By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special To The Bulletin | Published October 25, 2012
Deacon Norm Keller recently visited the Hall County Detention Center and prayed with a man charged with a capital offense who is discerning a plea bargain decision. If he goes to trial, he could face the death penalty.
Deacon Keller first ministered to the prisoner two years ago at the Fulton County Jail. The inmate was transferred to the Gainesville facility but asked to meet again with the deacon, who made the trip out of his desire to be Christ’s presence to the imprisoned.
“He asked if I could come up and pray with him about it. … I went to basically visit with him and listen to what he had to say and pray with him and read Scripture and have contact with him so he knows there is hope and doesn’t fall into despair,” the deacon said. His ministry is spiritual.
People hold a banner and signs on the steps of the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta during a vigil for death-row inmate Troy Davis before his execution in 2011. More than 200 Catholic theologians, scholars and social justice advocates cite the executions of Troy Davis in Georgia and Lawrence Brewer in Texas that year as prompting their call for abolishing the death penalty. (Photo by Michael Alexander)
In weekly visits to two jails and a state prison, Deacon Keller finds that “even though these men have committed heinous crimes, the mercy of the Lord reaches them if they are repentant and contrite. … The Lord’s mercy goes to their soul just like the Lord forgave the people on the cross.”
He added, “We need to do the same thing. Not that they shouldn’t be punished, but we don’t need to take their life.”
During October, Deacon Keller, and other members of the archdiocesan task force of Georgia Catholics Against the Death Penalty (GACADP), invite Catholics to join them in efforts to end use of the death penalty, making it part of the church’s mission to uphold the dignity of all human life from conception to natural death. The church calls October “Respect Life” month.
Deacon Richard Tolcher, a retired federal chaplain and coordinator of the archdiocesan Prison and Jail Ministry, established GACADP with others 13 months ago. The task force collaborates with the archdiocesan Respect Life Ministry and Justice & Peace Ministries to offer workshops and build a network of parish leaders and others to foster ongoing prayerful witness against the death penalty. Working in broader partnerships with Georgians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty and the Catholic Mobilizing Network, GACADP has a growing list of around 500 who have signed up through their website to receive updates and alerts.
“I had the idea to form a task force to see where we could go to make it more relevant to a million Catholics in the archdiocese. The first thing we realized was we need education so we built a website,” said Deacon Tolcher. “I think conversion will take place gradually. It’s a matter of education, knowledge and awareness … (on) the ills of fighting violence with violence.”
The task force educates Catholics on social teaching on the death penalty and galvanizes persons to action whether by participating in vigils, contacting their legislators, praying for the criminals, victims and their families, or writing the Georgia Board of Pardon and Paroles to seek clemency. Among recent activity, in July the Georgia Supreme Court stayed the execution of Warren Hill to consider an appeal by the inmate challenging Georgia’s recent switch to a single drug execution method.
Attorney Frank Mulcahy of the Georgia Catholic Conference stressed the need for GACADP as bills to repeal the death penalty will again come up in the next legislative session.
“Unfortunately, passage of those bills will be difficult since I do not sense a popular groundswell in Georgia against the death penalty. The work of GACADP is important in educating Georgians, and Georgia Catholics in particular, about the need for reform. Abolition of the death penalty is a life issue and gets emphasis from the Georgia Catholic Conference even in the face of political opposition,” Mulcahy said.
The primary reason for church opposition is the sanctity of all human life rather than the fact that many are wrongly convicted, emphasized Kat Doyle, director of Justice & Peace Ministries.
“In today’s society, life in prison without parole is a nonlethal alternative to the death penalty that makes more sense across the board. … We try to come together and look at where does our state stand in terms of laws regarding the death penalty and how prisoners on death row are treated, and we try to address those issues. … We believe that every single person whether they are guilty or innocent has the right to life through to the natural end,” she said. “The overarching theme is restorative justice, bringing about a balance, a harmony where some type of harm has taken place.”
Doyle said she was somewhat apathetic on the issue until she heard a talk by Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph who has devoted her ministry to this issue. Sister Helen spoke of other compelling reasons to oppose the death penalty, such as the higher cost of a death penalty conviction versus life imprisonment, the wrongful convictions that have led to an average of five death row inmates being exonerated each year nationally since 2000, and racial disparities in applying the death penalty, based on the race of the victim and the race of the accused.
The execution of Troy Davis in Georgia last year despite worldwide pleas for clemency due to questions about his guilt spurred longtime activist Erik Wilkinson onward. Wilkinson created the website for the task force.
“Typically what we have is actions to try and bring clemency or do any kind of activity to try and save a life and it’s been a pretty small participation of Catholics,” he said. “We got together to try to find a way that we could first prayerfully inform Catholic clergy and lay folks alike about Catholic teaching on capital punishment and then provide ways to take their faith and move it to the next level and really start to take action and really have the Catholic voice make an impact in Georgia.”
Deacon Chester Griffin was also galvanized to action by the Davis case and inspired by the many people of good will he encountered working on the death penalty issue. He believes capital punishment diminishes life’s value for all people and is disturbed by the disproportionate number of people of color on death row.
“When someone is executed, they are executed in the name of the people of Georgia, which includes all Catholics,” Deacon Griffin said. “Just as we have to respect life at the beginning, we also have to respect life throughout all of its stages and even if the life has committed a crime.”
“Getting to as many churches and organizations within the Catholic Church is extremely important,” he said.
In doing that, task force members are determined to change the cultural mindset in the South, which has the highest rates of murder and over 80 percent of executions. Deacon Tolcher is encouraged that the number of executions nationwide has dropped 56 percent since 1999 and 17 states have abolished use of the death penalty. Catholics had a strong influence in abolishing its use in Connecticut this year, he said. Other states, like Pennsylvania, still have the death penalty, but haven’t carried out an execution in years.
“I see change taking place, and I think we can continue that and influence the change in a positive direction,” he said.
Deacon Keller gladly partners in that work to form Georgia Catholics as he brings a weekly Catholic presence to prisoners, feeling led by the Spirit to this ministry in retirement.
At the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center in Jackson, he’s met with men two weeks before their death and in those meetings read with them the penitential Psalm 51: “Have mercy on me, O God. … Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.”
That work deepens his conviction that the worst criminals deserve a chance to repent and live righteously until death in prison. He hopes pro-life activists can bring their passion to the death penalty issue.
“Life is life,” he said. “Only the Lord has the power to judge. Justice can’t be done with vengeance.”