Dear Governor Deal (and Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles)*:
As a Catholic moral theologian (and a former corrections officer and reserve police officer), I wish to go on record in requesting that you do not execute (and that you instead commute her sentence) Kelly Gissendaner, who is scheduled to die in Georgia on Monday night, March 2nd. In my past experience in law enforcement and in lay ecclesial ministry, I knew first hand murderers, victims of murder, and families of the murdered. As a Catholic theologian, I agree with the teaching of recent popes and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on the death penalty.
Sixteen years ago, while visiting St. Louis, Pope John Paul II–now Saint John Paul–asked then-Governor Mel Carnahan of Missouri to commute the death sentence of Darrell Mease, and the governor complied with his request. Moreover, John Paul called for the abolition of the death penalty:
The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform. I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary. –Pope John Paul II, January 27, 1999, St. Louis, Missouri
Current Catholic teaching views executions carried out by state authorities as morally justified if it is “the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.” Paragraph 2267 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church adds: “Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm–without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself–the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity ‘are very rare, if not practically nonexistent'” (quoting John Paul II, Evangelium vitae, 56).
The execution of Kelly Gissendaner is not necessary for the protection of the citizens of Georgia (or for the protection of the officers, staff, or other inmates at the prison). Nor does it make up for the horrible crime that she admits she committed. All persons, we Christians believe, are made in the image of God–not only the victims of violent crime and their family members, who definitely need our love and support, but also the murderers, for even perpetrators are persons. As Saint John Paul II put it, “Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this” (Evangelium vitae, 9). No one is beyond God’s redemption. Ms. Gissendaner has studied theology while in prison; she is a mentor to other prisoners; she is a peacemaker behind bars. Thus many faith leaders, clergy, theologians, and others are petitioning for her execution to be stopped. I have known inmates who seemed to me to be “playing religion,” but her story seems, in my view, to be genuine. While justice must be done, may it be tempered with mercy. Please do not execute Ms. Gissendaner.
(Also posted at the The Huffington Post on March 2, 2015).
*UPDATE (at 4:26 PM CST, March 2, 2015): Although I did not know at the time I wrote this yesterday (when those more closely involved asked me and others to contact the governor), the governor of Georgia does not make decisions regarding clemency. Nevertheless, he still has a say (even if informally or behind the scenes) and can influence what happens. And this was why I also addressed it to the panel (although the title of this post did not indicate so). For a precedent, though, on how the Board of Pardons and Paroles in the past stopped an execution after a similar groundswell of letters, signatures, and the like, see Shane Claiborne’s post at Sojourners’ blog site.
**UPDATE (at 6:29 PM CST, March 2, 2015): The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied clemency to Ms. Gissendaner.
***UPDATE (at 10:45 PM CST, March 2, 2015): The execution has been postponed due to a problem with the drug, pentobarbital, used for lethal injection–a problem I wrote about in an article that appeared in the Christian Century magazine on August 18, 2014 in connection with executions in Arizona, Oklahoma, and Ohio.
****UPDATE (at 3:00 PM CST, March 3, 2015): The Georgia Department of Corrections released a press release announcing: “…out of an abundance of caution, the scheduled executions of Kelly Renee Gissendaner and Brian Keith Terrell, have been postponed while an analysis is conducted of the drugs planned for use in last night’s scheduled execution of inmate Gissendaner.
The sentencing courts will issue new execution orders when the Department is prepared to proceed.”
It seems you are presenting two arguments in opposition to this execution. One, that the church opposes capital punishment, and two, that Ms. Gissendaner deserves mercy for having in all likelihood rehabilitated herself.
The argument that the church opposes capital punishment is the weaker of the two, for while it is surely true that the last three popes have personally opposed its use, Catholic doctrine on the matter is something else. This assertion, it seems, makes the point: “All persons, we Christians believe, are made in the image of God–not only the victims of violent crime and their family members, who definitely need our love and support, but also the murderers, for even perpetrators are persons.”
We know man is made in the image of God because God himself tells us that in Gn 9:6. The problem is that this knowledge is given to us as the reason why the person who commits murder is to be executed himself: “Whoever sheds the blood of man by man shall his blood be shed, because man is made in the image of God.” That is, the life of a murderer is forfeit because the life of his victim was sacred, not as you have interpreted it to mean that the life of the murderer is secured because his life is sacred.
The request that “While justice must be done, may it be tempered with mercy seems to contain within it this acknowledgment: that the just punishment in this case is execution, otherwise not executing her could hardly be seen as merciful. I have no opinion on whether in this case mercy should be shown and her sentence commuted, but I do believe that execution is the just punishment.
Thank you for this eloquent appeal. One small correction: Pope John Paul’s visit to St Louis was SIXTEEN years ago, not 26. Those of us who are Missourians will never forget that day in 1999 when he visited our state (those of us from the Ozarks regret that he did not see the most beautiful part of the state, but that is as it may be).
Thank you for your moving post.