Tag Archives: Catholics

New Hampshire Senate Passes Death-Penalty Repeal With Veto-Proof Majority

In a vote death-penalty opponents praised as “historic,” a veto-proof supermajority of the New Hampshire legislature gave final approval to a bill that would repeal the state’s death penalty statute. By a vote of 17-6, the senators voted on April 11, 2019 to end capital prosecutions in the Granite State, exceeding the two-thirds majority necessary to override an anticipated veto by Governor Chris Sununu. In March, the state House of Representatives passed the same abolition bill, HB 455, by a veto-proof 279-88 supermajority. For the second consecutive year, the bill received bipartisan support, including sponsorship by seven Democratic and six Republican sponsors across both legislative houses. Twelve Democratic and five Republican senators voted in favor of repeal. An identical bill to repeal the death penalty passed the legislature in 2018, but was vetoed by Gov. Chris Sununu, and an attempt to override the veto fell two votes short in the Senate.

The Governor’s office issued a statement after the vote saying that Sununu “continues to stand with crime victims, members of the law enforcement community, and advocates for justice in opposing a repeal of the death penalty.” Repeal advocates quickly responded to that claim, noting that numerous retired prosecutors, members of law enforcement, and relatives of murder victims had testified in favor of repeal. Rep. Renny Cushing (D – Rockingham), whose father and brother-in-law were murdered in two separate incidents, was one of the leading proponents of the bill. Cushing has described the death penalty as a “ritualized killing” that does nothing to compensate for a victim’s family’s loss. “The governor has positioned himself as saying he’s vetoing the repeal of the death penalty because he cares about law enforcement and victims, but he’s refused to meet with murder victims’ family members who oppose the death penalty,” Cushing said. Sen. Ruth Ward (R – Stoddard), whose father was killed when she was 7 years old, spoke briefly before casting her vote: “He never saw us grow up. My mother forgave whoever it was, and I will vote in favor of this bill,” she said.

During the Senate debate, senators mentioned costs, racial inequities, and wrongful convictions among their reasons for supporting repeal. Senator John Reagan (R – Deerfield), a Republican who voted in favor of repeal, told The New York Times that he doesn’t trust the government with capital punishment. “The more and more experience I had with government, I concluded that the general incompetency of government didn’t make them the right people to decide life and death,” he said. The New Hampshire legislative vote reflects emerging bipartisanship in state legislative efforts to repeal the death penalty. “The vote to end New Hampshire’s death penalty included many conservative Republican lawmakers,” said Hannah Cox, national manager of Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty. “They join a growing number of GOP state legislators around the country who feel strongly that capital punishment does not comport with their conservative beliefs, such as limited government, fiscal responsibility, and valuing life.” Republican-backed bills to abolish the death penalty or limit its use have been introduced in a number of states this year, including Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, and Wyoming.

The New Hampshire repeal bill applies only to future crimes, and does not address the fate of Michael Addison, the only person on New Hampshire’s death row. No one has been executed in New Hampshire since 1939. If the bill becomes law, New Hampshire will be the 21st state to abolish capital punishment and the ninth in the past 15 years.

(Dave Solomon, Death penalty repeal passes NH Senate with veto-proof majority, New Hampshire Union Leader, April 11, 2019; Kate Taylor and Richard A. Oppel Jr., With a Death Row of 1, New Hampshire Is Poised to End Capital Punishment, The New York Times, April 11, 2019; Mark Berman, New Hampshire, after failed attempts, looks poised to abolish the death penalty, Washington Post, April 11, 2019; Savannah Smith, New Hampshire lawmakers vote to repeal death penalty with veto-proof majority, NBC News, April 11, 2019; Holly Ramer, The New Hampshire Senate has voted to repeal the state’s death penalty, sending the bill to Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, Associated Press, April 12, 2019.) See Recent Legislative Activity.

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Pittsburgh Rabbi’s Wife Opposes Death Penalty for Tree of Life Synagogue Killings

Beth Kissileff (pictured), a writer and the wife of a rabbi who survived the shooting rampage that killed eleven worshippers at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue, has asked the U.S. Department of Justice not to seek the death penalty against the man charged with committing those murders. In an opinion article for the Religion News Service, Kissileff wrote that she and her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Perlman of Pittsburgh’s New Light Congregation, engaged federal prosecutors and a social worker who had come to discuss the trial of the white supremacist accused of the act of domestic terrorism in “a discussion of Jewish concepts of justice.” Three members of the New Light Congregation were among those murdered in the synagogue. Rabbi Perlman, Kissileff wrote, told the prosecution team: “Our Bible has many laws about why people should be put to death. … But our sages and rabbis decided that after biblical times these deaths mean death at the hands of heaven, not a human court.” She writes, “if as religious people we believe that life is sacred, how can we be permitted to take a life, even the life of someone who has committed horrible actions?”

Kissileff bases her conclusion that that a sentence of life without parole for the synagogue shooting is more appropriate than death both on Jewish teachings against the death penalty and on her hope that the killer might yet change his white supremacist beliefs. She wrote in an article for The Jerusalem Post that “[w]hen Jews are killed just for being Jewish, we commemorate them with the words ‘Hashem yikom damam,’ may God avenge their blood. This formulation absents us from the equation since it expresses that it is God’s responsibility, not ours, to seek ultimate justice. As humans, we are incapable of meting out true justice when a monstrous crime has been committed.” She explains that, although the Torah calls for a death sentence for some crimes, Jewish tradition teaches that death sentences should be very rare, if they are allowed at all. She writes that “a Jewish court is considered bloodthirsty if it allows the death penalty to be carried out [even] once every 70 years.”

Though recognizing that repentance is rare, Kissileff said nonetheless “[t]here is always a chance for redemption. Calling for the death penalty means there is no possibility for the shooter to repent, to change or to improve. I would rather not foreclose that possibility of change, slim as it may be, by putting someone to death.” Recounting She recounted the cases of white nationalists Derek Black, who renounced his hatred of Jews after being invited to Shabbat dinners by Jewish students at his college, and Arno Michaelis, a former skinhead leader who later co-authored a book on forgiveness with a man whose father was among the seven congregants murdered in a hate attack on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. Referring to these examples, Kissileff said “[n]either [man] might have been expected to change their beliefs, and yet they have.”

Kissileff’s articles describe the legacy of those who were killed in the Pittsburgh attack and how the shooting has inspired others to become more involved in the synagogue and to learn more about their Jewish faith: “Creating more knowledge of what Judaism and Jewish values are, and encouraging more Jews to commit to them, is the most profound way to avenge their blood.” She writes that, “rather than seeking the shooter’s death,” a better response for Jews would be “strengthening other Jews and Jewish life in Pittsburgh and around the world. Doing so will mean that Jews, not forces of evil, have the ultimate victory.” She concludes: “The most important vengeance for the murder of 11 Jews or 6 million is for the Jewish people to live and the Torah to live, not for their killer to die.”

(Beth Kissileff, WIFE OF PITTSBURGH RABBI: NO DEATH PENALTY FOR ANTISEMITIC SHOOTER, The Jerusalem Post, February 20, 2019; Bob Bauder, Wife of rabbi who survived Tree of Life shooting opposes death penalty, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 20, 2019; Beth Kissileff, The Jewish answer to how to punish the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, Religion News Service, February 27, 2019.) See ReligionVictims, and Federal Death Penalty.

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After More Than Three Decades, Two Death-Row Prisoners Freed in California

Two former California death-row prisoners who had spent a combined 70 years in prison are now free men, after federal courts overturned their convictions and local prosecutors agreed to plea deals on non-capital charges. James Hardy (pictured, left) was freed on February 14, 2019 after pleading guilty to two counts of first-degree murder in exchange for a suspended sentence and release on probation. Freddie Lee Taylor (pictured, right) was released on February 20 after pleading guilty to manslaughter and a sentence of time served. Both men have claims of innocence, but their plea deals make them ineligible for DPIC’s Innocence List. Each spent more than 30 years on death row.

James Hardy was convicted and sentenced to death in Los Angeles in 1984 for the murder of Nancy Morgan and her son, Mitchell Morgan. Hardy was tried along with two co-defendants, Mark Reilly and Clifford Morgan, the husband and father of the victims. Clifford was convicted of hiring Reilly and Hardy to kill his family so he could collect insurance money. Prosecutors argued that Hardy was the actual killer and Reilly the middleman in the conspiracy. On appeal, Hardy argued that his trial attorney had been ineffective because he had failed to investigate or present evidence that the prosecution’s key witness was actually the killer. The California Supreme Court overturned Hardy’s death sentence, and a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit later overturned his conviction, writing, “Hardy’s attorney failed him, and the State of California failed Hardy by putting a man on the stand that it should have known committed the crime.” The court said, “there is a substantial likelihood that the jury would not have convicted Hardy had [his trial lawyer] performed effectively.” Rather than retry Hardy, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office agreed to a plea deal.

Freddie Lee Taylor was convicted and sentenced to death in Contra Costa County in 1986. Taylor had experienced severe trauma and abuse as a child, started using drugs by the age of 10, and was housed from age 13 to 17 in a juvenile detention center that was described in court records as a “gruesome, dehumanizing and frightening world where rape, beatings and fear were constant.” He was arrested in 1984 during a “family dispute” and was sent to a mental institution, where he attempted suicide. Despite doctors’ recommendations that he be placed in a mental hospital because he was a danger to himself or others, he was released by hospital staff. He burglarized the home of 84-year-old Carmen Vasquez, leaving fingerprints in her home. When she was murdered days later, he was identified as a suspect because his fingerprints were at the crime scene. Taylor’s long history of mental illness was ignored at his trial, where his lawyer never requested and the court did not independently order a competency evaluation. His appeal lawyers argued that his conviction was invalid because he was not competent to stand trial. A federal judge reversed Taylor’s conviction in 2016 and the Ninth Circuit upheld that decision in 2018, saying there was insufficient evidence to accurately assess Taylor’s mental health at the time of the crime and his trial. The federal court gave Contra Costa County prosecutors 60 days to decide whether to retry him, but they instead agreed to the plea deal. “Had he not had the benefit of zealous appellate lawyers dedicated to his cause, Freddie Lee Taylor may well have been executed,” Chief Public Defender Robin Lipetzky said. “His is but one case. Others like him who have meritorious claims may not be so fortunate. There are over 700 more people on death row — many waiting for an attorney to be appointed to their case and others still waiting for their cases to be finally resolved by the courts.”

(Nate Gartrell, East Bay man freed from Death Row nearly 33 years after conviction, The Mercury News, February 22, 2019.) Read the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit decision in Hardy v. Chappell. See Innocence, Representation, and Mental Illness.

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42 Years After Death Sentence, Federal Appeals Court Says Charles Ray Finch ‘Actually Innocent’

A federal appeals court has found 80-year-old Charles Ray Finch (pictured) “actually innocent” of the murder for which he was convicted and sentenced to death in North Carolina 42 years ago. The pronouncement came in a unanimous ruling issued by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on January 25, 2019. In that decision, Chief Judge Roger L. Gregory wrote that “Finch has overcome the exacting standard for actual innocence through sufficiently alleging and providing new evidence of a constitutional violation and through demonstrating that the totality of the evidence, both old and new, would likely fail to convince any reasonable juror of his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.” The U.S. Supreme Court has never recognized innocence alone as grounds to overturn a conviction, so the appeals court could not set Finch free. Instead, the panel reversed a lower court’s denial of relief and sent the case back for adjudication of constitutional violations relating to Finch’s innocence claim. Jim Coleman, Finch’s lawyer and the co-director of the Duke Wrongful Convictions Clinic, said he now hopes to convince North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein to “remedy the miscarriage of justice in joining us in a motion to overturn Ray’s conviction and release him without any further proceedings in court.”

Finch was convicted and sentenced to death in 1976 for the killing of Richard “Shadow” Holloman during a failed robbery attempt, but he has consistently maintained his innocence. In 1977, the North Carolina Supreme Court reduced his sentence to life in prison after the U.S. Supreme Court had declared the state’s then-mandatory death penalty law unconstitutional. The Fourth Circuit identified significant problems with the evidence used to convict Finch. He was subjected to “suggestive lineups,” in which he was the only suspect dressed in a three-quarter length jacket, the same style of clothing that the eyewitness, Lester Floyd Jones, said the perpetrator was wearing. Such lineups have since been declared unconstitutional. “These procedural issues support Finch’s allegations of constitutional error that he was misidentified by Jones,” Judge Gregory wrote. “No reasonable juror would likely find Finch guilty beyond a reasonable doubt if it knew the high likelihood that he was misidentified by Jones both outside and inside the courtroom as a murder suspect because of the impermissibly suggestive lineups.” The court also noted that Jones, who the court said “had cognitive issues, struggled with alcoholism and had issues with short-term memory recall,” told police that the killer was armed with a sawed-off shotgun and had never mentioned to the police that the shooter had any facial hair. At the time Holloman was killed, Finch had a long beard and distinctive sideburns. A new review of the autopsy evidence decades after the crime disclosed that Holloman had been killed with a pistol, not a shotgun and new ballistics evidence contradicted prosecution claims that the shells found at the crime scene matched a shotgun shell found in Finch’s car. Other witnesses also indicated they had been pressured into providing testimony implicating Finch. “This new evidence,” the court said, “not only undercuts the state’s physical evidence, but it also discredits the reliability of Jones.”

The Fourth Circuit opinion also addressed whether Finch might be guilty under the felony-murder rule, which would require only that he participated in the robbery, even if he did not shoot Holloman. The court identified two problems with this argument. First, though the state now says that Finch’s conviction relied on the felony-murder rule, the trial court “provided inconsistent instructions to the jury regarding felony murder but ultimately required the jury to find that Finch fired the fatal shot in order to convict him of first-degree murder.” Second, if Jones misidentified Finch, and he was not actually present for the robbery, he could not be guilty even under the felony-murder rule. “Criminal liability under any theory, including the felony-murder rule, would not attach to Finch if there is no evidence that he was at Holloman’s store during the murder,” the opinion stated.

(Olivia Neeley, Federal court rules in Finch’s favor, The Wilson Times, January 28, 2019; Josh Shaffer, He’s spent 43 years in prison. Now judges call his murder conviction a ‘miscarriage of justice.’, Raleigh News & Observer, January 30, 2019; Antionetta Kerr, 80-Year-Old Sentenced to Death Could Be Exonerated Soon, Public News Service–North Carolina, January 31, 2018; Press release, 43 years after death sentence, Charles Ray Finch proves his innocence, North Carolina Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, January 31, 2019. Photograph by Brad Coville, courtesy of the Wilson Daily Times.) Read the 4th Circuit’s opinion in Finch v. McKoy. See Innocence.

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AFRICA/DR CONGO – Nearly 900 people killed in the West in clashes among communities

Kinshasa – Almost 900 people were massacred in four villages in community violence in the west of the Democratic Republic of Congo , between 16 and 18 December. This was reported by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The massacre took place near Yumbi, in the province of Mai-Ndombe, about 300 km north of the capital Kinshasa and it apparently it is not related to the tensions regarding the elections held on December 30th but to rivalry between the Banunu and Batendé communities.
In addition to the victims there are serious material damages: 465 private houses and public buildings were set on fire or looted. These include two schools, a health center, a clinic, a market and an office of the Independent National Electoral Commission . Over 16,000 people have taken refuge in the neighboring Republic of Congo .
Following the massacre, the authorities in Kinshasa decided to postpone the vote in the area scheduled for December 30th.

Human Rights Group—Politically Motivated Use of Death Penalty Widens in Saudi Arabia

Executions have soared in Saudi Arabia amid widening pursuit of politically motivated death sentences, mass death penalty trials, and use of the death penalty against female activists, according to a European-based Saudi human rights organization. In its 2018 Death Penalty Report: Saudi Arabia’s False Promise, issued January 16, 2019, the European Saudi Organization for Human Rights (ESOHR) said Saudi Arabia conducted at least 149 executions in 2018, more than double the number conducted in 2013, continuing a four-year surge the group associates with the ascension of King Salman to the throne in January 2015. Half of those executed were foreign nationals, including 33 from Pakistan and women from Ethiopia and Indonesia. ESOHR reported that the Saudi government concealed at least one execution and failed to announce the execution of the Indonesian woman, and the human rights group expressed concern that the actual number of executions in the country may be higher. 

The Saudi royal family has sought to deflect international criticism of its escalated use of the death penalty by pointing to the use of capital punishment by the United States and other countries. In an April 2018 interview with TIME magazine, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman deflected a question on whether the Kingdom would reduce the number of public beheadings and executions in his country, saying: “I believe until today the United States of America and a lot of states, they have capital punishment. We’ve tried to minimize [its use],” he said, and suggested that the monarchy was working with the Saudi parliament on an initiative to change punishments for some offenses from execution to life in prison. The ESOHR report, however, said bin Salman’s statement “is not reflected in the death penalty statistics of 2018. Execution rates have sky rocketed [sic] in the last four years [and] do not indicate any attempts to ‘minimise’ or ‘reduce’” death penalty use. 

ESOHR’s report catalogues an intensified use of “politically motivated death sentences … against an increasing spectrum of government critics,” including human rights advocates, non-violent clerics, and other political opponents. It lists among the politically motivated death sentences the case of Israa al-Ghomgham, the first female activist to face execution in Saudi Arabia for non-violent human rights-related work. Al-Ghomgham was detained in December 2016 during a raid on her home. Her case is being prosecuted in Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court, which was established to address acts of terrorism. However, Oliver Windridge – an international human rights lawyer who has written briefs supporting al-Ghomgham – says that its “focus appears to have moved from terrorist suspects to human rights defenders and anti-government protesters.” The ESOHR report describes the terrorism charges against al-Ghomgham as “trumped up” and the trial proceedings as “grossly unfair.” UN human rights experts also have condemned the prosecution, saying that “[m]easures aimed at countering terrorism should never to be used to suppress or curtail human rights work.” 

ESOHR says that 59 Saudi prisoners are currently at risk of imminent execution, including eight who were minors at the time of their purported crimes and twelve men convicted of spreading the Shia faith and allegedly spying for Iran. 

(2018 Death Penalty Report: Saudi Arabia’s False Promise, European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, January 16, 2018; Haley Ott, U.S. lawyers “paying attention” as female Saudi activist Israa al-Ghomgham due in court, CBS News, January 14, 2019; TIME, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Talks to TIME About the Middle East, Saudi Arabia’s Plans and President Trump, TIME, April 5, 2018.) See International  and Women

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ASIA/LEBANON – Maronite Bishops say Syrian refugees must be repatriated without waiting for political solution to the conflict

Threatens to tear Lebanon apart to send refugees home to death – what God want that?

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Bkerké – Lebanon “can no longer carry the weight of Syrian refugees”, and therefore it is necessary to “dissociate the political solution of the conflict in Syria from the necessary return of the displaced to their homes “. This urgent matter was underlined once again by the Maronite Bishops on the occasion of their latest monthly assembly, hosted on 6 December by the Patriarchal See of Bkerké. The Maronite Bishops insist that the repatriation of Syrian refugees must be started without waiting for a complete political solution to the conflict which has tormented Syria since 2011.
On 30 November the Lebanese foreign minister Gebran Bassil had a meeting in the Vatican with Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, secretary for relations with states of the Vatican’s Secretariat of State, for clarification and reassurance regarding the position of the Holy See on the question of the repatriation of Syrian refugees who have found shelter in Lebanon. During the meeting the Lebanese minster explained to Archbishop Gallagher the serious reasons for which Lebanon cannot continue to bear for much longer the economic and security weight of the emergency connected also with the presence on Lebanese territory of more than one million Syrian refugees.
“Lebanon asks simply that no obstacle will prevent the safe return of those refugees wishing to return” said Gebran Bassil in a statement issued following the meeting with Archbishop Gallagher.
Before the meeting between the Lebanese minister and the high ranking Vatican official, certain considerations attributed to Archbishop Gallagher had drawn comments from the Lebanese media according to which the present situation in Syria could render impracticable the albeit desired repatriation of Syrian refugees .

ASIA/PHILIPPINES – “In the name of God stop extrajudicial homicide”: bishop’s message for Advent

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Manila – “Extrajudicial homicide is always wrong even when it means killing a criminal. This is our desperate plea at this time of Advent and Christmas: for the love of God, stop these murders! Let healing begin|” this appeal to Fides comes from Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, head of the diocese of Kalookan and Vice president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines .
The bishop says that to tackle seriously the problems of drug trafficking and drug dependence the right path is not “eliminating drug addicts”, the way chosen by the anti-drug campaign launched by the President Rodrigo Duterte. It is necessary instead to consolidate rehabilitation progammes for those dependent on harmful substances. Bishop David told Fides that “people addicted to drugs need adequate rehabilitation to overcome this dependence, it is not possible to think that the way is to eliminate these people”.
This is why the Catholic Church in the Philippines offers support: the diocese of Kalookan, like 86 other dioceses in the country, runs rehabilitation programmes for persons addicted to drugs and support for the families in particular guaranteeing education programmes and scholarships.
The President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte launched a “war on drugs” following his election in 2016. According to official data, the police has killed some 5,000 suspects in raids aimed at capturing drug pushers, but human rights organizations say the number of those killed, including extrajudicial killing by squadrons of “vigilantes” , amount to four times as much. NGO say the “war on drugs” has killed some 20 thousand innocent victims, executed summarily in what is called “systematic extermination” of drug addicts in the poorest communities. The police rejects the accusations and says the killings regard drug pushers resisting arrest.
Once Bishop David described his diocese Kalookan an “extermination camp “, vigorously denouncing extrajudicial homicides. “The war on illegal drugs must be implacable but these killings must be stopped ” the Bishop said in a public plea.
Amidst an apparent “normalisation of violence”, the Bishop never tires of preaching the principle of non-violence: “We will never allow our actions be motivated by anger, hatred, revenge. We will not let evil have the last word. We will not allow the enemy to shape us in his image and likeness “, he repeats. “We cannot passively allow this senseless killing just because some of us think it is good for society “, he states. For these public stances the Bishop has incurred in the hostility of President Duterte.
The Bishop says “drug dependence is a serious sickness which must be treated with rehabilitation not bullets”. Even people who make mistakes deserve a second chance : “This is one of the most important principles of our Christian faith: we all live only thanks to the mercy of a God who forgives. Who are we to condemn if our God forgives? Which of us does not commit errors?” the Bishop asks
Bishop David addresses also the recent killing of Filipino priests, which shook the Church: “Those priests show us just how precious the priesthood is. They are martyrs who gave their lives to care for the flock entrusted to them “.

DPIC PODCAST: The New Catholic Teaching on the Death Penalty and Human Dignity

In August 2018, Pope Francis promulgated a new Catholic Catechism that deemed the death penalty “inadmissible” in all cases and committed the Church to working to abolish capital punishment worldwide. Cardinal Blase Cupich, the ninth Bishop of the Archdiocese of Chicago, joined DPIC Executive Director Robert Dunham on the latest episode of the podcast Discussions with DPIC, to explore the implications of the new teachings and how they fit into the Church’s broader message on social justice and the sanctity of life. Saying “human dignity is at center of all we say and do,” Cardinal Cupich stressed that church leaders working to end capital punishment “have to make the case for human dignity just as forcefully as we do in other areas,” for the poor, for refugees, for the marginalized, and for the unborn. “All of the advocacy that we do for all of these people has to have a social or civic or political dimension to it,” the Cardinal explained. The continued use of the death penalty is “a stain on our country,” he said. “Let’s be honest. No life that was taken away can ever be replaced by taking away another life. We cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing.”

(Discussions With DPIC, The New Catholic Teaching on the Death Penalty and Human Dignity: A Conversation with Cardinal Blase Cupich, December 1, 2018.) See Podcasts and Religion.

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Two Cases Pit Native American Sovereignty Against U.S. Death Penalty

As federal prosecutors dropped the death penalty against a Navajo man accused of killing a police officer on Navajo land, the U.S. Supreme Court heard argument in a separate case on the status of a treaty establishing the borders of the Creek Nation reservation that could determine whether Oklahoma has jurisdiction to carry out the death penalty against a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) tribe. The two cases highlight issues of Native American tribal sovereignty with potentially profound implications for the administration of capital punishment under state and federal death penalty laws.

On November 27, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in Carpenter v. Murphy, Oklahoma’s appeal of a lower federal court decision that overturned the conviction and death sentence of Patrick Murphy, a citizen of the Creek Nation, for a murder the federal court ruled was committed in Indian Country, on lands within the boundaries of the Creek Nation reservation established by treaty in 1866. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit ruled in August 2017 that because the homicide with which Murphy was charged “was committed in Indian country, the Oklahoma state courts lacked jurisdiction to try him.” Under the federal Major Crimes Act, the court said, Murphy could be prosecuted by federal authorities, but not by the state. Because of tribal opposition to the death penalty, Murphy would not face capital prosecution under the act. Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief James Floyd hailed the Circuit court’s decision as “affirm[ing] the right of the Nation and all other Indian Nations to make and enforce their own laws within their own boundaries.”

In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that only Congress had authority to disestablish or diminish an Indian reservation. Congress has never explicitly disestablished the Creek reservation. However, Oklahoma appealed the court’s ruling, arguing that the admission of Oklahoma into the Union in 1907 superseded the treaty and disestablished the reservation. Arguing for Murphy, Ian Gershengorn told the Court that the tribe has never ceded authority over the lands and “for the last 40 years, … when the Creek Nation adopted a constitution in 1979, they asserted political jurisdiction to the extent of their 1900 boundaries.” The Court’s decision in the case could affect criminal prosecutions in an 11-county region of eastern Oklahoma.

In New Mexico, federal prosecutors on November 19 withdrew their notice of intent to seek the death penalty against Kirby Cleveland in the killing of a tribal police officer. In January 2018, U.S. attorneys announced they would capitally prosecute Cleveland, prompting opposition from the Navajo Nation, which holds the official position that “capital punishment is not an acceptable form of punishment.” Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch stated in a letter, “The death penalty is counter to the cultural beliefs and traditions of the Navajo People who value life and place a great emphasis on the restoration of harmony through restoration and individual attention.” The U.S. Attorney’s Office had argued that because the murder involved the death of a police officer, the tribe’s position was not binding on the federal government. The case was further complicated by the fact that the state of New Mexico abolished the death penalty in 2009, so a death-penalty prosecution was counter to the policy of the state in which the crime took place.

(Curtis Killman, Life, tribal sovereignty at forefront of Oklahoma case before U.S. Supreme Court, Tulsa World, November 27, 2018; Justin Wingerter, U.S. Supreme Court justices skeptical of state’s claims in Creek reservation case but concerned about outcomes, The Oklahoman, November 27, 2018; Ronald Mann, Argument preview: Justices to turn again to rules for disestablishing tribal reservations, SCOTUS Blog, November 20, 2018; Andrew Oxford, Navajo man no longer faces death penalty in officer’s slaying, Santa Fe New Mexican, November 19, 2018.) See Native Americans, U.S. Supreme Court, and Federal Death Penalty.

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