January 13, 2006

Catholic Conference works to limit
death penalty in Indiana

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

In response to a call by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for an end to capital punishment in the United States, the Indiana Catholic Conference is working to limit Indiana’s death penalty during the 2006 legislative session of the Indiana General Assembly.

“Because all human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, we have an inherent dignity,” said Indiana Catholic Conference Executive Director Glenn Tebbe. “The Church has consistently upheld the dignity of all life from conception to natural death. It is out of this consistent life ethic that we address legislative issues.”

Senate Bill 48 would prohibit the court from imposing a death sentence if the jury is unable to agree on a sentencing recommendation. Current law allows a judge to impose a death sentence when a jury cannot agree on a recommendation. “The bill puts the decision back into the hands of the jury where it should be,” said Sen. Anita Bowser (D-Michigan City), author of the bill.

Senate Bill 66, also authored by Sen. Bowser, establishes a procedure to determine whether a person is mentally ill and prohibits the imposition of life imprisonment without parole or the death penalty for a person found to be mentally ill.

Paula Sites, assistant executive director of the Indiana Public Defenders Council, said “Senate Bill 66 is based on model language drafted by the state Task Force on Mental Disability and the Death Penalty.

“We were not expecting to use this model language until the 2007 General Assembly, but public interest sparked by the Arthur Baird clemency campaign encouraged us to begin our efforts a year early,” Sites said.

Gov. Mitch Daniels recently commuted the death sentence of Baird to life in prison without parole.

Kathy Bayes, National Alliance of the Mentally Ill (NAMI), Fort Wayne Chapter, said, “Our goal is to limit very carefully the definition to be used in the change in state law to apply only to persons suffering from serious mental illness at the time of the crime.”

Bowser, a longtime advocate to end the death penalty, said “the mood of the House and Senate are not favorable to abolish the death penalty at this time, but I think we can move on some aspects of the death penalty.

“Persons who are mentally ill should not receive a death sentence,” said Bowser. “The U.S. Supreme Court has outlawed executing minors and the mentally retarded. Those suffering from mental illness should be treated the same.”

No matter what happens this session, Bowser said she will continue to work on this issue.

“Before I leave the Senate, I want to rid our state of the death penalty altogether. But, for now, I’m doing what I can to move this issue forward,” she said.

Sen. Richard Bray (R-Martinsville), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee (the legislative panel that both death penalty bills have been assigned and who in part will control what happens to this legislation), said he is not planning to hear either bill this session.

“We studied the death penalty extensively a few years ago and in the short session a subject like the death penalty takes a lot of time,” said Bray. “Even if we had the time, I don’t think the votes are there to pass it.”

Bray, who served as a Morgan County prosecutor for 12 years, said he has “a lot of confidence in Indiana’s judicial system.” He said he supports the death penalty as do the majority of people he represents.

With regard to persons who are mentally ill, Bray said

he agrees they should not be executed, but added “determining a criterion for mental illness is difficult because it’s so subjective.”

Thirty-eight states have the death penalty. Since 1977 when Indiana reinstated it, 16 persons have been executed. Only three of the 92 persons sentenced to death in Indiana received commuted sentences. Gov. Joe Kernan commuted two death sentences to life in prison without parole.

Malcolm Lunsford, a permanent deacon from the Gary Diocese, works as a volunteer chaplain at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, where he visits, listens to and brings Communion to those on death row.

“The death penalty accomplishes nothing,” said Lunsford, who has witnessed one execution. “For some, it may give a sense of revenge, but not closure. Closure comes only through forgiveness.”

The Indiana Catholic Conference was scheduled to host a program for legislators on Jan. 12 titled “The Costs of the Death Penalty.” Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein, Holy Cross Father Tom McNally and Lunsford were to be the featured speakers.

For more information about the Indiana Catholic Conference and its legislative updates go to www.indianacc.org.

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.)


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