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Christian Coalition Escalates Fight Against Death Penalty, Calls For Fair Hearings And Clemency

Christian leaders intensify fight against death penalty, argue for fair hearings and mercy for inmates on death row.

 A coalition of diverse Christian leaders across the United States have intensified their fight this week against the death penalty, arguing that the state has the right to take the life of another.

“We have to look at the death penalty for what it really is. Justice is not often done at our state system because over 83% of court cases held in death penalty cases were reversed when they had a chance to be review by the federal courts,” said Helen Prejean, the Catholic nun made famous in the film “Dead Man Walking.”  

 A coalition of diverse Christian leaders across the United States have intensified their fight this week against the death penalty, arguing that the state has the right to take the life of another. SISTER HELEN PREJEAN WEBSITE 

Prejean joined faith leaders on Tuesday — a day set aside by advocates each year as “World Day Against the Death Penalty” — and called on in Louisiana to hold clemency hearings for all inmates on death row.

Prejean, 84, became the spiritual adviser in Louisiana to a pair of men on death row in 1984. Prejean’s experiences eventually became a book. Published in 1993, “Dead Man Walking” sold nearly 800,000 copies. Two years later, it was adapted it into a movie that earned Susan Sarandon, who played Prejean, the Academy Award for best actress. The book was also recently made into an opera.

The death penalty, Prejean said, “is filled with racial bias, it’s filled with mistakes.”

“The state imitates the crime. The state kills someone,” she added.

Louisiana is one of 27 states in the U.S. that has the death penalty for serious crimes. The fight against the death penalty is nothing new. While executions across the country have seen a steady decline, many lawmakers are running on platforms seeking for it to be used more.

Prejean has accused Louisiana’s board of pardons of breaking the state’s public meetings law in an effort to delay clemency petitions. Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, meanwhile, has been part of a legal effort seeking to block the mass petitions.

Landry, who is running for governor in the state’s Republican primary, is seeking to succeed Gov. John Bel Edwards, Democrat who can’t run again due to term limits.

Edwards, who opposes capital punishment, had previously asked the state’s board to schedule all 56 clemency hearings, but a lawsuit filed by Landry and several district attorneys resulted in an unprecedented settlement that advocates said threatens the clemency process unless the governor steps in and issues an affirmative order requiring hearings.

“The Board of Pardons should not sacrifice the rule of law, the rights of victims and the public’s participation simply to achieve the governor’s political objective,” Landry told reporters last month. “The laws on our books must be enforced and proper procedure must be followed.”

Inmates on Louisiana’s death row filed applications for clemency this past June seeking to have their death sentences commuted to life in prison before Edwards, whose second term in office ends in January, steps down. Landry, who has argued for reintroducing the electric chair, hangings and firing squads, opposes the move.

The U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty federally in 1976. Since then, Louisiana has carried out 28 executions with the last lethal injection held in 2010. The United States has seen over 1,500 executions since the death penalty was reinstated.

“As faith leaders we are coming together to urge the governor to be a moral leader and to stand up for the human dignity of every person on death row and ensure they each receive a fair hearing in front of the Pardon and Parole Board,” said Dr. Susan Weishar, a Faculty Policy and Research Fellow of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University. “It is within his constitutional and moral authority to act swiftly in the name of justice.”

 A coalition of diverse Christian leaders across the United States have intensified their fight this week against the death penalty, arguing that the state has the right to take the life of another. SISTER HELEN PREJEAN WEBSITE 

Prejean joined faith leaders at the governor’s mansion in Baton Rouge for a prayer vigil and to repeat Christian teaching that says all life is sacred.

“The talk was about possible mercy,” Prejean said about her visit with Edwards, adding that “the only avenue for mercy is through the governor’s office and the clemency that can happen.”   

In Texas, meanwhile, lawyers for Will Speer asked Gov. Greg Abbott and the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles to commute his death sentence to life in prison or to grant a 180-day reprieve.

As in Louisiana, a diverse group, which included faith leaders, have called on Abbott to spare Speer’s life. Speer is set to be executed on Oct. 26.

“Mr. Speer has carried out a true life of faith in prison,” said Speer’s lawyer Amy Fly. “He ministers to others and carries a message of hope and healing. If he is allowed to live the rest of his days in prison, he aims to be of service as a minister and peacemaker.”

The plea came as a Texas man who had unsuccessfully challenged the safety of the state’s lethal injection drugs and raised questions about evidence used to persuade a jury to sentence him to death for killing an elderly woman decades ago was executed.

Jedidiah Murphy, 48, was pronounced dead on Tuesday after an injection at the state penitentiary in Huntsville for the October 2000 fatal shooting of 80-year-old Bertie Lee Cunningham just outside Dallas. Cunningham was killed during a carjacking.

“I hope this helps, if possible, give you closure,” Murphy said.

Murphy, who is Jewish, also recited Psalm 34, which ends with: “The Lord redeems the soul of his servants, and none of those who trust in him shall be condemned.”

“I wake up to my crime daily and I’ve never gone a day without sincere remorse for the hurt I’ve caused,” Murphy wrote in a message earlier this year he sent to Michael Zoosman, who had corresponded with Murphy and is co-founder of L’chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty.

Lawyers who represent Speer have made a different argument. They point out that Speer, 48, is a changed man.

Speer is one of only 28 participants in the first class of a new Faith Based Program offered to men who are on death row in Texas. The program is by application only and those accepted into the program must have a perfect disciplinary records.

One of 187 inmates currently on death row in Texas, Speer was previously given a life sentence in 1991 after being convicted of murder. On July 11, 1997, while serving that sentence at the Telford Unit in Bowie County, Speer strangled to death a 47-year-old inmate and was subsequently placed on death row in 2001.

Speer was baptized last year and, according to his clemency application, wrote that he now “lives life by a simple but profound ethos: ‘How can I be a man of integrity? How can I lead a righteous life?’” He has since been named the program’s inmate coordinator.

Support for Speer includes evangelical leaders. A dozen — including Kelly Rosati, CEO of KMR Consulting and several Texas-based pastors — signed a letter supporting Speer’s application. In the two-page letter, they described how the “experience of becoming a Christian radically changed Will’s daily life.”

For Christians, Prejean said being for life isn’t limited to abortion.

“We stand for life,” she said. “Louisiana is a pro-life state. Being pro-life doesn’t just mean abortion. Pro-life is about the life of prisoners.”

 Produced in association with Religion Unplugged

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