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Pope seeks to stop execution in Kentucky

By on Sunday, 12 September 2010

Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic bishops of Kentucky have asked Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear to commute the death sentence of Gregory Wilson, whose execution is expected to take place on September 16.

Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville and the Rev Marian McClure Taylor, executive director of the Kentucky Council of Churches, met Governor Beshear in Frankfort to outline their legal and moral objections to the execution of Wilson, whose attorneys say is mentally disabled and who has asked for DNA testing that he says would exonerate him.

The archbishop also presented a letter from Archbishop Pietro Sambi, Apostolic Nuncio to the United States, asking on behalf of Pope Benedict that Wilson’s sentence be commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Recalling the Pope’s appeal to end the death penalty during his 2008 visit to the United States, Archbishop Sambi told the Governor: “Please allow yourself to reflect on the Holy Father’s plea and use your authority to help shape a society in which all human life is recognised as sacred.”

In a separate letter, the four Catholic bishops of Kentucky said they were appealing to the governor as “a man of faith and leader of our commonwealth” to be merciful toward Wilson.

Mercy “protects the common good of society, honors justice and serves a higher purpose in putting aside the irreversible remedy of death,” they said. “Ultimately mercy is the only way to healing and hope.”

In addition to Archbishop Kurtz, the letter was signed by Bishops Roger Foys of Covington, Ronald Gainer of Lexington and William Medley of Owensboro.

Bishop Medley met Wilson at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in April and again earlier this month. Wilson was baptised several years ago by a priest of the Diocese of Owensboro and later confirmed by retired Owensboro Bishop John McRaith.

“While still hoping that there may be a delay or a commutation of his sentence, [Wilson] understands that his death may be near and speaks of his faith,” Bishop Medley said. “I am saddened to think of Gregory’s death at the hands of the state. Clearly he can cause no one harm now and has, in fact, accomplished much good with his present life and witness.”

Efforts to block Wilson’s execution extended to Europe, where the Sant’Egidio community was organising protest activities.

Busloads of people were scheduled to come from Covington and Louisville for a vigil outside the prison in Eddyville, where the execution is to take place. Prayer vigils were planned for Catholic churches in Louisville, Covington, Owensboro, Bowling Green and Lexington.

Wilson, 53, was convicted in 1988 of abducting, raping, robbing and murdering Debbie Pooley, an assistant restaurant manager. He has appealed his death sentence on a variety of grounds ranging from incompetent defense counsel to low IQ, but courts have repeatedly turned them back.

His co-defendant, Brenda Humphrey, testified against him and received a sentence that might allow her to be paroled after 25 years.

Fr Patrick Delahanty, associate director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, said Wilson’s case is fraught with red flags, from problems during his trial and questions about whether he should be exempt from capital punishment under a Supreme Court ruling barring the death penalty for people who are mentally disabled.

There also are side issues unrelated to Wilson himself, said Fr Delahanty, such as the looming expiration date of the state’s single dose of the drug used in the lethal injection procedure. A nationwide shortage of the anesthetic sodium thiopental, a key part of the three-drug cocktail used for most lethal injections, has caused several states to postpone executions.

Governor Beshear announced that he would sign only one of the three execution orders he had pending because the state has only enough sodium thiopental for one execution and the amount expires on October 1. He signed Wilson’s death warrant on August 25.

Fr Delahanty told Catholic News Service that he also thinks politics had a role in the timing of Wilson’s execution. Normally there is a five-week advance notice, he said. But Kentucky is hosting the World Equestrian Games, a major international sporting event, beginning on September 25, he noted.

With Governor Beshear coming from the heart of the state’s horse country in Lexington, Fr Delahanty said he expects the governor would “avoid having an execution while all the countries of Europe are represented here”.

Kentucky has executed three people since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 and has 35 people on death row.

Meanwhile, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland commuted the death sentence of Kevin Keith to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.

In a statement, Governor Strickland said important questions have been raised about forensic evidence that led to Keith’s conviction in the deaths of two women and a four-year-old girl who were killed in a hail of gunfire that hit an apartment.

“I find the absence of a full investigation of other credible suspects troubling,” said Governor Strickland’s statement. He left open the possibility of further steps toward reviewing Keith’s conviction.

In Washington state, 52-year-old Cal Coburn Brown was executed as scheduled on September 10 despite a plea from the state’s Catholic bishops that his sentence be commuted to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.

Brown had been convicted of the rape, torture and murder of a 21-year-old Seattle-area woman.

“Crimes like those for which Mr. Brown has been convicted demand the highest level of judicial scrutiny and cry out for severe sanction,” the bishops said in a letter to Governor Christine Gregoire. “We agree that he must be held accountable for his crimes.

“However, Catholic social teaching upholds the inherent dignity of every human life, even the lives of those convicted of murder. Although our deepest sympathies and pastoral concern are with the victim and her loved ones, we nonetheless reject the notion that further violence serves the public’s legitimate demand for justice.”