Forgive us as we forgive others: Ariz. bishops restate position on the death penalty in light of recent executions
Kate Lehman believes everyone deserves a second chance; even the two people convicted and imprisoned for the 2004 murder of her stepdaughter, Terra Parker.
Parker, a 24-year-old mother of two, was killed on Holy Thursday. Her throat was slit and her body dumped at a Mormon Church in Avondale.
The man who wielded the knife was sentenced to life in prison without parole. A woman also involved in her death received two decades behind bars.
Both were high on methamphetamine at the time of the killing.
“One thing I always have not wanted to do was to have Terra become an object lesson,” Lehman said. “I don’t want to trot her out to make a point.”
However, Lehman felt moved to share her story in light of the recent execution of Robert Moormann, Feb. 29, at the Arizona State Prison Complex-Florence.
The bishops of the Arizona Catholic Conference reiterated their opposition to the use of the death penalty through a statement two days prior to the execution.
In it, the bishops emphasized their compassion for “those who are victims of brutal crimes and for their families,” while maintaining the stance the death penalty is “problematic,” and unjustified.
The Arizona Catholic Conference is the public policy agency for the Dioceses of Phoenix, Tucson and Gallup, N.M., and the Holy Protection of Mary Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Phoenix.
“If it takes using this example to show not every victim of a crime like this wants this kind of retribution -— unless we do speak out — the death penalty will be used as an excuse that the victims’ families want it,” Lehman said.
“The Church has been pretty clear on the death penalty. I don’t understand how others think it’s justice to take a person’s life. To me, it’s the exact opposite of why Jesus gave His life on the cross.”
Dan Peitzmeyer, president of the Arizona Death Penalty Forum and member of Pax Christi Phoenix, said he believes people who support the death penalty are simply misinformed.
“They think there is a benefit to society from executing people who have done heinous and egregious acts,” he said. “Violence begets violence. States which execute have a higher percentage of capital cases than do states which have eliminated the death penalty.”
Nationally, 1,281 people have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
Currently, 65 percent of Americans support capital punishment. Peitzmeyer said it’s the lowest show of support since its reinstatement more than 30 years ago.
“All life is sacred, from conception to natural death. It is easier to be sympathetic to the death of an unborn innocent, than to the death of the guilty,” he said.
Lehman said if the defendants in her stepdaughter’s murder trial had received the death penalty, she was going to ask the court for leniency.
Her reason may surprise you.
“When I saw them (defendants), I saw them as children, and every child needs an opportunity to feel loved and valued,” she said. “He (male defendant) has the right to reflect on his life and ask God’s forgiveness, and if it takes 50 years to happen, he should have the time to do it.”
Trent Horn, coordinator of respect life parish leadership support for the diocese, said the Bible is filled with stories of murder and forgiveness.
One story that stands out is that of Paul, who murdered Christians while he persecuted them as Saul of Tarsus.
“The Church teaches that every human life has dignity and value because we are made in God’s image,” Horn said. “Even humans who have committed terrible sins are eligible for God’s grace and the opportunity to repent.”
All three agree the public needs to be better educated on the topic of the death penalty, from homilies at the ambo, to seminars, conferences and workshops.
“If we claim we want to know and love like Jesus, we can’t condone the death penalty,” Lehman said. “We need to get past retribution or we’re never going to achieve what He envisioned for us on earth.”
The statement from the Arizona Bishops quoted Blessed John Paul II’s, Evangelium Vitae, #56. The late pope, an ardent defender of human life on the world stage, wrote that the use of capital punishment should be limited to only those extremely rare situations where it is necessary to defend society.
Horn said Blessed John Paul II taught that taking a human life may not be done to merely punish or “send a message,” but “can only be done in the narrow circumstances where it is impossible to protect other human lives without the use of lethal force.”
Horn gave the example of war. “A just war can only be fought in response to a grave, lasting, certain threat that cannot be neutralized by any other peaceful means and can be stopped with a legitimate prospect of success.”
Lehman readily admits she had no idea she could forgive, but she has. And in that forgiveness she not only found peace, but compassion.
She prays that the incarcerated woman, also a mother, will have an opportunity to come to know her daughter one day far from the cold walls of prison.
She prays the man spending his life behind bars will find God and come to understand He is the only person who has his best interests at heart.
“I do hope the best, in terms of finding God, for both those tortured souls,” Lehman said. “I don’t think of it as being generous — it’s what Jesus asks of us.”