July 17, 2020

Bells toll, sharing the piercing news of the first federal execution in 17 years

Providence Associate Priscilla Hutton speaks during a press conference on the morning of July 13 outside the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute. Behind her, Providence Sister Paula Damiano holds a banner. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Providence Associate Priscilla Hutton speaks during a press conference on the morning of July 13 outside the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute. Behind her, Providence Sister Paula Damiano holds a banner. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Natalie Hoefer

TERRE HAUTE—On the grounds of the Sisters of Providence of Saint Mary-of-the-Woods near Terre Haute, news of the execution pierced the morning quiet on July 14.

The bells of the Church of the Immaculate Conception toll after any execution in the nation, explained Providence Sister Paula Damiano.

But that morning, “For the first time in 17 years,” she said, “a sister tolled the bells following [a] federal execution.”

The bells announced the 8:07 a.m. death of Daniel Lewis Lee.

Less than 24 hours before, a temporary stay of all scheduled federal executions was announced by the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia due to evidence that the drug to be administered causes severe pain. The decision was immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court by the federal Department of Justice.

At 2 a.m. on July 14, the Supreme Court overturned the ruling. Lee was executed and pronounced dead six hours later, according to a Reuters report.

(Related editorial: Scheduled executions remind us of dignity of all human life)

In sharing her reaction with The Criterion, Sister Paula said the sisters “believe that forgiveness is vital to faith. We are called to forgive every day.”

She noted that many sisters “past and present” have visited death-row inmates at the FCC, including one deceased sister who visited Lee.

“We will pray for Daniel Lewis Lee, his family, and the victims of the tragedy from 1996 and their family,” she said.

Lee was convicted of murdering a gun dealer, the man’s wife and her 8-year-old daughter in Arkansas in 1996.

The Supreme Court decision also affects federal inmates Dustin Lee Honken and Keith Dwayne Nelson, whose executions were previously set for July 17 and Aug. 28, respectively.

The July 15 scheduled execution of Wesley Ira Purkey was already temporarily stayed through a separate case.

As The Criterion went to press at noon on July 14, the status of Purkey’s, Honken’s and Nelson’s pending executions were not known. (Related: Catholic inmate’s final words are a prayer to the Blessed Mother)

Deacon Steven Gretencord, who has ministered to death-row inmates at the FCC for nearly 10 years, shared his reaction to the news in an early morning call with The Criterion.

“I just am amazed that we as a nation continue to use such draconian methods of punishment,” he said.

“We’re so intent on revenge that we seem to lose sight of what justice is about. We only have one true judge, and all of us will face that judge. …

“It’s just such a very sad, sad, state of affairs,” he said. “This is not going to bring closure to anyone. All it does is reopen the wounds and prove that we have no idea about justice, and certainly not about mercy.”

‘Every person can change their lives’

Delayed, appealed, overturned, appealed, overruled, temporarily delayed, appealed, overturned. Like a rapid-fire legal tennis match, the decisions on two cases unfolded in the courts between July 10 and 14.

At 10 a.m. on July 13, a press conference hosted by Death Penalty Action and Terre Haute Death Penalty Resistance was underway across the street from the FCC, where federal executions take place.

At that time, Lee’s 4 p.m. execution was in question pending a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a denied appeal for a delay until travel was safer from the risk of contracting the COVID-19 virus.

At about 10:15 a.m., the press conference was interrupted by news of the D.C. federal district court’s ruling to temporarily stay all federal executions.

Cheers and applause erupted among death penalty opponents present at the press conference.

Speaking at the event on behalf of the Sisters of Providence, Sister Paula said her congregation was “well-aware of the heinous crimes of those now on death row.

“But they are also people who deserve love, mercy and justice,” she added. “We don’t have to love the actions, but we have to love the people—it’s the Gospel message. To do anything less would be to deny the Gospel. … [E]very person can change their lives.”

Priscilla Hutton agreed. The member of the Sisters of Providence’s lay association spoke at the press conference through her role with the international organization Social Justice Sector for Charter for Compassion.

“I visit a man on death row here in Terre Haute,” she said. “From all I know of the criminal justice system, and as I’ve walked these halls in the penitentiary, I’m here to say that many of these people are good people. And all we need to do is give them a chance.”

It’s not only the prisoners about whom the Church is concerned when it comes to execution, according to Archbishop Charles C. Thompson. He explained why in a recent statement regarding the rescheduled executions.

The “underlying Catholic teaching on [the death penalty] is grave concern for the care of souls of all involved—including the judge, jury, prison personnel, families of these officials and society itself,” he said. “Taking the life of any human being, even one who is guilty of grave crimes against humanity, weighs on the conscience of both individuals and society as a whole.”

Karen Burkhart agrees. The member of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield spoke at the press conference through her role as the Indiana death penalty abolition coordinator for Amnesty International USA.

But she had other reasons for being present.

“I’m here because I want to protest the death penalty, but also because I feel just awful that people are being killed in my name,” Burkhart told The Criterion.

“America is supposed to be one of the best countries in the world, and we’re doing things that most [nations] have abolished. … It’s just an awful example to kill people who kill people, to show that killing people is wrong.”

(For information and updates on federal and state executions, go to catholicsmobilizing.org. For information on local efforts to oppose the death penalty, go to Terre Haute Death Penalty Resistance’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/terrehautedpr. To sign petitions opposing the death penalty and to learn about national efforts for the abolition of the death penalty, go to deathpenaltyaction.org.)

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