Catholics seek stay of execution

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When Pope Francis visited the United States in September, he told a joint meeting of Congress it was time for the "global abolition of the death penalty." Yet right now in Virginia, two men are awaiting scheduling for execution, which would bring the total to more than 110 executions in the commonwealth since 1982. Catholics and death penalty opponents gathered at Our Lady, Queen of Peace Church in Arlington Jan. 6 to discuss ways to save these lives. Leaders of the Virginia Catholic Conference and Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty guided the meeting.

Megan Ward of the Catholic Mobilizing Network spoke about the needed focus on capital punishment in this Jubilee Year of Mercy. "Executions should be particularly repulsive and abhorrent in a Year of Mercy. God's mercy is always extending a hand to the offender and offering him a chance to receive forgiveness," she said.

Ward noted that two holy doors of mercy are located in prisons, one in Rome and the other in Argentina, as a sign that all are welcome to receive forgiveness. "Executions cut off that chance of mercy, forgiveness and redemption," she said. "Executions place limits on God's mercy."

In the meeting, more than 30 people discussed ways to reach out to Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, legislators and fellow Virginians via the press, social media and individual parishes. In the commonwealth, the governor has the power to issue a pardon, or to commute a sentence to life without parole. Prior to every execution, Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde and Richmond Bishop Francis X. DiLorenzo send a letter to the governor asking him to spare the inmate's life. The papal nuncio, on behalf of Pope Francis, also sends a plea. The VCC sends out alerts and organizes local Catholics to advocate.

"Here in our state, curbing executions has been an uphill battle," said Jeff Caruso, VCC executive director, "but it's vital that we all work together to change the conversation and help move our commonwealth's practices in a different direction."

The execution dates of Ricky Jovan Gray and Ivan Teleguz are likely to be scheduled soon, said Michael Stone, executive director of Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. In Virginia, a number of mandatory appeals are set up to ensure the sentence is fair, but both Gray and Teleguz are running out of legal recourse. In Gray's case, the commonwealth already has requested that an execution date be set.

Gray was sentenced to death for the killing of Kathryn and Brian Harvey and their young daughters, Stella and Ruby, during a home robbery. His accomplice is serving life in prison without parole.

Ivan Teleguz was found guilty of hiring a hitman to kill the mother of his child, Stephanie Sipes. The man who killed Sipes is serving a life sentence.

Though gruesome crimes, advocating for the lives of Gray and Teleguz is still the right thing to do, said Terri Steinberg, a parishioner of St. Timothy Church in Chantilly. "It's not about what Ricky did, it's about who we are. We are Catholic. This is the Year of Mercy, and we are more than the worst things we've ever done," she said.

Steinberg first became interested in the fight against the death penalty when her son, Justin Wolfe, was wrongfully convicted of a capital crime: murder for hire. "I've always been a Catholic and believed that all life was sacred, I just didn't do anything about it," she said. Now she advocates against the death penalty to protect those falsely convicted as well as those who are guilty of heinous crimes.

"Life is life," she said.

Steinberg knows, too, that death row inmates are not the same people who committed the crime. "Most have changed, most have grown, most have come off the drugs or alcohol that caused them to do something so stupid," she said.

Her son's experience has given Steinberg a glimpse of the pain caused by capital punishment. "God gave me this cross because the death penalty can happen to anyone," she said.

Betsy Pugin, a parishioner of Church of the Nativity in Burke, believes that advocating against the death penalty is a powerful testament to the belief in an all-loving, all-merciful God. "To say that someone cannot possibly be forgiven, in its worst case it causes vendettas and vengeance," she said. "There's nothing nonviolent about the death penalty. It keeps the violence going."

Since 2000, Pugin and others have attended more than 30 vigils on the night of an execution outside of historic St. Mary of Sorrows Church in Fairfax. "We're always praying (the inmates) have made their peace with God, and we're praying for the victims and their families," she said.

Find out more about the death penalty and other life issues at Virginia Catholic Conference and Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016