By Vatican News staff writer
The Catholic bishops of Missouri have expressed disappointment and sorrow over the decision to allow the execution of Ernest Lee Johnson, aged 61, on Tuesday.
Johnson, an African American, was sentenced to death for a triple homicide during a robbery at a convenience store that occurred in 1994. He was executed by the state of Missouri on Tuesday after spending more than 25 years on death row following his conviction. Lawyers for Johnson fought to have his execution delayed or canceled to no avail.
In a statement on 6 October, the Bishops said that even though Johnson’s crimes were “heinous and deserve to be punished,” we should stop using the death penalty as a means of dealing with violent crimes.
The statement was signed by Archbishop Mitchell Rosanzki of St. Louis, Bishop James Johnston of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Bishop Shawn McKnight of Jefferson City and Bishop Edward Rice of Springfield-Cape Girardeau.
The death penalty does not make for a safer state
“When horrendous crimes are committed, it is easy to call for vengeance and retribution,” the Bishops said. “It may seem the only fair thing to do is to take a life for a life, but the death penalty does not make Missouri a safer or more civil state.”
The Bishops recalled their words in their clemency request last month, reiterating that the death penalty “degrades us as a society and teaches our children that violence is the proper response to violence.”
When someone is executed, they insisted, “the opportunity for them to undergo a conversion and repent prior to their final judgment may be lost". "That important time for grace to work in a person’s heart is taken away.”
Condolences to victims
The Bishops went on to express their condolences with the families of the victims of the murders committed by Johnson. They highlighted that the lives of Mary Bratcher, Mabel Scrubbs and Fred Jones “deserve honor and remembrance.” They also prayed for the comfort of their loved ones as they are forced to relive the trauma and pain of these crimes through this execution.
The Bishops said that it is their prayer that the people of Missouri “look for ways to address these crimes without resorting to the death penalty.” They proposed that life without parole, for example, is a severe punishment that isolates offending individuals from society.
They also called on Catholics and people of good will to join in seeking alternatives to the death penalty for Missouri’s most violent criminals because “even those who commit the most offensive acts do not lose their human dignity before God.”
On October 1, the Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Christophe Pierre, sent a letter on behalf of Pope Francis to the governor of Missouri, Michael Parson, asking him to stop the execution. The letter was then circulated on Twitter by Sister Helen Prejean, a U.S. religious of the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph who, for nearly three decades, has been fighting for an end to capital punishment. In the letter, the Archbishop called for a focus on “Johnson’s humanity and the sanctity of all human life.”