Missouri’s Catholic bishops issue statement renouncing vengeance, call for alternatives to death penalty

Following state’s execution of man convicted of murder


Following a failed clemency request from Pope Francis, Bishop W. Shawn McKnight and his fellow Roman Catholic bishops of Missouri issued a statement Oct. 6, expressing disappointment over the execution of Ernest Lee Johnson.

“Ernest Lee Johnson’s crimes were heinous and deserved to be punished, yet as Missouri has shown itself to be a pro-life state, we should stop using the death penalty as a means of dealing with violent crimes,” the bishops stated in their role as officers of the Missouri Catholic Conference (MCC).

The statement’s signatories include: Archbishop Mitchell T. Rozanski of St. Louis; Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. of Kansas City-St. Joseph; Bishop McKnight; and Bishop Edward M. Rice of Springfield-Cape Girardeau.

Mr. Johnson, 61, was executed by lethal injection at the state prison in Bonne Terre shortly after 6 p.m. on Oct. 5.

The bishops’ statement followed an appeal from Pope Francis to Missouri Governor Mike Parson to commute Mr. Johnson’s sentence and “grant him some appropriate form of clemency.”

The Pope’s request was conveyed in a Sept. 27 letter from Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States.

“This request is not based upon the facts and circumstances of (Mr. Johnson’s) crimes,” Archbishop Pierre wrote, adding: “Who could not argue that grave crimes such as his deserve great punishment?”

Nor was the pope’s request based solely on Mr. Johnson’s doubtful intellectual capacity.

“Rather, His Holiness wishes to place before you the simple fact of Mr. Johnson’s humanity and the sacredness of all human life,” Archbishop Pierre wrote.

He pointed to the courageous stands Missouri has taken in support of the dignity of life, “even at the earliest and most vulnerable state.”

“For this we are very grateful,” Archbishop Pierre wrote. “Now, to reject the application of the death penalty in the case of Mr. Johnson would be an equally courageous recognition of the inalienable dignity of all human life.”

After reviewing the case, Gov. Parson did not intervene.

“The state is prepared to deliver justice and carry out the lawful sentence Mr. Johnson received in accordance with the Missouri Supreme Court’s order,” the governor stated Oct. 5.

Missouri’s bishops echoed many of the Pope’s themes in their statement the day after Mr. Johnson was executed.

They offered their sincerest condolences and prayers for the families of the people Mr. Johnson killed in 1995.

“The lives of Mary Bratcher, Mabel Scruggs and Fred Jones deserve honor and remembrance,” the bishops stated. “We pray for the comfort of their loved ones as they are forced to relive the trauma and pain of these crimes through this execution.”

The bishops acknowledged that when horrendous crimes are committed, it is easy to call for vengeance and retribution.

“It may seem the only fair thing to do is take a life for a life,” they stated, “but the death penalty does not make Missouri a safer or more civil state.

“The death penalty degrades us as a society and teaches our children that violence is the proper response to violence,” they stated.

Mr. Johnson was convicted of first-degree murder in 1995 and sentenced to death for killing three employees of a Columbia convenience store — 46-year-old Mary Bratcher, 57-year-old Mable Scruggs and 58-year-old Fred Jones — with a claw hammer.

The bishops, through the MCC, submitted a clemency request for Mr. Johnson last month.

His lawyer and advocates for clemency argued that his execution would be unconstitutional because a 2008 operation for a brain tumor left him with a diminished intellectual capacity. Surgeons had to remove roughly one-fifth of his brain tissue.

The Missouri bishops pointed out that when someone is executed, “the opportunity for them to undergo a conversion and repent prior to their final judgement may be lost.”

“That important time for grace to work in a person’s heart is taken away,” they noted.

The bishops said they pray for the people of Missouri to look for ways to address such heinous crimes without resorting to the death penalty. 

They noted that life in prison without parole is an appropriately severe punishment that isolates offending individuals from society.

The bishops asked Catholics and all people of good will to join them in seeking alternatives to the death penalty for Missouri’s most violent criminals.

“Even those who commit the most offensive acts do not lose their human dignity before God,” the bishops stated.

Archbishop Pierre, in his letter, asserted that all of society benefits when all types of violence are restrained, “even the violence of a legal execution.”

He pointed to an admonition from Pope Francis in his encyclical letter, “Fratelli Tutti” — “Do not let the atrocity of their sins feed a desire of vengeance, but desire instead to heal the wounds which those deeds have inflicted.”

Missouri’s bishops closed their statement with a prayerful appeal: “May God grant us His peace in these troubled times.”

Contributing to this report was Joe Kenny, a staff writer for the St. Louis Review, newspaper of the St. Louis archdiocese, and Catholic News Service reporter Carol Zimmermann.