ST. LOUIS • When someone faces execution in the Show-Me State, the Missouri Catholic Conference always asks the governor to delay it, or at least commute the death sentence to life in prison without the opportunity of parole.
Even if there aren’t lingering questions of innocence and mental disability, the killer is worth saving, the conference, a public policy agency for Roman Catholic bishops in Missouri, believes.
“Sometimes the governor listens to us, and sometimes he doesn’t,” said Rita Linhardt, who is part of the effort.
Pope John Paul II influenced her view on capital punishment years ago, but Pope Francis on Thursday emboldened her work and that of many others by officially announcing that the Roman Catholic Church will now teach that the death penalty is “inadmissible” and should be abolished worldwide.
“People look to the teaching for guidance and for inspiration,” Linhardt said.
It’s unclear what impact the announcement will have, given the decline in church attendance and fragmentation of faith groups around the world, including the Roman Catholic Church, which has more than 1 billion members.
“The reaction to his statement is probably going to be pretty predictable given the current political climate and the divisions we already see in American Catholicism, at least,” said Marie Griffith, director of the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University.
But she thought the new stance would influence groups similar to the Missouri Catholic Conference.
“It will energize those Catholics who have already opposed the death penalty on Christian grounds and really wanted to see the church speak strongly on this issue and not just the abortion issue,” she said.
Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty said in a prepared statement that it was happy about the pope’s announcement.
“We have always had great support from the Catholic community, but there has been a gray area where catechism has said capital punishment is permissible in ‘some’ situations,” the group wrote by email.
According to the Vatican, the death penalty was previously considered an appropriate response under the right circumstances. The Catechism of the Catholic Church now says there “is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serious crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.”
There have been 1,479 executions in the United States since 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Falling from a peak of 98 in 1999, there were 23 executions in 2017.
No executions are currently scheduled in Missouri, but 24 people have been sentenced to capital punishment, according to a Jan. 1 list of offenders from the Department of Corrections.
Amy Fite, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said the group supports the continued use of capital punishment “as the appropriate penalty for a small number of truly heinous murders.”
“Only a small subset of first-degree murders is even eligible for the death penalty,” she wrote by email. “The death penalty is an extraordinary punishment that is sought and imposed only against the worst of the worst defendants.”
A fourth of the offenders in Missouri sentenced to capital punishment are from St. Louis County, which makes up the largest group.
They were sentenced under the leadership of St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Bob McCulloch, who is one of about 500,000 Catholics who live within the geographic boundary of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.
Up for re-election next week, McCulloch, one of the longest serving officials in the region, didn’t respond to requests for comment made through his spokesman Thursday.
Scott Rosenblum, a defense attorney based in Clayton who said he’s handled more than 100 murder cases, including seven involving capital punishment, commended the pope, but he didn’t think the new death penalty stance would have much sway on local prosecutors.
“The church position has been known for a long time,” he said. “Those in the position to seek the death penalty, say a prosecutor, or a judge that enforces it, tend to be able to departmentalize their own religious beliefs.”
Michael Wolff said that’s what he did when he heard lots of last-minute appeals while serving on the Supreme Court of Missouri from 1998 to 2011.
“When you are a judge applying the law, I think you have an obligation to follow the law and Constitution,” Wolff said. “If your conscience is such that you can’t do that, then you shouldn’t sit on a case if you can’t judge it fairly.”
Wolff, also former dean of St. Louis University School of Law, said four U.S. Supreme Court justices are Catholic.
The question, he said, is if the new stance will influence jury selection — not only among devout Catholics, but those who are not but respect Pope Francis. Potential jurors in capital cases are asked if they could vote to impose the death penalty if the state proves what they need for it.
Wolff said an argument could be made to exclude people from the jury pool who say they couldn’t do it.
“Do you then end up with a fair cross section of your community?” he said. “Have you now put the defendant’s fate in the hands of people who are predisposed to guilt and punishment?”