By Bonny Van

The Catholic Commentator 

On Tuesday, April 30, Louisiana Senate Judiciary Committee C made history by approving SB112, which creates a proposed constitutional amendment to abolish the death penalty.  

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Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux leads a rally of faith healers on the steps of the state capitol on Thursday, April 25, to oppose the death penalty in the state of Louisiana.  Photo by Bonny Van | The Catholic Commentator 

 

Bill author Sen. Dan Claitor, along with co-sponsors Sen. Jean-Paul Morell and Rep. Terry Landry, kicked off the emotionally-charged meeting with an hour of stirring testimony.  

“I believe the death penalty is morally wrong. Killing of a human being is morally wrong,” said Rep. Landry, a former military and law enforcement officer who admitted he once supported the death penalty. “I also believe our system is driven sometimes by overzealous police officers, overzealous prosecutors, political pressure and sometimes we get it wrong.  

“And I ask you today to look deep into your hearts and into your soul and ask, ‘Is it worth putting an innocent person to death for a crime they did not commit?’ Our communities are no safer because of the death penalty. And all we have to do is look at the statistics. 

Sen. Morrell, a former public defender, testified that ” the resources of the state to convict someone are infinite in comparison to the resources of individuals to defend themselves,” leading to successful convictions.  He also noted that the intervention of other groups, providing additional resources, have helped exonerate innocent men on death row across the country as well as in Louisiana.  

 “Life in prison is a miserable awful existence. And it is not a punishment to be taken lightly because when you convict someone and put them in prison for life, that life for all practical purposes ceases to move. You kind of get trapped in a hellish amber at Angola where you are toiling and remembering the awful things you’ve done both personally and at the hands of your fellow inmates depending on the deed you did,” Sen. Morrell said before a crowded committee room. “That being said, if government makes a mistake, despite the years that are lost to that individual who is toiling away at Angola or wherever else and the horror that is prison, we can still correct it.” 

After hearing from Sen. Morrell, committee member Sen. Troy Carter proposed amending the bill to 2020 during the presidential election cycle “to ensure maximum participation” from voters.  

“Plus it’ll give both sides a lot of lead time for education for and against the position,” responded Sen. Morell.  

Rob Tasman, executive director of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, reminded committee members that “we have for the past two years (supported) a repeal of the death penalty.” 

Presenting a case based on Catholic faith teaching of the “life and dignity of the human being,” Tasman quoted St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis.  

“Pope Francis has stated clearly that the death penalty also supports the fallacy of justice,” he said. “The death penalty does not render justice to victims and obligates the state to kill in the name of justice, and justice can never be brought by killing a human being.”  

Tasman noted the bishops in the Catholic Church “very sincerely recognize the pain of the family members of the victims associated with the many heinous crimes that lead to the sentencing of the death penalty to the perpetrators” and that their support is always with the family members of the victims through counsel, compassion and understanding.  

“And in this way, the bishops support of the repeal does not diminish the pain of those family members of victims,” he testified. “Instead, it truly affirms the life of the family members because it in itself affirms life itself.”  

Tasman also referenced the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states “the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” 

“St. Pope John Paul II stated that not even a murderer loses his personal dignity as God himself pledges to guarantee this. For this reason whoever attacks life in some ways attacks God himself,” said Tasman. “We must recognize the redemptive nature of the soul. When we execute an individual we strip that person of the opportunity to repent and to be reconciled and to renew their relationship with their creator. We put ourselves, ourselves as flawed human beings in that place in which God alone stands. This should make us at the very least nothing less than uncomfortable.”  

Tasman wrapped up his testimony with a story about his own visit to Angola’s death row with Bishop Emeritus Robert W. Muench and witnessing an exchange with the bishop talking to the youngest inmate there, whom at first seemed disengaged.  

“As the bishop walked away, that same inmate was in uncontrollable sobs and tears. Why? I don’t have the answer. What was said? I have no idea. That was a private exchange between Bishop Muench and the inmate. But it highlights at the very least there is the possibility of redemption,” he said.  

Tasman was followed by additional testimony supporting SB112, including that from public defenders and a health official, all of whom presented statistics on racial bias and socioeconomic bias toward offenders sentenced to death. An hour time allotment was also allowed for those who opposed SB112 before the committee voted 4-2 in support of the measure.  

The move came just five days after religious leaders, community advocates and others gathered on the steps of the state capitol calling on state lawmakers to abolish the death penalty during the 2019 legislative session.  

“I stand here and raise my voice with my brothers and sisters in stating the importance of abolishing capital punishment in our state, in our nation as well as in the relatively very few places it remains practiced in the world,” said Bishop Shelton J. Fabre of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux who led the rally. “With the availability of other options such as life imprisonment the church considers the death penalty inadmissible and is an attack against the holiness and sanctity of life.”