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by Theresa Laurence and Catholic News Service

St. Henry Church in Nashville hosted one of several prayer vigils across the state on Dec. 5 to oppose the death penalty and remember all victims of violence. As the state of Tennessee executed Lee Hall around 7:30 p.m. for the murder of Traci Crozier, death penalty opponents offered a prayerful response.

This was Tennessee’s third execution in 2019, and the sixth in 16 months. “Though Tennessee continues to execute, death sentencing and public support for the death penalty are at record lows. Gallup just released a poll showing 60% of Americans now prefer life without parole to the death penalty. A majority of jurors in Lee Hall’s trial oppose his execution because they did not have life without parole as a sentencing option,” said Rev. Stacy Rector, executive director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. 

Hall, who became functionally blind while in prison, was convicted and sentenced to death in 1991 for the murder of his estranged girlfriend Traci Crozier. According to news reports, Hall threw a lit container full of gas into Crozier’s car after she’d left him, because of his physical abuse. Crozier’s family members had spoken out in recent weeks with strong support for Hall’s execution.

In a court filing last year, Hall’s attorneys argued that his blindness left him vulnerable and that he was no longer a threat to society. “If confined to prison for the remainder of his natural life, Mr. Hall bears no practical risk of harm to anyone,” they wrote.

In late November, Hall’s attorneys wrote to Gov. Bill Lee, requesting a temporary reprieve of his Dec. 5 execution, citing new information that a juror who served on his case failed to disclose that she was biased against him. “Juror A”, as she is known, failed to disclose that she was a victim of domestic abuse, “that she could put herself in Traci Crozier’s shoes and hated Lee Hall for what he had done to her.”

“The right to a trial by a fair and impartial jury is a foundational right protected by both the federal and state Constitution,’ Hall’s attorneys wrote in the letter. “Juror A was not a fair and impartial juror. Her presence on Lee Hall’s jury is a structural error in the judicial process requiring automatic reversal.”

Not a path to justice

As governor of Tennessee, Lee has the sole authority to commute death sentences. Since he took office in January 2019, Lee has allowed two other executions to proceed, Donnie Johnson on May 16 and Stephen Michael West on Aug. 15. Charles Walton Wright died in prison before his scheduled execution date of Oct. 10.

Tennessee carried out three executions in 2018 when Gov. Bill Haslam was in office; before that it had not carried out any in almost a decade.

The state’s three Catholic bishops, Mark Spalding of Nashville, Richard Stika of Knoxville and David Talley of Memphis, had a private meeting with Gov. Lee in April where they discussed, among other issues, their opposition to the death penalty and delivered a letter outlining the Catholic Church’s opposition to capital punishment. “Rather than serving as a path to justice, the death penalty contributes to the growing disrespect for human life and continues a cycle of violence in society,” the bishops wrote.

“Even when guilt is certain, the execution is not necessary to protect society.”

In August 2018, building on his predecessors’ opposition to capital punishment, Pope Francis ordered a revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which now says that “the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

DNA testing denied

One of the major issues with the death penalty is the real risk of executing an innocent person. Since 1973, 166 people, including three from Tennessee, have been freed from death row after evidence of their innocence emerged.

The family of Tennessean Sedley Alley, who was executed more than 10 years ago, continues to push for DNA testing to uncover whether the state executed an innocent man. He was killed by lethal injection for the 1985 rape and murder of Suzanne Collins. Even though there was doubt about Alley’s guilt before the execution, the Tennessee Supreme Court denied his request to have crime scene DNA tested.

This past May, April Alley, daughter of Sedley Alley, filed a new request to have the DNA tested, which was denied earlier this month.

Alley’s legal team said they will appeal the decision.

“If that testing had occurred 15 years ago, it’s possible the person who really committed this crime would have been identified and held accountable,” they said in a statement. “If Tennessee executed an innocent person, we should know it, and the person who did it should be identified. Our client, April Alley, just wants the truth.”

Federal executions stayed

A federal judge Nov. 20 temporarily blocked the executions of four federal death-row inmates scheduled for December and January, saying the lethal injections they were to receive go against the Federal Death Penalty Act.

When U.S. Attorney General William Barr announced in July that the government was reinstating the federal death penalty after a 16-year hiatus, he said the executions would use a single drug instead of a three-drug protocol used in recent federal executions and used by several states. Several of the inmates have challenged the use of the single lethal injection.

In her ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Tanya Chutkan of the District of Columbia said that since the inmates were likely to win their case, their executions should be blocked until their legal challenge is resolved.

The 1994 Federal Death Penalty Act says federal executions should be carried out “in the manner prescribed by the law of the state in which the sentence is imposed.”

The judge disputed the Justice Department’s claim that reinstating the federal death penalty should not be delayed, pointing out that nothing had been done about the federal death penalty protocol for years after shortages developed of at least one drug used in the previous protocol.

“While the government does have a legitimate interest in the finality of criminal proceedings, the eight years that it waited to establish a new protocol undermines its arguments regarding the urgency and weight of that interest,” she wrote.

When Barr announced the end to the moratorium on executing federal inmates this summer, many Catholic leaders spoke out against it, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“I am deeply concerned by the announcement of the United States Justice Department that it will once again turn, after many years, to the death penalty as a form of punishment,” wrote Bishop Frank J. Dewane, Bishop of the Diocese of Venice, Florida, and former chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development. “I urge instead that Federal officials take this teaching into consideration, as well as the evidence showing its unfair and biased application, and abandon the announced plans to implement the death penalty once more.”

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