|Cover story -- Capital Punishment|
Issue Date: January 28, 2005
Death penalty debate
As Connecticut's first execution since 1960 draws near, state's bishops urge Catholics to speak out
By CLAIRE SCHAEFFER-DUFFY
Just weeks before the scheduled execution of serial killer Michael Ross, Connecticuts Catholic bishops urged the states more than 1 million Catholics to make their voices heard by calling for repeal of the death penalty.
The death penalty diminishes each of us, said Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport. It offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life.
Ross, 45, who would be the first person executed in Connecticut since 1960, has admitted to killing eight young women and is scheduled to die by lethal injection Jan. 26. He has refused to appeal his case further, saying he wants to die in order to bring closure to the victims families. Death penalty opponents argue that to execute him would be tantamount to state-assisted suicide.
In addition to the Connecticut bishops effort coordinated by that states Catholic conference, religious voices against the death penalty were also heard recently in New York State, which faces legislative moves to reinstate capital punishment, and in California, where an interfaith vigil at a Catholic church was held before the execution of Donald Beardslee early in the morning of Jan. 19.
In Connecticut, Gov. M. Jodi Rell denied Ross a reprieve of execution Dec. 6. To uphold the existing laws of Connecticut is to uphold the death penalty, she said in a statement.
On Jan. 18, Dave Robinson, executive director of Pax Christi USA, the national Catholic peace movement, wrote a letter to Rell, urging her to commute Ross sentence. The death penalty in the United States is a seriously flawed system, Robinson said. For Connecticuts criminal justice system to again head down this road is frightful -- both in terms of the potential mistakes that could be made in implementing the death penalty, as well as the racial and moral inadequacies prevalent in every capital punishment system.
New Hampshire is the only other New England state that still has the death penalty, but it has no one on death row and has not executed anyone since 1939.
The bishops of Connecticuts three dioceses each issued letters outlining the Catholic churchs opposition to capital punishment that were to be read at all Masses Jan. 8 and 9. The following weekend parishioners were invited to sign a resolution written by the Connecticut Network to Abolish the Death Penalty, calling for the abolition of capital punishment.
A poll taken by Connecticuts Quinnipiac University last year found that 59 percent of the states voters favor capital punishment, while 39 percent do not. The poll also found that 66 percent of the states Catholics supported the death penalty.
Connecticut bishops said their opposition to capital punishment was guided by Pope John Paul IIs encyclical letter on the value of human life, Evangelium Vitae. In the encyclical, the pontiff argued that punishment ought not to go to the extreme of executing the offender, except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society. He wrote that such cases are very rare if practically nonexistent.
In his Jan. 8 letter, Hartford Archbishop Henry J. Mansell wrote, Human life is a gift from God that must be respected from conception to natural death.
Some people dont want to hear this, but the church teaches that Michael Ross is still a human being. He still has human dignity, Deacon David Reynolds, legislative liaison for the Connecticut Catholic Conference, told the Fairfield County Catholic, newspaper of the Bridgeport diocese.
Accounts about Ross depict a violent and tortured man who has been both victim and victimizer. In a 1996 article in The Connecticut Law Tribune, author Martha Elliott reported that Ross was probably physically and mentally abused by his mother, herself psychologically disturbed, and Ross was sexually abused at age 8 by his babysitter, a young uncle who committed suicide at age 14.
Ross killings occurred in the early 1980s. Six of his eight victims were teenagers, including two 14-year-olds killed in a double murder. In that attack, he raped and strangled one girl while her friend, bound by Ross, watched. He then strangled the second girl.
Edwin Shelley, father of 14-year-old Leslie, who was killed by Ross during the double murder, said he firmly believes the execution will bring closure for his family. I am looking forward to attending the execution. I will be there. My wife will be there and my eldest daughter will be there, he said.
Shelley said he could understand a person being opposed to the death penalty, but his support for capital punishment was also based on religious belief. [Christ] came back not to abolish any rules but to make certain his fathers words were carried out. In other words, A life for a life. I believe that this message has been lost in religious teaching. This man, he took not only one life. He took eight lives. He has destroyed nine families. He has destroyed his fathers life.
Ross confessed to many of his crimes shortly after his arrest in 1984 and was given the death sentence in 1987. He has long claimed his mental illness caused his criminal behavior, and initially fought his death sentence, arguing that the jury was not allowed to consider his mental illness as a mitigating circumstance. But as early as 1995 he began seeking ways to expedite his execution in order to spare his victims families a prolonged court process.
I owe these people, Ross told Reuters. I killed their daughters.
Ross has written numerous reflections about spirituality and life on death row, some of which have been published in periodicals and posted on the Web. A Catholic, he wrote that he is not afraid to face God, for while I am very ashamed of what I have done with my life and of the many, many horrible sins I have committed, I know that I am forgiven. But Ross admitted he is haunted by the prospect of heaven. Should he get there after his time in purgatory, he doesnt want to face the women he murdered.
I dont want to see the look on their faces or hear the anger in their voices when they ask, What are you doing here? Because there is no answer for that. It wouldnt be right for me to be in heaven, and it certainly wouldnt be justice. So while the doors to heaven would be open due to Gods forgiveness and divine grace, I cant go.
Attorneys with Connecticuts Division of Public Defender Services, some of whom represented Ross until he fired them last year, have unsuccessfully tried to argue before a lower court and the states Supreme Court that Ross, who has attempted suicide at least twice while in prison, suffers from depression and is not competent to refuse his appeals. Both courts declared the inmate to be rational. The public defenders are currently appealing Connecticuts Supreme Court ruling before a federal judge.
T.R. Paulding, Ross current attorney, suggested that Ross actions were those of a man exhausted from the strain of living under the constant threat of death. Paulding told The Hartford Courant his client did not believe an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court would result in an overturning of his sentence.
While death penalty opponents made a last-minute push to spare Ross life in Connecticut, activists in California held a vigil outside San Quentin State Prison as Donald Beardslee, 61, was executed by lethal injection shortly after midnight Jan. 19 for the slayings of two San Francisco area women, Patty Geddling and Stacey Benjamin, in 1981. The U.S. Supreme Court denied Beardslees appeal for a stay after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger denied clemency.
More than 400 demonstrators, most in opposition to the death penalty, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, gathered at the prison gates during the execution. Earlier in the evening, an interfaith vigil protesting the death penalty was held at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in El Cerrito, Calif.
In a statement released after Beardslees execution, the first in California in three years, San Francisco Archbishop William Levada said that life in prison without possibility of parole is just and exacting punishment that would protect the community. To continue the cycle of violence by killing Mr. Beardslee undermines societys commitment to respect the God-given dignity of every human person.
Meanwhile, New York religious leaders have joined opposition to reinstatement of the death penalty in that state, which has not had an execution since 1963. Capital punishment was made legal in 1995, but in June 2004 the State Appeals Court overturned the law, citing constitutional flaws. Gov. George Pataki has announced his intention to introduce new legislation to institute the death penalty this year.
On Dec. 15, a state legislative hearing was held in New York City to consider the question. Among the numerous witnesses who tried to convince lawmakers to reject capital punishment were Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, families of murder victims, and Mercy Sr. Camille DArienzo, who spoke as a representative of New York Religious Leaders Against the Death Penalty ( see accompanying statement).
Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a freelance writer living in Worcester, Mass. NCR staff contributed to this report.
National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 2005
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