Cities for Life, an event held to protest the death penalty in Florida, was held in three locations on Friday, Nov. 30 – Jacksonville, St. Augustine and Gainesville.

(From left to right) Deacon Hect, Deacon Lawrence Geinosky of the Basilica, Emma Tacke, Nancy O’Byrne, Bobbi Jean Murray and Stephen Harper light candles to represent those currently on death row in Florida. (photo by Woody Huband)

JACKSONVILLE

By Savanna Kearney

The death penalty – one of the most under-discussed human rights issues among Catholics and others in this country – was the focus of the Cities for Life event on Friday, Nov. 30. The Diocese of St. Augustine hosted the event in three to call attention to the need to abolish the death penalty worldwide.

In 2002, the Rome-based Sant’Egidio community launched the first international “Cities for Life, Cities against the Death Penalty” to coincide with the anniversary of the first city to abolish the death penalty in history, which occurred in Grand Duchy of Tuscany on Nov. 30, 1786.

Although this was the fourth annual Cities for Life held in the Diocese of St. Augustine, it was the first time it was offered in Jacksonville. Coordinated by Deacon Lowell Hect, director of Prison Ministry, four speakers covered a wide-range of topics regarding the death penalty. The theme of this year’s Cities for Life was “No Justice Without Life.”

The first speaker was Stephen Harper, who runs a death penalty clinic at the FIU College of Law Clinical Program based in Miami. Harper’s presentation touched on various topics concerning Florida’s laws on the death penalty. According to Harper, Florida law has changed in favor of life, meaning a judge can no longer override a life sentence from a jury in favor of the death penalty, but a judge can override a death penalty in favor of a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

“Florida is in a unique place right now. The law is better than it was. The legislature is going to listen to you, if we get an active public grassroots movement against the death penalty,” said Harper.

Next, Nancy O’Byrne of Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (FADP), presented five reasons why the death penalty should be abolished, including that the system is biased against those who are poor, people of color and people with mental illness. She talked about how it is more expensive to execute a criminal than to give them a life sentence, and that the money saved by choosing life could be put towards investigating the more than 14,000 unsolved homicides in Florida.

Following O’Byrne’s presentation, Bobbi Jean Murray shared her experience with the death penalty. On April 10, 2016, Bobbi Jean’s brother, Steven James Murray, murdered Father Rene Robert, a priest of the Diocese of St. Augustine. Father Robert strongly believed in abolishing the death penalty, so much so that in 1995 he signed a Declaration of Life that says should he ever be murdered, his killer should not be executed. Ultimately, Murray was sentenced to life in prison.

“If the justice system and government would put as much effort into helping people as they do trying to kill them, then I believe our world would be a safer and better place,” said Bobbi Jean.

Finally, Emma Tacke of the Catholic Mobilizing Network spoke about tangible steps people can take to help end the death penalty, including signing the National Catholic Pledge to End the Death Penalty, contacting Florida legislators, holding and attending prayer vigils and becoming a pen pal with someone on death row.

At 7:30 p.m., churches rang their bells for one minute in solidarity against the death penalty. A Q&A session followed the speaker’s presentations, and then those attending lit candles to represent the 343 men and women who are currently on death row in Florida.

 

(From left to right) Chris Moser, J.D., Kathy Dillon and Timothy Johnson, Ph.D. at the Cities for Life event in St. Augustine. (photo by Rudy Foschi)

ST. AUGUSTINE

By Jeff Brumley

The death penalty continues to be unfairly applied, serves little more than a desire for revenge and does not bring closure and healing to victims’ families.

Those were among the messages shared by death penalty experts during the fourth annual Cities for Life celebration held Nov. 30 at The Shrine of Our Lady of La Leche at Mission Nombre de Dios in St. Augustine.

The event was observed in cities around the world and in two other locations in Florida: Jacksonville and Gainesville. It included messages expressing solidarity against capital punishment and the ringing of church bells to mark the day.

At the Shrine, the messages were wide-ranging in perspective, and included talks by a scholar, an attorney specializing in death penalty cases and a woman who has grieved the homicides of a family member and boyfriend.

One obstacle that death-penalty opponents confront is the fact that the Bible is “awash” in verses condoning the practice, said Timothy Johnson, professor of religion at Flagler College.

But there also are passages supporting child sacrifice and slavery – practices people of faith have long abandoned due to a growing understanding of God’s love and mercy, he said.

The Catholic Church once taught that state-sanctioned executions were acceptable in the rare cases when there was no other way to protect society.

However, Pope Francis has directed that the Catechism be changed to reflect a changing understanding that the death penalty is inadmissible under any circumstances. The church’s emphasis has shifted to the centrality of the dignity of human life, Johnson said.

That’s good news for Catholics who love their Bible and who oppose capital punishment, he said.

“We don’t have to throw away the Bible to fight for human justice.”

The gradual development of Catholic social teaching on capital punishment, now culminating with Pope Francis, is a sign of hope that fundamental changes are in the making.

The message, Johnson said, is that “mercy triumphs over all, even when we want revenge.”

In fact, there isn’t really any argument for death penalty proponents other than revenge and retribution, said Chris Moser, a professor of law at Flagler College.

However, there are a number of moral and even legal reasons to oppose it, she said. They include unfair and discriminatory application, sometimes poor legal representation and a wide scope of offenses – other than directly killing someone – that can get people sent to death row.

And the growing number of death row exonerees is evidence that the system is broken and should be abandoned, she said.

Efforts to shorten the time for death penalty appeals in Florida to five years should also be opposed because many exonerees were found to be innocent well after five years of incarceration, Moser added.

She called for more activism to oppose capital punishment “and to make it as hard as possible for this to happen.”

Even when guilty persons are executed it offers no real healing for the victims’ families, said Kathy Dillon, whose father, a New York state trooper, was killed in 1974 and whose boyfriend was a homicide victim a decade later.

Even as a child, Dillon said, she was opposed to the death penalty for her father’s killer.

“Killing is wrong no matter who is doing the killing,” she said.

Years of appeals associated with death penalty cases exacerbate the pain for everyone involved. The man convicted in her father’s death was sentenced to prison but not death.

“I didn’t have to come to terms with another killing – a state-sponsored killing,” she said. “Executing him would not have brought peace or closure.”

Nor does the practice actually prevent homicides, Dillon added, noting that it didn’t protect her father.

She added that Catholic teaching has sustained her through her grief, especially knowing that Christ forgave his executioners and that he taught mercy, compassion and forgiveness.

 

GAINESVILLE

By Savanna Kearney

By Savanna Kearney

People from all over Gainesville gathered at St. Patrick Catholic Church Friday, Nov. 30 at 6:30 p.m. to fight for a singular cause: the abolition of the death penalty. Speakers at the event included Sonya Rudenstein, J.D., who is on the Amicus Committee for the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Christine Henderson from Equal Justice USA and Floridians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (FADP) and Herb Donaldson, the nephew of a deceased death row inmate.

During her presentation, Rudenstein shared her experience as a lawyer, and spoke about the number of innocent people who are falsely convicted of a crime and put on death row.

“Nationwide, for every nine people who have been sentenced to death and executed, one person on death row has been identified as innocent. In Florida, the error rate is more than double that.

Donaldson shared the detailed and story of his uncle, who was executed on Dec. 6, 1996 for the murder of a young man in 1982. Donaldson maintains that his uncle was innocent.

“He was like a big brother to me, and he was special to all of us.”

Henderson wrapped up the event by touching on what people can tangibly do to help put an end to the death penalty.

“I think the most important thing you can do is get involved. Lift your voices. Sign that petition. Stand up and speak out about the death penalty,” said Henderson.