Church to host panel on death penalty

Date Published: 
March 7, 2014

On Thursday, March 13, at 7 p.m., St. Ann Catholic Church in Bethany Beach will hold an adult panel educating against the death penalty.

“We thought it would be good to draw on people who are more experts in the area of the death penalty than we are. They are, in the field of the death penalty, experts,” explained Jeannie Fleming, retired director of religious education at the church, who also serves on the church’s Social Justice Committee.

Fleming said the panel is not a debate at which both sides of the issue will be presented.

“We’re not presenting both sides because, as Catholics, we see this as a moral issue. So we are presenting the side that says, ‘This is the wrong thing to do.’ Economically, it doesn’t save money. It doesn’t provide more safety; it doesn’t cut down on violence. Violence is actually is more prevalent in the states that have the death penalty. It’s just a flawed policy, and I think we are almost alone in the civilized nations in the western world who have the death penalty still.

“We’re providing a venue for them to educate us with their experience and knowledge,” she added. “Our concern is that the death penalty is not a good teaching instrument. As a mother, we don’t teach our children not to hit by hitting them. So we don’t also teach people the value of human life and not to kill by killing people. It’s like we’re talking out of two sides of our mouth.”

The panel will include numerous speakers who will discuss why they believe the death penalty is wrong. Those on the panel include Brian Griffith Boyle from Delaware Repeal Project and Kristin Froehlich of Delaware Citizens Opposed to the Death Penalty.

“Brian will be talking about how it doesn’t achieve the goals we’re looking for — when people say it gives more safety, it’s better economically… their own experience as people who have lost family members to murder. A lot of times, people think people whose family members have been murdered, they’re the ones who are really hot for the death penalty. That’s not always the case.

“These particular people are very much against an ‘eye for an eye.’ They’re not looking for a death to appease the death they’ve experienced. They also know the suffering a family feels when a family member is killed — in an act of murder or in our ‘justice system,’ because our justice system has a fatal flaw.”

Another scheduled speaker is Barbara Lewis, the mother of former death row inmate Robert Gattis, whose 1992 death sentence was commuted to life in prison without parole in January 2012.

“That’s a very rare happening,” said Fleming of the commuted sentence. “His mother is speaking about her experience with a son who was condemned and now is going to get to live until he gets to die a natural death, which is a horrendous punishment but perhaps very deserved.”

Fleming said she was moved to protest against the death penalty after hearing a priest speak out against it.

“Twenty-one years ago, I heard a priest speak against the death penalty. At that time, Delaware had just resumed using the death penalty,” she said. “Even as a young college student and a young married woman, I had a strong feeling the death penalty was wrong, but I never did anything about it. Hearing this priest, I thought, ‘This is something I should go on record being against.’”

Since 1992, Delaware has executed 13 people, and Fleming said she has gone to 10 of those executions.

“They occur in the middle of the night in Smyrna. We’ll all meet at the Smyrna Rest Stop before we go to the prison. Mostly, they’re church people, but not all. Some are just strongly concerned about the system.

Outside the prison, she said, “There’s a roped-off area for people who are protesting. We just stay there and we’re quiet, and we pray. Sometimes we sing. On the other side of the driveway is a roped-off area for people who support the death penalty, who are there to support the execution of the man who is being executed that night.”

Fleming said the experience is a “chilling” one, but protestors continue to attend to voice their opinions.

“It’s really chilling. It happens around midnight. About 25 minutes after midnight, a man will come down, wearing a suit, and he’ll stand there and say, ‘The State of Delaware carried out the execution of J.P. Blank and he died at 12.15,’” she said. “And the people on the other side, whose humanity and conscious I respect, cheer and clap. We just pray and then go home. We have been there in rain, in snow, in terrible heat and in cold. We’re just there to demonstrate our opinion, our strong opinion.”

During the protests, Fleming said, those opposed to the death penalty will be led in scripture by a minister, or sing songs such as “We Shall Overcome” and “Let There Be Peace On Earth.”

“When we pray, we always pray for the victim,” she added. “We always pray for the families of the victim. We always pray for the man being executed. We pray for the people who have the job of executing them. We don’t see any of those people as the enemy. Everybody is trying to do their job, but they see it differently than we do… Maybe sometime they’ll think about why we’re out there.”

Last year, Senate Bill 19, which would repeal the death penalty in Delaware, passed in the Senate by a vote of 11-10. Currently, the bill is being reviewed by the House Judiciary Committee.

Fleming said she hopes that people in the community will attend the panel to hear why many people believe the bill should be made law.

“No matter what the church teaches, people like you and me and our neighbors and relatives, people in their own conscience need to decide what they think is right and wrong. I would love the undecided to come,” she said of the event.

“Mistakes can be made, and certainly mistakes have been made in the past. But when you make a mistake with the death penalty, there is no way to correct it, no compensation, there’s no restitution — the person is dead… I think if we’re going to make an error, we should always error on the side of life. That’s why I think the death penalty is flawed.”

Saint Ann Catholic Church is located at 691 Garfield Parkway in Bethany Beach. For more information, call (302) 539-6449.