During their visit to the State Capitol for Catholic Day on the Hill, the three bishops of Tennessee, Bishop J. Mark Spalding of Nashville, Bishop David P. Talley of Memphis, and Bishop Richard F. Stika of Knoxville met with Gov. Bill Lee.
The bishops thanked the governor for his work and support on the many issues where his stance and the position of the Church in Tennessee align, such as education and care for the vulnerable.
But there is one issue where the bishops and the governor have not yet found common ground: the use of the death penalty.
The Tennessee Supreme Court recently set execution dates during 2022 for three more Death Row inmates. Those three added to the two executions already scheduled for 2022 bring the total scheduled for the year to five, the most of any state in the nation.
The next execution, that of Oscar Franklin Smith scheduled for April 21, is only weeks away. Smith’s execution will be followed by those for Harold Nichols on June 9, Byron Black on Aug. 18, Gary Sutton on Oct. 6, and Donald Middlebrooks on Dec. 8.
All five were sentenced to death after being convicted of horrible murders. Smith was convicted of shooting and stabbing to death is estranged wife Judy Robirds Smith and her two sons, Jason and Chad Burnett, in their Nashville home in 1989. Nichols was convicted of raping and beating to death 21-year-old Karen Pulley in Chattanooga, Black of killing his girlfriend Angela Clay and her two young daughters, Latoya and Lakeisha, in Nashville, Sutton of fatally shooting Tommy Griffin in Blount County as well as killing Griffin’s sister Connie Branam in Sevier County, and Middlebrooks of torturing and killing 14-year-old Kerrick Majors of Nashville.
The pain experienced by the victims and the grief felt by their loved ones is difficult to imagine. We pray that God, in his boundless love, will help them find peace and healing here on earth and in heaven.
But as the bishops have communicated to the governor and his predecessors many times over the years, our faith in Jesus Christ compels us to hold onto hope that even those who commit the most heinous of crimes may yet truly repent and be reconciled to God.
The bishops are following the lead of St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis, who have all spoken against the death penalty as cruel, unnecessary, and a violation of the God-given dignity of every person. Building on the teachings of his two predecessors, Pope Francis declared that the death penalty was unacceptable in all circumstances.
In the past, the bishops have reminded us that the death penalty is simply not necessary to protect society while still providing a just punishment for those who break civil laws. Tennessee’s continued use of the death penalty does not serve the cause of justice, bucks the national trend of moving away from capital punishment, and holds the possibility of killing an innocent person.
The Church’s teaching on the death penalty is part of its broader teaching on the need to respect and defend all human life from its beginning at conception to its end at a natural death. It can sometimes be difficult to be willing to extend mercy to those guilty of such horrible crimes, but that is exactly what Christ taught us to do. Even as he neared death on the cross, the victim of a state execution himself, Christ prayed for God to extend his mercy to those persecuting him: “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
The bishops’ and Gov. Lee’s conversations about the death penalty have been cordial and civil. They do not yet agree on the use of the death penalty, but they have agreed to continue their discussion of the issue.
We pray for the victims of these violent crimes, we pray for these men condemned, we pray for the governor, and we pray for the people of Tennessee and the entire country. We pray that they will experience God’s mercy, that they will reconcile themselves to the Lord, that peace will triumph over the anger in our hearts, that we, as a society, will respect and defend all human life.