This Lent, U.S. Catholics are called to reckon with the sin of capital punishment

By Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy
America Magazine
March 23, 2020

On March 5, Thursday in the first week of Lent, the state of Alabama executed Nathaniel Woods, a 43-year-old black man convicted of the murders of three white police officers.

The thing is, he did not kill anyone. This fact is undisputed.

Mr. Woods’s co-defendant, Kerry Spencer, took sole responsibility for the shootings—“[Woods] is 100% innocent,” he put in a handwritten letter. Nevertheless, an overwhelmingly white jury voted 10 to 2 to execute Mr. Woods in the only U.S. state to still allow death sentences by nonunanimous juries.

On the night of Mr. Woods’s execution, outrage erupted across the country, including from Catholic leaders like Helen Prejean, C.S.J., who asked, “Would [this execution] ever happen to a white person of means?”

Underlying the outrage was a simmering truth: Racialized killing in the United States has been going on for a long, long time.

In the holy season of Lent, from the solemn reminder on Ash Wednesday that we are dust, and to dust we will return, to the liturgical commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday, matters of life and death come keenly into focus. It is also meant to be a time of repentance, a reckoning with our sinful ways. Yet in the middle lands of these 40 days, I am burdened by the fact that our society has not yet reckoned with the ongoing sin of capital punishment nor the full extent of our country’s racist past, which props up our death penalty system to this day.

Take, for instance, the vast disparities in death sentencing that hinge on a murder victim’s race. After Mr. Woods’s execution, the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative reported that “a stunning 84% of Alabama executions in the modern era have been carried out for crimes involving white victims even though only 20% of the state’s homicide victims are white.”

Racial discrimination in jury selection also remains rampant, including in Mr. Woods’s case, where prosecutors excluded “every qualified black prospective juror except two in a county that is majority black,” according to E.J.I.

In its 2018 pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops names how “the evil of racism festers in part because, as a nation, there has been very limited formal acknowledgement of the harm done to so many, no moment of atonement, no national process of reconciliation and, all too often a neglect of our history.”

The reality is that racism permeates our death penalty system in the United States, especially in southern states like Alabama, where legacies of slavery and lynching set a gruesome backdrop for our racialized application of state-sanctioned killing.

Indeed, the recent execution of Nathaniel Woods struck an eerie chord for many, given the similarities between his story and countless others in our nation’s past.

One case, in particular, has recently recaptured America’s attention following the December 2019 release of “Just Mercy,” the award-winning film adaptation of E.J.I. founder Bryan Stevenson’s bestselling memoir by the same name.

“Just Mercy” tells the story of Walter McMillian who, like Nathaniel Woods, was a black man convicted of murdering a white victim in Alabama. In both cases, it was a majority-white jury that decided their lives had lost their value. One was eventually exonerated. One was executed.

From where I sit at Catholic Mobilizing Network, the national Catholic organization working to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice, it has been heartening to watch Catholics flock to this film. In the three months since the film’s release, more than 10,000 Catholics have sought out C.M.N.’s Just Mercy Catholic Study Guide, and another 800 church leaders opted into a webinar C.M.N. co-hosted about the film.

“Just Mercy” has exposed a hunger to reckon with painful truths in order to transform our broken systems and sinful ways. Lent is the time to recommit to that work. It is our Gospel call.

On March 28, 1958, in the middle of another Lenten season, the state of Alabama executed Jeremiah Reeves for the rape of a white woman. Mr. Reeves had been sentenced to death at the age of 16, following a two-day long interrogation in which questioners deprived him of sleep and strapped him into an electric chair, telling him the only way to avoid the death penalty was to confess.

He did so, then recanted.

Nine days after his execution, on Easter Sunday, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the state capitol in Montgomery and gave a sermon before a crowd of 2,000 people.

“The death of Jeremiah Reeves is only the precipitating factor for our protest, not the causal factor,” Dr. King said. “The causal factor lies deep down in the dark and dreary past of our oppression.”

Similarly, the death of Nathaniel Woods is not the causal factor for our outrage today. Rather, it is the fact that even in the 62 years since Dr. King’s Easter homily, our death penalty system still targets men like Jeremiah Reeves, Walter McMillian and Nathaniel Woods and says their lives have no value.

But it does not have to be this way. Our country has shown it can move on from these faulty standards of so-called justice. In 2018, shortly after a historic revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church declared the death penalty “inadmissible” in all cases, the Washington State Supreme Court outlawed capital punishment, citing concerns about arbitrariness and racial bias. And just last month, Colorado’s legislature voted to become the 22nd state to abolish the practice. (Editor’s note: On March 23, Colorado’s Gov. Jared Polis signed the state’s death penalty repeal bill into law.)

A better way is calling us forward, reminding me of Isaiah 43:19: “I am about to do a new thing, now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

The church teaches that “racism is a life issue.” So, too, is capital punishment. Our sordid histories of racism and capital punishment form a fatally insidious system that denies the God-given dignity inherent in every human person.

It is precisely in this season of Lent, that we must remember we are an Easter people. Called to uphold God’s image and likeness present in each human person regardless of race, we are obliged to save lives and work to abolish the things that deal death.

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