New Civic and Religious Coalition Challenges Exclusion from Jury Service

A new coalition of religious and civic organizations is seeking to stop the exclusion of individuals who express moral or religious opposition to the death penalty from serving on capital juries. I Want to Serve is a new organization based in Louisiana that "oppose[s] the government’s intrusion on one’s right to express religious beliefs on capital juries." The group notes that the process of excluding jurors who oppose the death penalty from capital cases--known as death qualification--eliminates a large proportion of the otherwise-qualified jurors. The coalition points to research finding death-qualified juries to be demographically skewed, more prone to conviction, and more likely to make factual errors than non-death-qualified juries.  In its statement, the group objects to people being denied a fundamental right of citizenship because of their religious beliefs: "Jury service is a fundamental right of citizens and empowers us to keep a check on state power. . . .The voice of all those who do not think the death penalty is an appropriate punishment are removed from that determination."  

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RELIGIOUS VIEWS: The Evolution of Catholic Teaching on Capital Punishment

John Garvey (pictured), president of the Catholic University of America, recently discussed the evolution of Catholic teaching on capital punishment.  Garvey said that while early Catholic Church leaders supported the use of the death penalty, the prevailing contemporary teaching on the subject clearly calls for "condemnation of executions."  Reflecting on the recent executions of Lawrence Brewer in Texas and Troy Davis in Georgia, Garvey wrote, “The church’s clear contemporary teaching is that Texas and Georgia should do so only if it was necessary to protect their people from further attacks. Given the quality of the state prison systems, it’s hard to make that claim.”  Garvey stated that the Church urges Catholics to resist the urge to seek revenge:  “The reason isn’t just that we might make a mistake, though we might. The reason is that human life is sacred because it results from the creative action of God. It is not our place to destroy it, though that might satisfy our desire for revenge.”  Read full op-ed below

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RELIGIOUS VIEWS: Over 150 Catholic Theologians Call for Repeal of the Death Penalty

In response to the executions of Troy Davis and Lawrence Brewer on September 21, over 150 Catholic theologians have signed a statement calling for the abolition of the death penalty in United States.  The theologians stated: "[W]e oppose the death penalty, whether a person on death row is guilty or innocent, on both theological and practical grounds. While we especially deplore and lament the killing of Troy Davis, we also decry the death sentences of the more than 3,200 inmates on death row and the 1,268 executions since the death penalty was reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976. We urge our nation to abolish capital punishment, and we also implore our churches to work unwaveringly to end it as well as all other threats to human life and dignity."  The statement cited former Supreme Court Justice William Brennan, who wrote, "The death penalty is imposed not only in a freakish and discriminatory manner, but also in some cases upon defendants who are innocent."  The theologians also pointed to studies showing racial and economic bias in the death penalty system and to past statements from the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops and the Pope.  Read full statement below.

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UPCOMING EXECUTION: Florida Case Raises Numerous Legal Concerns

Florida has set an execution date of Septmeber 6 for Manuel Valle (pictured), a foreign national from Cuba who was deprived of his rights under the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations.  The European Union's ambassador to the U.S. has asked Florida to halt the execution, and Florida's Catholic Bishops have also requested clemency for Valle, saying, "Killing someone because they killed diminishes respect for life and promotes a culture of violence and vengeance."  The state plans to introduce the anesthetic pentobarbital for this execution, despite the fact that the manufacturer of the drug, Lundbeck, Inc., has asked Florida to refrain from such use, saying it "contradicts everything we are in business to do." Valle has been on death row for about 33 years, raising other questions about cruel and unusual punishment in his case.  In another case, a federal judge has found Florida's statute to be unconstitutional.  If that ruling is upheld on appeal, it could affect Valle's case as well, but only if he is still alive. UPDATE: Valle's execution has been stayed at least until Sept. 8 by a federal court to consider whether he was denied a clemency hearing. UPDATE: Stay of execution lifted; may proceed on Sept. 8.

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NEW VOICES: Ohio Republican Leads Efforts Against Death Penalty

Ohio Rep. Terry Blair (pictured) is one of two Republican co-sponsors of House Bill 160, a bill that would replace the death penalty in the state with life without the possibility of parole.  Blair, whose opinion on the death penalty puts him in the minority in the 59-member House Republican caucus, attributes his views to his religious beliefs.  “I don’t think we have any business in taking another person’s life, even for what we call a legal purpose or what we might refer to as a justified purpose... The creeds of the church say that life is to be protected all along, from natural birth to natural death."  Blair is co-sponsoring the bill with Democrats Ted Celeste and Nickie Antonio.  Exeuctions are on hold in Ohio after U.S. District Judge Gregory L. Frost halted an execution because of concerns about the state's lethal injection process.  Ohio prison officials have submitted a modified lethal injection protocol in anticipation of resuming executions next month. In 2010, Ohio was second only to Texas in the number of executions carried out.

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NEW VOICES: Four Who Experienced a Family Murder Speak About the Death Penalty

Kathryn Gaines, Rita Shoulders, Ruth Lowe and Victoria Cox all had someone in their family murdered but all believe that a death sentence for the killers would only deepen their personal wounds.  Shoulders lost her sister to murder; Cox lost her brother; Lowe also lost her brother; and Gaines experienced the death of her eldest grandchild a year ago.  All four women are members of St. Martin de Porres Church in West Louisville, Kentucky, and have participated in videos to relate their experienes.  Ruth Lowe said of the man who killed her brother, "I’m learning to forgive. And even if I had the chance I wouldn’t want him executed. It would do nothing for me; it would do nothing for the rest of my family. To take his life would make no sense.” Kathryn Gaines said, "You cannot bring a life back by taking away another life. It hurts a whole family."  The videos of the four women's stories can be found  here. The women's stories are also being told in a series of articles in The Record, a Catholic newspaper published in central Kentucky.

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BOOKS: Former Wall St. Lawyer Now Focuses on Death Row Inmates

Dale Recinella formerly worked as an attorney on large financial deals, including the building of a National Football League stadium. He also supported the death penalty.  But he now focuses on the needs of death row inmates and other prisoners in Florida.  His new book, entitled “Now I Walk on Death Row,” tells of his career transition and the reversal in his views on capital punishment.  Although he attributes his changes to his Catholic religious faith, he also came to see the practical problems with the death penalty: "All the studies show that life in prison without the possibility of parole is much cheaper than getting to an execution. The difference is who the money goes to. With life in prison, the money goes to corrections officers. With the death penalty, the money goes to lawyers on both sides. Correction officers' uniforms are much cheaper than Brooks Brother suits," he said.  As a volunteer chaplain, Recinella ministers on death row three days a week and gives religious education instruction at Union Correctional Institution in Raiford, Florida.

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Texas Faith Leaders Appeal to Governor for Clemency in Pending Execution

On February 16, over 90 prominent religious leaders from Texas called on the Board of Pardons and Paroles and Governor Rick Perry to grant clemency to Timothy Adams (pictured). Adams is an army veteran with no criminal history prior to the day he killed his son while planning his own suicide in 2002. Leaders from nine denominations announced their support for clemency, saying "We join the victim’s family in asking that you spare Mr. Adams from death. You have an extraordinary opportunity to show mercy to a family that has already suffered greatly and to uphold the sacredness of human life." From the beginning, Adams accepted responsibility for what his crime, and pleaded guilty in court. During his eight years on death row, he has been a model prisoner. Earlier this month, Adams's family (and hence the family of the victim) petitioned the board to spare his life. Three jurors have also come forward in support of clemency, stating that information regarding Adams's upbringing, deep devotion to religion, and mental state – which was not presented during the trial – would have led them to sentence Adams to life in prison instead of the death penalty. UPDATE: The Board of Pardons and Paroles declined to recommend clemency for Adams.  See full text of letter below.

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NEW VOICES: Utah Religious Leaders Express Concerns about the Death Penalty in Anticipation of Firing Squad Execution

The upcoming execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner, who has opted to be killed by a firing squad in Utah on June 18, has attracted the attention of many people of faith in the state. Hours before Gardner's execution, prominent religious leaders will gather for a vigil to protest the execution. Religious leaders from groups often associated with being supportive of the death penalty have recently voiced concerns about the practice.  The Mormon Church has moved from a position of support for capital punishment to one of neutrality, with some leaders opposing it.  Philip Barlow, who holds the Arrington Chair of Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University said, "I can't imagine Jesus Christ participating in that sort of justice."  State representative Greg Hughes, R-Draper and a Mormon, agreed with Barlow's opposition for other reasons .  "I don't want to give government the right to execute citizens, period," he said. "Inevitably, you're going to kill innocent people."  Shuaib-ud Din, imam of the Utah Islamic Center believes that the Quran and Prophet Muhammad's sayings support the death penalty, but he has reservations about how well the system works and whether innocent people have been executed. He said, "The judicial system has to be near perfect for capital punishment to take place."

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