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07/07/1999
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Death penalty wrongs 'reflected in execution of Jesus'
By Kevin Kelly
Catholic Key Associate Editor

colby.JPG
Kevin Kelly/Key photo
Neal Colby, director of social concerns for the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, addresses a news conference calling for a halt to the death penalty.
KANSAS CITY - Everything that can go wrong with the death penalty today is reflected in the trial and execution of Jesus Christ, the Diocesan director of social concerns said June 11.

Adding his voice at a press conference calling for a moratorium on executions in Missouri, Neal Colby Jr. urged Christians to examine closely the Gospel accounts of the passion and death of Jesus.

"All the problems with the death penalty can be summed up in the death of our founder and savior, Jesus Christ," Colby said.

"We had a person being accused without legal representation or counsel," Colby said. "We had trumped up charges and an inflamed population who put pressure on public officials who abdicated their responsibility, washed their hands of the matter, and allowed revenge to placate the public outcry of the moment."

Colby said that "people of good faith can disagree" on the question of whether the death penalty can ever be administered justly. "But the fact is, it has not since the time of Christ," Colby said.

Colby noted that across the country, former death row inmates have been later found to be innocent of the crimes for which they were condemned. But the quickening pace of executions reduces the likelihood of discovering those mistakes.

"When we find these mistakes, we ought to have the ability to recognize them and to restore the person to life and freedom," Colby said. "Once they are dead, we have taken away something that is precious and irreplacable. But more importantly, we have not followed the dictates of our founder."

The press conference, held at Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church in central Kansas City, was called by the Western Missouri Coalition Against the Death Penalty five days before Missouri executed Bruce Kilgore for a 1986 homicide. Kilgore, who maintained to his death that the killing was done by a co-defendant who received life imprisonment in exchange for testimony against Kilgore, was the seventh inmate to be killed this year in Missouri's lethal injection chamber at the Potosi Correctional Facility.

Kilgore's death set a record for Missouri since the reinstatement of capital punishment. In fact, Coalition President Cathy Burnett said that Missouri has not executed as many inmates in a single year since 1938.

The execution of an eighth inmate was set for June 30, Burnett said, and another six are likely to have execution dates set before the end of the year. And had Gov. Mel Carnahan not heeded Pope John Paul II's personal request in January to commute the death sentence of Darrell Mease, the number of executions this year in Missouri could have been as high as 15.

Cedric Brown, an attorney for the Public Interest Litigation Clinic in Kansas City, said that the death row population in Missouri is disproportionately African-American and poor. He noted that of the seven inmates executed so far this year, all were poor and five were African-American.

Brown said that the American Bar Association in 1997 called for a moratorium on all executions in the United States until a study could be performed on the questions of racial and economic bias in meting out and executing the death sentence.

"It is only just and fitting that executions be halted in Missouri until it is determined that they can be applied fairly," Brown said.

State Rep. Bill Boucher, a Catholic whose Missouri House district includes southeast Kansas City, noted that the Nebraska Legislature passed a moratorium this year, but it was vetoed by Gov. Mike Johanns.

Boucher said he had introduced similar legislation calling for a moratorium, but his bill never even received a House Judiciary Committee hearing. When he tried to attach an amendment to a bill calling for an ongoing state Sentencing Commission to report by next January, he said the amendment was defeated on the House floor, 32 to 109.

But Boucher vowed to continue. "We're certainly coming back with that next year," he said.


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