WASHINGTON (December 4, 2000) -- The head of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) asked President Clinton to commute the sentences of all those now awaiting execution in federal prisons in the spirit of the Jubilee Year.
Noting that in November he was a signatory to a letter asking President Clinton to place a moratorium on federal executions, NCCB President Joseph A. Fiorenza said, "These courageous acts--a moratorium or commutations--would demonstrate to the nation and the world that Americans are turning away from death and towards life by protecting even the lives of those who failed to demonstrate a similar respect for life."
"Today (December 5), I write on behalf of the country's Catholic bishops to reiterate that call and urge something more fundamental (than a moratorium)," said Bishop Fiorenza. "In this Jubilee Year, we ask that you commute the sentences of all 31 people (civilians and military) awaiting executions in federal prisons."
No one has been put to death at the federal level since 1963. However, the execution of Juan Raul Garza is scheduled to take place in the federal facility in Terre Haute, Indiana on December 12.
"For Catholics, this day is the great feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of the Americas, who appeared before a peasant to share the Good News that God has special concern for the poor and the forgotten," Bishop Fiorenza wrote. "Despite their horrible crimes, the men and women on our nation's death rows are often themselves poor and forgotten."
"As you know," Bishop Fiorenza continued, "for nearly thirty years the U.S. Catholic bishops have been working to end the death penalty in the United States. We believe that we have other means to keep society safe from murderers--means that demonstrate a respect for life and ensure that innocent people will never be put to death. We do not believe that we can teach society that killing is wrong by killing those who kill others. Executing Mr. Garza not only ends a life, but it diminishes all of us and contributes to the cycle of violence. In addition, we do not believe that executions offer anything but temporary and false comfort to those who have lost a loved one to murder. Their pain and anguish requires sustained care by society and loving presence by those of us called to minister to their spiritual needs."
"In working for the relief of the crushing debt of so many poor countries, your Administration undertook an action that is very much in keeping with the spirit of the Jubilee Year," the Bishop wrote. "Changing a sentence of death to a sentence of life reflects this same spirit. Just as debt relief will save hundreds of thousands of poor people from death by hunger and disease, so too will commutations save the lives of these condemned. The Jubilee Year is not the time to begin again the execution of those who commit federal crimes."
Juan Raul Garza was convicted in 1993 under the federal drug kingpin statute for murders committed in Brownsville, Texas.
Like Pope John Paul II, the U.S. Bishops in recent years have spoken out with increasing frequency against the death penalty, including a Good Friday Appeal to End the Death Penalty (April 2, 1999).