By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published September 29, 2011
Coming quickly on the heels of the execution of Troy Davis, Catholic spiritual leaders and death penalty opponents are again taking a public stand to oppose the use of the death chamber.
Marcus R. Johnson on Wednesday, Oct. 5, is scheduled to be put to death for the 1994 killing of Angela Sizemore, whose body was found with 41 stab wounds. She and Johnson were seen leaving a bar together in Albany, Ga., a few hours before the bloody discovery.
Facing the timing of two executions in Georgia so close together does not deter Deacon Richard Tolcher, the coordinator for the archdiocesan Prison and Jail Ministry.
“It gives us a magnitude of the responsibility that lies ahead,” said the deacon, who spoke at an ecumenical prayer service for Davis. Davis was put to death on Sept. 21.
Working against the death penalty is a calling for Deacon Tolcher in his ministry as a deacon. He said the two executions just weeks apart gives momentum for death penalty opponents to educate Catholics and the community and raise the awareness of the issue.
A letter to the State Board of Pardons and Paroles signed by the four bishops in Georgia is to ask for clemency for Johnson. A hearing by the board is scheduled for Oct. 3. The letter was not available at press time.
Deacon Tolcher said the church looks at the death penalty as a moral issue.
“Our thrust is always the moral issue, not the legal issues,” he said.
He sends suggestions to his network of deacons, priests and Catholics in the archdiocese on fighting for this issue. People can pray, write individual letters to the state board, and organize prayer services and vigils either at home or in their parishes, he said.
Other groups focus on the question of guilt and innocence, he said, but the church makes clear its opposition is grounded in the teachings of the Bible and church teachings.
According to the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” church teaching favors protecting society from any future harm by an aggressor. The death penalty would be acceptable if it was the only possible way to defend lives. But today “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent,” according to the catechism.
Two executions on Sept. 21, Davis in Georgia and Lawrence Brewer in Texas, had Catholic and other groups mourning the executions.
Davis, 42, was put to death for his conviction in the 1989 murder of off-duty Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail. Brewer, 44, an admitted white supremacist, was executed for his role in the 1998 race-fueled murder of James Byrd Jr., who was dragged for miles from the back of a pickup truck.
“The Catholic Mobilizing Network was hopeful those in positions of power and leadership would honor the dignity of all persons yesterday and exercise mercy for Troy Davis and Lawrence Brewer,” said a Sept. 22 statement issued by the group.
“The executions of Davis and Brewer should remind us that racism is still a major issue in this country, and that our work to end the use of the death penalty should include work toward racial justice,” the statement said.
Davis’ case drew worldwide attention. The execution was delayed for four hours while the U.S. Supreme Court heard, and ultimately rejected, an emergency appeal for a stay of execution. On Sept. 20, the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole rejected a clemency request from Davis’ lawyers, and a day later it ruled out a polygraph test to keep Davis out of the death chamber. Davis maintained his innocence throughout, including his remarks to MacPhail’s family moments before his execution.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta and retired Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah had asked the Georgia panel Sept. 12 to stop the clock ticking toward Davis’ execution.
“The death penalty is irreversibly wrong when there is an execution of a person who may possibly be innocent. The conviction and death sentence of Mr. Davis was based on testimony of key witnesses and did not result from physical evidence,” the prelates said.
“The Gospel that Christians proclaim is a Gospel of mercy, love and forgiveness. We believe that the death penalty is not compatible with the Gospel. The common good and public security can be achieved in other ways. The Gospel calls us to proclaim the sacredness of human life under all circumstances.”
“As a church, we begin Respect for Life Month in October,” said the Catholic Mobilization Network statement. “The execution of Davis, surrounded by the considerable doubt of guilt, is a glaring reminder of the work that still needs to be done to end the use of the death penalty.”
Amnesty International, the Innocence Project and the NAACP were among the organizations seeking to keep Davis alive.
In Texas Jeffery Patterson, executive director of the state’s Catholic conference, said the Texas Catholic bishops “have strenuously opposed the death penalty because it violates the Catholic faith regarding the sacredness of human life.”
“The most recent execution underscores our commitment—and that of our partners—to advocate and educate policymakers and the public about the morally objectionable use of the death penalty in Texas,” he said.