Eight since July. Two more this week. Three in January. A new regulation will permit federal execution by means other than lethal injection, such as the electric chair.
“What does the birth of our Lord say to this? The Lord comes not to destroy, but to save. For the Second Sunday of Advent, we hear St. Peter counsel that the Lord ‘is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance’ (2 Pt. 3:9). Can we follow the Lord’s example?
Brandon Bernard, 40, was put to death by lethal injection Dec. 10 in Indiana after serving 21 years in prison. Bernard was one of five gang members convicted of killing two Iowa youth ministers at Fort Hood Army post in Texas in 1999. Less than 24 hours later on Dec. 11, Alfred Bourgeois, 56, was executed in Indiana as well. Bourgeois was convicted in 2002 of killing his two-year-old daughter at Corpus Christi Naval Air Station. Both cases were considered federal crimes because they occurred on military property.
While the crimes committed by the convicted are inexcusable and the victims and their families deserve the utmost support and compassion, federal executions are not the answer, Bishops Coakley and Naumann said.
“We are all sinners. Some have done terrible things. Victims need help. Justice is needed for peace. But executions solve nothing,” the bishops said.
In March of last year, the death penalty in Colorado was repealed, making it the 22nd state to abolish state-sanctioned executions. Colorado’s bishops were outspoken in their support of the repeal.
“Human life is inherently good, even if a person chooses to commit horrible crimes,” Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila said in a joint Q&A with Colorado legislators. “In the past, in certain circumstances, the death penalty made sense, since society struggled to protect itself from people who committed murder. But our prison system has improved to the point that we are able to respect the dignity of human life and to protect society. Given this reality, Colorado should not perpetuate the cycle of violence by taking further life, especially when the death penalty’s effectiveness as a deterrent to crime is in doubt.
“When the state unnecessarily engages in taking someone’s life, even a guilty person’s, it commits more violence and takes away the opportunity for the conversion of criminals,” the archbishop continued. “All life has dignity and worth, even the lives of those who have killed others. The state should not participate in the cycle of violence by taking life — but should instead strive to protect it.”