By ERIKA ANDERSON, Staff Writer | Published March 3, 2005
On Feb. 22, dozens of religious leaders and supportive citizens gathered in the rotunda of the Georgia State Capitol and pleaded for a halt on executions to study the flaws in Georgia’s death penalty system.
State Rep. Pam Stephenson, State Sen. Sam Zamarippa and a coalition of human rights and religious organizations under the banner of the Georgia Moratorium Campaign held a press conference to announce the filing of legislation calling for a state-commissioned study of problems with the death penalty’s application and a moratorium on executions for the duration of the study period.
Among the various religious and civic leaders who spoke was Father Austin Fogarty, pastor of St. George Church in Newnan, who explained the opposition of Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church to the death penalty.
“Capital punishment as a just punishment for the convicted offender under the law cannot rule out completely the possibility of a mistake. The matter of the just compensation for the evil done that society demands is eliminated with the death penalty,” Father Fogarty said, referencing the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement on capital punishment from 1980. “Also, long and unavoidable delays as a consequence of the safeguards for the opportunity for appeals that the law provides diminish in effect the need for capital punishment as a deterrent—for it makes the actual execution date uncertain and remote. The possibility of reform, rehabilitation and conversion that the Catholic Church believes every human being is entitled to from a loving God is denied them with the finality of execution.”
Father Fogarty told the crowd that those opposed to the death penalty would continue to gather until justice has been achieved.
“For four years now we have come to this hallowed place to appeal to our representatives, legislators and our governor to follow the just course that others have taken, in granting a legislative resolution for a moratorium on executions and the establishment of a commission to study the inequities under our current law on capital punishment,” he said. “For all of those on death row in Georgia to whom we minister, the Catholic Church asks us to do no less while this very important debate for the legal and political values as well as moral and religious issues of our time continues regarding capital punishment.”
Proponents of the moratorium point to the high number of innocent people who have been found on the nation’s death rows. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 117 such individuals have been exonerated, including six from Georgia. They also underline high error rates in Georgia’s capital cases causing 80 percent of death sentences to be reversed, patterns of racial disparity, arbitrary application and inadequate legal defense for those who could not afford a lawyer. Rep. Stephenson said that the errors within the system make a moratorium imperative.
“We cannot afford to have a death penalty system that is riddled with bias and error—this is a basic issue of justice and fairness,” she said.
Laura Moye, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Southern Regional Office, pointed to a 2002 poll of Georgia voters that showed an increase in those in favor of a moratorium.
“The more people learn about the serious problems with the death penalty’s application, the more inclined they are to support a study and time-out on executions,” she said.
Following the press conference, supporters of the moratorium met with their legislators and delivered thousands of postcards from people across Georgia in support of a moratorium and study of the death penalty. About 50 organizations and civic and religious leaders have endorsed the moratorium effort as well as the city councils of Atlanta and Macon.
Jim Powers, prison ministry coordinator for Catholic Social Services, Inc., in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, said that there are about 150 men and women in the archdiocese who visit and minister to those in prison. Through his involvement in the Catholic peace movement, Pax Christi, Powers began writing to a death row inmate six years ago and then began visiting him. He still visits the same man a few times a month. Powers, a parishioner of Corpus Christi Church in Stone Mountain, said that he wasn’t always so convicted about his opposition to the death penalty but has learned more in his ministry to those on death row.
“You find out that these are very ordinary human beings, who made a stupid mistake. Most of them made a stupid mistake due to alcohol or drugs; some are mentally ill,” he said. “Some ended up there because they were poor and didn’t have first class representation.”
The majority of those on death row, he said, are African-American and/or poor.
“It really is a situation about prejudice,” he said. “That’s why we want to look at the fairness issue. If you are white and affluent and commit a crime, the chances are really slim you’re going to end up on death row.”
Powers said that working with those on death row has deepened his own faith.
“It’s made me really go back to the Scriptures. I saw that Jesus was totally, completely nonviolent without question,” he said.
He has ministered to and gotten to know men who have been executed, “some who have really made a change in their lives,” he said.
Powers encouraged those opposed to the death penalty to contact their legislators.
“Representatives want to hear what their constituents have to say,” he said, adding that there is hope in the fight to abolish the death penalty. “There have been much fewer death sentences since I started doing this seven years ago, and there has been much more coverage in the media. People are becoming aware.”
For more information about the Georgia Moratorium Campaign, visit www.georgiamoratorium.org.