Enemies of the death penalty offer spiritual support during executions



NEW YORK (AP) – After Sister Barbara Battista, a Roman Catholic nun fiercely opposed to the death penalty, agreed to accompany a death row inmate during his execution in federal prison, she wondered doubtfully: “Am I just part of this whole killing machine?” “

“The answer is ‘no’,” she decided, continuing her mission in the death chamber in Terre Haute, Indiana, where in August 2020 Battista said a silent prayer while witnessing the lethal injection. of Keith Dwayne Nelson, convicted of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing a 10-year-old girl.

“No matter how heinous the act is, no matter how much I oppose it, that person deserves to have someone who is there just because they care,” he said. she declared.

Battista’s name is now on a friend of the court file submitted to the United States Supreme Court by the American Civil Liberties Union. Along with other spiritual counselors and former corrections officials, Battista opposes a Texas policy that prohibits a Southern Baptist pastor from praying aloud and laying hands on a convict, John Ramirez, during its execution.

Ramirez, sentenced to death for the 2004 murder of a convenience store clerk, was due to be executed on September 8, but the Supreme Court has ordered a postponement of consideration of allegations that restrictions on the pastor’s role violate his freedoms religious. The pleadings are scheduled for next Tuesday.

The ACLU has long opposed the death penalty and also asserts that convicted prisoners, even at the time of execution, have religious rights.

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“If the state engages in this practice, it should do everything possible to honor the dignity and religious freedoms of those it plans to kill,” said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU program on religious freedom. and belief.

Oddly enough, the ACLU’s position in the Ramirez case is echoed by some conservative religious groups who support the death penalty and often disagree with the ACLU on other issues, for example in cases where religious conservatives believe they have the right to discriminate against LGBTQ people. .

The Southern Baptist Convention has an official position in favor of “the fair and equitable use of the death penalty”. Last month, the SBC joined six other faith groups in a friend of the court brief making the same argument as the ACLU – that Ramirez’s pastor Dana Moore should be able to lay his hands on him and pray out loud during execution. .

“Religious freedom does not end as the moment of death approaches,” said Brent Leatherwood, acting chairman of the public policy arm of the SBC. “The state has yet to explain why Pastor Moore cannot minister to Mr. Ramirez in these final moments.”

Texas allows spiritual counselors to enter the execution chamber, but prohibits them from audibly praying or standing by the sentenced inmate. In its arguments to the Supreme Court, Texas said accepting Ramirez’s claim would be a step toward allowing federal courts to “micromanage” the details of the execution protocol.

In some cases, states that still apply the death penalty have made adjustments to comply with court orders regarding spiritual counselors.

In February, for example, the Supreme Court ruled out Alabama from executing Willie Smith III – convicted of the kidnapping and murder of a 22-year-old woman in 1991 – unless it allows the presence of his personal pastor in the execution chamber. Alabama complied; Smith was executed on October 21 with Pastor Robert Wiley by his side.

Efforts to provide sentenced prisoners with spiritual comfort during their executions have been ecumenical.

In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled out Texas from executing a Buddhist prisoner unless he was allowed to have a Buddhist priest by his side. The same year, the High Court allowed Alabama to execute a Muslim detainee, Dominique Ray, even though his spiritual advisor was not authorized to be present; the court said Ray was too late to make his request.

Last year, Yusuf Nur, a Muslim business professor who teaches at Indiana University in Kokomo, served as spiritual advisor to two federal executions of Muslim detainees. He was present – and authorized to say a traditional Islamic prayer aloud – for the performances of Orlando Hall in November 2020 and Dustin Higgs in January 2021.

“When I was first recruited to speak to a young man who accepted Islam in prison, I went to see him,” Nur told The Associated Press. “My feeling was that if this person wanted to talk to someone and the US government would consider executing him, I would do whatever I can to help make them spiritually strong.”

Nur, who opposes the death penalty, said he was moved by the atmosphere in the death chamber for Hall’s execution, given that the others present were “people who came here. execute “.

“Having a friendly face makes a difference to the person executed,” Nur said. “I’m glad I did even though it was traumatic to see a human being killed in front of your eyes. I would do it again. “

Nur shared his beliefs with Battista, whose order – the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary of the Woods – is based just 10 miles from the federal prison complex in Terre Haute. The four lethal injections she and Nur attended were part of an unprecedented string of 13 federal government executions in six months following the end of the Trump administration.

Currently, Battista, 64, is deeply involved in anti-racist activity, but she was often on the front lines during vigils outside prison to protest recent federal executions. She is grateful to have had the opportunity to accompany Nelson and a second convict, William Emmett LeCroy, during their executions last year.

“Yes, I had doubts. … but I know that through my prayer, my interaction with these men, I was there for them, ”she said. “This person deserves to have someone with him who is the face of love.”

In LeCroy’s case, Battista said he asked her to pray for him, and she informed the executioner that she would – out loud.

Prayer was the Rosary of Divine Mercy. Its closing passage includes the words “Eternal God, in whom mercy is infinite… look at us with benevolence and increase your mercy in us, so that in difficult times we neither despair nor become dejected”.


The Associated Press religious coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment via The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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