October 2, 2020

Death penalty doesn’t calculate ‘ability to be redeemed and rehabilitated’

During a press conference near the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute on Sept. 24, Providence Sister Barbara Battista reads a letter written by William LeCroy, a federal death-row inmate who was executed at the complex on Sept. 22. (Screenshot from livestream at www.facebook.com/pg/sistersofprovidence)

During a press conference near the Federal Correctional Complex in Terre Haute on Sept. 24, Providence Sister Barbara Battista reads a letter written by William LeCroy, a federal death-row inmate who was executed at the complex on Sept. 22. (Screenshot from livestream here)

By Natalie Hoefer

On Sept. 24, Providence Sister Barbara Battista stood across the street from where her spiritual directee died just two days prior.

She had been with him when he was pronounced dead at 9:06 p.m. on Sept. 22.

“I can tell you that my experience was of a man who was at peace, eyes clear, face relaxed,” she said.

That fact might seem surprising, since her spiritual directee was federal death-row inmate William LeCroy, convicted for the 2001 rape and murder of Joann Lee Tiesler. He had been under the influence of witchcraft and mistook her for a babysitter he claimed had sexually abused him when he was a child, according to The Washington Post.

Sister Barbara spoke at a press conference on the morning of Sept. 24 to read aloud the letter she had received from LeCroy, who gave her permission to share it after his death.

Also speaking at the press conference was Lisa Brown, the mother of federal death-row inmate Christopher Vialva. He would be pronounced dead less than eight hours later at 6:46 p.m., executed for his involvement in the 1999 murder of Todd and Stacie Bagley.

“This is hard, very hard,” she said, her voice breaking as tears welled in her eyes.

LeCroy and Vialva were the sixth and seventh federal prisoners to be executed by lethal injection since July 14 after a 17-year hiatus of federal capital punishment.

In a statement read aloud at a Catholic Mobilizing Network virtual prayer vigil prior to LeCroy’s execution, Atlanta Archbishop Gregory J. Hartmayer noted that “we must always leave open the door for redemption and rehabilitation” of convicted killers.

Brown and Sister Barbara shared during the press conference about such changes in LeCroy and Vialva.

‘Once you label me, you negate me’

“This is a complex story,” said Sister Barbara before reading LeCroy’s letter aloud. “There are lessons in here for all of us.”

In the two-page letter handwritten on notebook paper, LeCroy addressed his remorse, but also the “unchangeable” label placed on convicts.

“It is a fact that some [child] abuse (physical, emotional and/or sexual) can stunt emotional growth so that such children are relatively unchanged as adults,” he wrote. “We feel that we are what happened to us … . And we lash out in anger, in frustration … in revenge for the wrongs we have suffered.”

He admitted that, no matter how deep his remorse, there was nothing he could do to reverse the horrific murder he committed.

But people can change, LeCroy noted in the letter, “continually learning, continually becoming someone better or worse. … We come into spiritual teachers along the way who provide us with truth and force us to contemplate our lives.”

Through the help of such spiritual guides and contemplation, he said, he strived “to attain a level of personal development by which morality—Buddhism’s five precepts, Christianity’s love God and love your neighbor as yourself—is natural.”

Yet society seems to believe no convicted murderer is capable of change, he observed, passing judgment that “he’s a murderer, nothing more.” He quoted 19th-century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who wrote, “Once you label me, you negate me.”

After reading the letter, Sister Barbara acknowledged that the violence of LeCroy’s actions affected Tiesler “when she was so viciously murdered, [as well as] her family and her friends.”

But she felt LeCroy’s words were not to be dismissed.

“I believe this man can teach us something about forgiveness and growth, and what it means to be reconciled to one’s fate,” she said before turning the microphone over to Brown.

‘There is an ability to be redeemed’

After pausing to hold back her tears, Brown began by apologizing to the family of Vialva’s victims.

“My son wants you to know that he is deeply remorseful for the pain he has caused you for your loss,” she said.

She recalled that during the murder trial, a statement from Stacey Bagley’s mother was read.

“She said she prayed that the boys involved in the death of her daughter would come to know Jesus,” Brown shared. “And I’m here to say that her prayer was answered.”

While living out his death sentence, she said, Vialva had a conversion of heart. He embraced his mother’s faith, Messianic Judaism, which combines Jewish traditions with belief in the Trinity and Christ as the Messiah. She said he led the Passover Seder in the prison the last seven years, and that “my biggest blessing is to know that he passed on his faith to others. …

“That 19-year-old that was convicted 21 years ago is a new man. I can’t stress that enough. … He said in his own words he is changed and redeemed.”

Not all convicted murderers are capable of such change, Brown acknowledged. But, she said, “These men are not all the same. … There are different circumstances to every case.

“What they fail to calculate into the process is that there is an ability to be redeemed and rehabilitated.”

‘Death penalty damages our culture’

The executions of LeCroy and Vialva were the last federal executions scheduled for this year as of The Criterion going to press.

As with several of the executions since July,

last-minute appeals by LeCroy’s and Vialva’s lawyers were denied by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Vialva, who is Black, posted a YouTube video on Sept. 11 pleading for a stop to his execution. He cited an unfair appeal process in federal death penalty cases, racial disparities on death row and his young age at the time of crime.

He admitted his guilt in the murders of the Bagleys, and said he was “not making this plea as an innocent man,” but rather as a “changed and redeemed man,” noting that he was “not the stupid kid I was the day I made the most desperate and tragic decision of my life.”

A statement by Washington Archbishop William D. Gregory was read during a virtual Catholic Mobilizing Network prayer vigil prior to Vialva’s execution.

“Taking the life of another human being harms each one of us, defying the sanctity of human life and devaluing our worth as God’s own creation,” he said.

“The death penalty damages our culture and turns our government into a system of retribution, when it should be a system of support and service to its people. … [It] only serves to make each of us complicit in a new act of violence.”

Sister Barbara shared similar thoughts.

“The violence inflicted by the death penalty affects every one of us the longer we tolerate it,” she said in her closing remarks during the press conference.

“I would advise us all to take Will’s words and ponder what it is to live the love, mercy and justice that is about becoming a better citizen.” †

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