Faith leaders express opposition to death penalty as federal executions resume

Facebook/Prison Fellowship
Facebook/Prison Fellowship

Faith leaders opposed to the death penalty have condemned the federal government's decision to begin carrying out executions this week after a 17-year hiatus.

On Thursday, authorities put to death inmate Wesley Ira Purkey, 68, who was sentenced to death in 2003 for the rape and murder of 16-year-old Jennifer Long in Missouri. Authorities said after Purkey killed Long, he dismembered and burned her body. He then dumped her remains in a septic pond. 

Before Purkey was sentenced to death for Long's murder, he pleaded guilty to killing 80-year-old Mary Ruth Bales, for which he was sentenced to life in prison. 

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On Tuesday, Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, was executed by lethal injection of pentobarbital. Both Lee and Purkey were executed at the U.S. Penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana. 

Lee, whose execution was the first of four federal executions scheduled this summer, was sentenced by a jury to receive the death penalty for his part in a triple murder. He and his accomplice tortured and killed William Mueller, his wife, Nancy, and her 8-year-old daughter, Sarah Powell, in Tilly, Arkansas, in January 1996. Their bodies were later recovered in June of that year. 

On Friday, inmate Dustin Lee Honken is scheduled to be put to death, followed by the execution of Keith Dwayne Nelson in late August. 

The Catholic Mobilizing Network, a group committed to ending the death penalty in the U.S., released a statement expressing disappointment about Lee’s execution, and all other scheduled executions, describing them as “unnecessary and avoidable.”

The same group organized a petition last year signed by nearly 3,000 Catholics days after the Justice Department asked the U.S. Supreme Court to lift a preliminary injunction that had prevented federal executions for nearly two decades. 

“The federal government relentlessly plotted its course to execute Daniel Lee despite a historic decline in public support for the death penalty, clear opposition by the victims’ family, unwavering Catholic opposition to the restart of federal executions, and an unyielding global pandemic which has already taken more than 135,000 American lives,” said Kristine Vaillancourt Murphy, the group’s executive director.

Similarly, a group of more than 1,000 faith leaders from across the country representing several denominations issued a joint statement calling on President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr to “stop the scheduled federal executions.” 

They cite the “COVID-19 pandemic, an economic crisis, and systemic racism in the legal system” as reasons why the federal government should focus on “protecting and preserving life” rather than “carrying out executions.”

Signatories of this joint statement included Catholic priests, bishops and nuns, Protestant preachers and pastors and Jewish rabbis.

Lee's execution was opposed by the Mueller's surviving relatives who said they wanted him to be sentenced to life in prison, not the death penalty. 

"This is not being done in our name; we do not want this," relative Monica Veillette said, according to The Associated Press

Relatives of other murder victims have also come out forcefully against capital punishment in a letter sent to Trump and Barr.

"We are family members of murder victims,” the letter reds. “We have had loved ones taken from us by senseless violence. While we each have a unique story, our experiences with the criminal justice system and our struggles with grief and trauma have united us. Together, we ask you not to resume federal executions."

However, the father of one of Purkey's victims said he was ready to see the man convicted of his daughter’s murder take his last breath. 

"We took care of today what we needed to take care. He needed to take his last breath because he took my daughter's last breath. There is no closure. There never will be because I won't get my daughter back," William Long told reporters, according to The Indianapolis Star

Department of Justice Spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said in a statement after Purkey was pronounced dead that Purkey was found guilty of “kidnapping a child resulting in death.” Purkey was sentenced to death on Jan. 23, 2004.

"After many years of litigation following the death of his victims, in which he lived and was afforded every due process of law under our Constitution, Purkey has finally faced justice,” Kupec added. 

“The death penalty has been upheld by the federal courts, supported on a bipartisan basis by Congress, and approved by Attorneys General under both Democratic and Republican administrations as the appropriate sentence for the most egregious federal crimes. Today that just punishment has been carried out.”

In the past decade, the push to abolish the death penalty has gained traction within religious communities. The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, previously explained the religious case against the death penalty, urging the faithful to “stand up for life from conception to natural death.”

“As Christians, we need to take a long, hard look at the way the death penalty is functioning in our country,” Rodriguez wrote last November. “It doesn’t take long to discover that the entire system — including at the federal and state level — is defective and beyond repair. I have found that the more you know about capital punishment, the more you feel the urgency to fight for its end.” 

As religious communities have become more outspoken in their opposition to the death penalty, a growing number of conservatives have come out against capital punishment as well.

Hannah Cox, the national manager for the group Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, said that Republicans at the federal level are “out of step with the many Republican state legislators” nationwide who are sponsoring death penalty repeal bills. 

She said Republicans in Washington are also out of step with “hundreds of conservative state-based activists who say capital punishment goes against their principles of fiscal responsibility, limited government, and valuing life.”

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, Republican state legislators sponsored death penalty abolition bills in 11 states in 2019. Those include conservative-leaning states such as Wyoming, Montana and Kentucky.

In 2017, Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty released a report that found 31% of the sponsors of death penalty abolition bills were Republicans, a substantial increase from the share of Republicans who sponsored bills to abolish the death penalty in 2007. 

In spite of the rising opposition to the death penalty at the state level and the removal of support for the death penalty from several state Republican Party platforms, support for capital punishment remained in the Republican Party platform in 2016.

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