by Art Laffin
Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace

Editor’s Note: On the 57th anniversary of the historic March on Washington, Pax Christi USA members, including PCUSA National Field Organizer Lauren Bailey, former PCUSA National Council Chair Judy Coode, and Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace Art Laffin, took part in a vigil at the U.S. Department of Justice to demand that the federal execution scheduled for 4pm that day be stopped and to call for the abolition of the death penalty. Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), who is sponsoring a bill in Congress to end the federal death penalty, also shared powerful testimony about why the death penalty should be abolished and her commitment to make it a reality. The words below were shared at the event by Art Laffin.

During this critical and historic moment in our country, I stand in solidarity with all who are advocating for racial and social justice, ending police violence against African American brothers and sisters, and resisting all forms of state violence and killing. We are here today in front of this (in)Justice Department to say Yes to the God of Life, Love and Justice who commands us to love our neighbor, not to hate, oppress, racially profile and kill them. And let’s be very clear: The death penalty is premeditated murder–a mortal sin. It is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus. The resumption of federal executions for the first time in 17 years, are meant to appease Mr. Trump’s support base in advance of the presidential election. We denounce the four federal executions that have been carried out since July, including the execution of a Navajo man, Lezmond Mitchell on Wednesday night, and we demand that today’s execution of and all future executions be stopped. We implore Attorney General Barr, who is a Catholic and who has authorized these executions, to uphold God’s command “Thou Shalt not kill,” and the absolute teaching of the church that prohibits the death penalty in all cases. 

I stand before you as an imperfect follower of Jesus, a Catholic Worker, and a murder victim family member. In 1999 my younger brother, Paul, who was the associate director at Mercy Housing and Shelter in Hartford, CT, was murdered by Dennis Soutar, a homeless man who suffers from severe paranoid schizophrenia. Dennis could have faced the death penalty at the time, but he was deemed mentally incompetent to stand trial and was sentenced to 60 years at a CT prison hospital where he is now. I invite you to please join me in praying for Dennis Soutar. I pray for his healing and that he may experience God’s forgiving love. 

My heart and prayers go out to all family members in our country and world who have lost a loved one through an act of violence. I know something of their pain and pray for their healing.

The horrific tragedy of my brother’s murder led me to become actively involved with the Journey of Hope–From Violence to Healing (JOH), a group founded and led by murder victim family members and which also includes, death row exonerees and relatives of the condemned and executed, who oppose the death penalty in all cases. We believe that an execution only creates another victim, another grieving family and further perpetuates the cycle of violence.  

There are many people who believe that we have to kill the murderer in order to bring closure for the victim’s family. This is the big LIE! I believe that killing people who kill will never bring true closure and healing. Killing Dennis will never bring my brother back. It will never bring healing or closure for my family or me. The pain of Paul’s murder will always be there.

Certainly, individuals, groups, and even corporations and governments who commit violent acts must be held accountable for their actions and make restitution to the victims’ families. But we must never sanction killing those who kill, no matter how brutal the crime. Rather we should pursue the way of restorative justice that seeks to heal and restore those who commit violent acts. 

Since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated in the US, a total of 1,523 people have been executed in the US, 1,244 of these executions have occurred in the south. I ask: how can we break the cycle of violence and killing? How can we promote healing for everyone who has experienced the unspeakable pain resulting from murder? I believe that the best way to honor my brother is to work for the prevention of violence, not to replicate it. It is my experience that the way to true healing is not through revenge and retribution, but through compassion, forgiveness and reconciliation. For Christians, we must strive to follow the example of Jesus, who showed the world the true meaning of love and forgiveness. Jesus, the only founder of a major religion to be executed, said: “Blessed are the merciful for they will obtain mercy.” “Forgive and you will be forgiven.” As Jesus is being executed, He says to his persecutors: “Father forgive them.” In this moment, Jesus is putting into practice his command to “love your enemies.” On the cross Jesus shows the world how to live and how to die.

We also have the example Martin Luther King, Jr. and the witness of other people–past and present–to learn from who experienced violent tragedies and who were ultimately able to nonviolently resist violence and injustice and show compassion to the perpetrators of violence. Dr. King stated that “capital punishment is society’s final assertion that it will not forgive.” He also said: “Love even for enemies is the key to the solution of the problems of our world.” And South African Archbishop Desmund Tutu asserts: “there is no future without forgiveness.” 

I oppose the death penalty not only because it violates God’s command but also because:

  • It is racially biased.
  • Poor defendants do not receive adequate legal representation.
  • Innocent people are sentenced to death.  Since 1973, 170 people have been released from death row across the U.S. because of evidence showing their innocence.

It’s been truly an honor and blessing to come to know a number of these death row exonerees: Shujaa Graham, who was on death row in San Quentin, CA for over 3 years; Juan Melindez, who was on Florida’s death row for 17 years; Curtis McCarty, who was on Oklahoma’s death row for 19 years and Derrick Jamison, who was on Ohio’s death row for nearly 20 years.

William Penn said “Always put justice above the law.” St. Paul writes: “Love is the fulfillment of the law.” Those two sayings should be etched into the walls of this building. Imagine if this so-called criminal justice system was based on these two moral precepts: justice and love? There would be a lot of lawyers, prosecutors and judges out of work, there would be no mass incarceration complex, and prisons as they now exist, would be closed. The whole paradigm of the “justice” system would be transformed into a system based on restorative justice, not retribution. My friends, the reign of God is at hand, right here, right now. God’s reign of justice, peace and nonviolence is the norm we have to strive for and establish in our society. With God and community all things are possible!

Today we act in solidarity with members of the JOH, Death Penalty Action and others in Terre Haute, IN as they vigil in resistance outside the Federal Prison there where the execution of Keith Dwayne Nelson is scheduled for 4 PM. Also, we are in solidarity with the Catholic Mobilizing Network who held a virtual vigil a short time ago. We pray and labor for a miracle: for the abolition of the death penalty on the state and federal level. We call on those states and the federal government that now sanction capital punishment to follow the lead of 142 nations and 22 states in the US that have outlawed the death penalty. 

I would like to close with the words of Troy Davis. Troy Davis, an African American who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Georgia, despite evidence of his innocence, faced three executions dates and spent over 20 years on death row before the state of Georgia finally executed him on September 21, 2011. In a case that received worldwide attention, with numerous officials calling for his life to be spared, Davis maintained his innocence until the end. He offered these inspiring words to all who supported him shortly before his execution: 

“Thank you and remember I am in a place where execution can only destroy your physical form but because of my faith in God, my family and all of you I have been spiritually free for some time and no matter what happens in the days and weeks to come, this movement to end the death penalty, to seek true justice, to expose a system that fails to protect the innocent must be accelerated. There are so many more Troy Davis’…We need to dismantle this unjust system city by city, state by state and country by country. I can’t wait to stand with you, no matter if that is in physical or spiritual form.” 

Friends, let us continue to keep our eyes on the prize as we strive together to create the Beloved Community!

2 thoughts on “At the Department of Justice, the call to end the death penalty rings out

  1. I love Bryan Stevenson’s comment in his book, Just Mercy. He said the correct question to ask is, “Do I have a right to kill?”

  2. Brother Laffin, thank you for your selfless service to our human family. May God continue to abundantly bless you.

Leave a Reply