Sunday, October 7, 2007

Death penalty: Eye for eye

But opponents want moratoriumS to halt 'murder of murderers.'

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Express-Times

The Supreme Court of the United States will soon be considering one of the most important death penalty cases in decades.

The issue centers on the use of lethal injection as the executioner's tool in a case involving two inmates on Kentucky's death row.

Ralph Baze and Thomas Clyde Bowling Jr. sued the Bluegrass State in 2004, claiming the needle amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

Locally, some say any form of capital punishment is just plain wrong.

Lehigh University Chaplain Lloyd Steffen is a longtime opponent of the death penalty. He's even written a book about it -- "Executing Justice: The Moral Meaning of the Death Penalty."

Steffen is a professor of religion and a minister with the United Church of Christ, which is taking a strong stand against the death penalty.

Karen Berry, head of the Social Action Committee of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Lehigh Valley, says her church adopted a moratorium resolution earlier this summer and is hoping for formal action from the Pennsylvania Legislature to make some type of death penalty moratorium official statewide.

And during the weekend of Oct. 19-20, Amnesty International is sponsoring the 2007 National Weekend of Faith in Action on the Death Penalty when churches throughout the country will hold events to bring attention to the issue.

The fight is in the courts

This connection between religious and secular organizations is at the forefront of the struggle to rid states of what organizers see as a barbaric and unfairly administered penalty for the crime of murder.

The courts are where the fighting has begun.

All 37 states that perform lethal injection use the same three-drug cocktail, but at least 10 of those states suspended its use after opponents alleged it was ineffective and cruel, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.

The three consist of an anesthetic, a muscle paralyzer, and a substance to stop the heart. Death penalty foes have argued that if the condemned prisoner is not given enough anesthetic, he -- or she -- can suffer excruciating pain without being able to cry out.

Baze, 52, has been on death row for 14 years. He was sentenced for the 1992 shooting deaths of Powell County Sheriff Steve Bennett and Deputy Arthur Briscoe.

Bennett and Briscoe were serving warrants on Baze when he shot them. Baze has said the shootings were the result of a family dispute that got out of hand and resulted in the sheriff being called.

Bowling was sentenced to death for killing Edward and Tina Earley and shooting their 2-year-old son outside the couple's Lexington, Ky., dry-cleaning business in 1990.

Lethal injection is just one battle; the war consists of opponents fighting against all forms of capital punishment.

'Seamless garment of life'

When asked if churches have any business getting mixed up in the politics of whether states should, or should not, execute criminals for the most heinous crimes, Steffen says, "Sure they should. All the mainline churches have taken positions opposing the death penalty, and Pope John Paul II has said the death penalty is inimical to the 'seamless garment of life.' "

Steffen is not encouraging the justice system to let the most vile criminals out onto the streets, he's just looking for the same kind of consideration parents use when their kids act out -- give them a time out.

"If people took a time out to study the problem," he says, "they would be against the death penalty."

Perhaps the Bible verse from Hebrews 10:30 applies here: "'Vengeance is mine,' saith the Lord." And from Deuteronomy 32:36: "For the Lord will be judge of his people."

But what do the people do when a Timothy McVeigh blows up an office building in Oklahoma City, snuffing out 168 souls? Or -- much closer to home -- when Martin Appel robbed the bank in East Allen Township, executing three to leave no witnesses. Appel was sentenced to death, but got off death row through appeals.

Death for 'horrific crimes'

Northampton County District Attorney John Morganelli still chafes at that decision.

"We need to keep the death penalty on the books for any horrific crimes that come along," Morganelli says. He maintains Appel is one of those criminals. Besides, Morganelli says Pennsylvania has had a "de facto" moratorium on death sentences for decades.

"We've only had three executions, and all of those came after they stopped appealing their cases.

Steffen refers to those same three cases as "voluntary" executions. He has visited death rows in Pennsylvania and Tennessee and says death row confinement usually means solitary confinement for years.

"There are a lot of suicides," he says. "It's torturous for them. All three executions have been volunteers. They drop all appeals; it's a mental illness situation."

Pennsylvania's primary method of execution is by lethal injection which, according to Amnesty International, is the same method used by China, Guatemala, the Philippines and Thailand.

New Jersey's method of execution is also by lethal injection. However, The Garden State does have a formal moratorium on executions, due to legislation passed in 2006.

Steffen says too many convicts who were innocent slip through the cracks.

"There have been 124 nationwide," he says.

Return to Martin Appel case

When Illinois Gov. George Ryan commuted his state's death sentences in a blanket order in January 2003, he was making a statement against the death penalty. He was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for that action and has stumped in Harrisburg for a moratorium on the death penalty in the Keystone State.

Morganelli, who authored his own book about the Appel case, says those seeking a death penalty moratorium in Pennsylvania "are all do-good organizations that don't believe in punishment and that everybody can be rehabilitated. They're just anti-law and don't carry much credibility."

Morganelli's book is titled "The D-Day Bank Massacre: The True Story Behind the Martin Appel Case."

Morganelli says he's more concerned about inmates who manage to get paroled and end up killing again. He names Reginald McFadden and "Mudman" Simon as two examples.

He also says the American justice system already has a built-in safeguard against making mistakes -- a jury of 12 who must vote unanimously for the death penalty.

"We just had a case where it went 11 to 1," Morganelli says, citing the Andrew D. Paschal verdict. Paschal was convicted of gunning down Marcellus McDuffie outside Larry Holmes Ringside Restaurant and Lounge, in Easton on May 14, 2006.

Death penalty not logical

Maria Weick of the Lehigh Valley Committee Against Killing and the Pennsylvania Death Penalty Abolition Coordinator for Amnesty International, says "Pennsylvania is a really hard case when it comes to the death penalty."

Both she and Steffen say the single most difficult roadblock to a moratorium is politicians.

"Pennsylvania politicians," Weick scoffs, "are married to the idea that supporting the death penalty means they're tough on crime."

Weick says Pennsylvanians are split 50-50 for and against the death penalty.

She admits, "Moratoriums are an act of desperation. But they are a way of getting people to think about the issue."

Steffen says they act to increase public awareness.

Weick adds that the death penalty makes no logical sense.

"Think about it," she says, "Do we drug the drug dealer? Do we rape the rapist? Then why do we murder the murderer?"

Tony Nauroth is a features writer with The Express-Times. He can be reached at 610-258-7171 or by e-mail at

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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