Saturday, June 20, 2009

Connecticut bishops ask governor to support death penalty repeal

(Publication Date: 06-02-2009)

By Catholic News Service

HARTFORD, Conn. (CNS) -- Connecticut's Catholic bishops have asked Gov. M. Jodi Rell to back a repeal of the death penalty in the state.

Rell, a Republican, vowed May 22 to veto a death penalty repeal bill passed by the Democratic-run General Assembly "as soon as it hits my desk."

The bishops' May 28 letter to Rell asked her to "respect the decision of the General Assembly, reconsider your publicly stated position on this bill, and allow (it) to become the law of the land in Connecticut."

"While Catholic social and moral teaching support the right of any state to protect itself from serous criminals, it has long held that such action does not require the use of the death penalty when the penal system can guarantee the incarceration of an offender for life," the bishops said.

"Although a perpetrator of a heinous crime may receive a sentence of death in Connecticut, the possibility that this person will actually be executed is very unlikely," they added. "It is highly questionable that the existence of a death penalty is a deterrent to those who commit a capital crime."

The bishops also noted the cost of "unending appeals" in capital punishment cases and the "inconsistent and uneven way" the death penalty is applied in the state.

The bill passed 90-56 in the state House, but 19-17 in the Senate, making Rell's threatened veto difficult to override, since a two-thirds majority would be needed.

There are 10 men currently on Connecticut's death row, including prisoners who committed their crimes in the 1980s.

In Missouri, Bishop Robert W. Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, asked for clemency for Reginald Clemons in the April 1991 murders of Robin and Julie Kerry. The sisters were raped and then pushed off a bridge.

The bishop noted he recently joined the other Catholic bishops of the state and the Missouri Catholic Conference, public policy arm of the state's bishops, in a petition asking Gov. Jay Nixon for clemency.

There are issues of "significant doubt" regarding Clemons' involvement in the murders, Bishop Finn said in a June 1 statement. Even so, he added, the clemency request is based on "a more basic principle of the fundamental dignity and value of every human life, even those guilty of the most heinous crimes."

Clemons, scheduled to be executed June 17, is one of 13 currently on Missouri's death row.

"It is my hope that our Missouri legislators will also renew initiatives for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty and establish a study commission to resolve inequities in our system, which work against the application of justice," Bishop Finn said.

In Tennessee, Paul House was fully exonerated May 12 after DNA evidence cleared him in the 1985 beating death of a woman. Tennessee prosecutors dropped all charges against House and decided not to retry him in the murder case.

House had spent more than two decades on death row. Now afflicted with multiple sclerosis, he uses a wheelchair. "I think it's over. Finally," he said in a statement. "I didn't do it."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that any juror would have had a reasonable doubt about House's guilt if they had been shown the DNA evidence and other new information that would have discredited his conviction. House was released on bond last year when a federal judge ruled that he receive a new trial or be set free.

The Death Penalty Information Center said it was the 132nd exoneration from death row since 1973, but only the second in 2009 and the second in Tennessee since it reinstated the death penalty in 1977.

Bob Barr, a Republican member of the U.S. House from 1995-2003 and a U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Georgia 1986-90, argued in a May 31 opinion piece in The New York Times for the exoneration of another convicted man, Troy Davis.

"No court has ever heard the evidence of Mr. Davis' innocence," Barr said. He added courts have misread the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, which he helped write. "Nothing in the statute should have left the courts with the impression that they were barred from hearing claims of actual innocence like Troy Davis'," he said.

Davis was convicted in the 1989 murder of an off-duty police officer in Savannah, Ga. Noting that he signed a friend-of-the-court brief on Davis' behalf, Barr said, "I am a firm believer in the death penalty, but I am an equally firm believer in the rights and protections guaranteed by the Constitution. To execute Troy Davis without having a court hear the evidence of his innocence would be unconscionable and unconstitutional."

In Florida, new oral arguments were heard May 20 in the case of John Marek, who with Raymond Wigley was convicted in the 1983 kidnapping, rape and slaying of 47-year-old Adella Simmons in Dania Beach, Fla. Marek received the death penalty, but Wigley received a life sentence. Marek's attorney contends Wigley is the actual killer and said three of Wigley's former prison mates claimed Wigley confessed to Simmons' strangulation.

The attorney, Martin McClain, said he believes Marek's sentence was unconstitutional and that the 25 years Marek has spent on death row constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Marek's scheduled May 13 execution was postponed May 11.

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