Florida bishops want end to death penalty, halt of July 1 execution

ORLANDO, Fla. – Florida’s Catholic bishops have called on Gov. Charlie Christ to “set a new standard of respect for life” in the state by ending the use of the death penalty, beginning by halting the July 1 scheduled execution of Mark Dean Schwab.

Schwab, 39, is on death row for the April 18, 1991, rape and murder of 11-year-old Junny Rios-Martinez of Cocoa.

In a letter to Christ dated June 25, the bishops said they are praying for the victim and know they are unable to fully grasp the pain experienced by his family. They lamented, though, that taking the life of another who has killed perpetuates violence as a solution.

“The Lord commands us to forgive, just as our heavenly Father has forgiven us. It is only through the process of forgiveness that we are healed and our suffering can be alleviated,” said Bishop Victor B. Galeone of St. Augustine.

The bishop’s statement was in a press release issued by the Florida Catholic Conference in Tallahassee. He is the episcopal moderator for the State Pro-Life Coordinating Committee of the conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops.

Schwab was scheduled to die by lethal injection Nov. 15, 2007, but the execution was blocked a day earlier by the U.S. Supreme Court while the court considered a Kentucky case on the constitutionality of lethal injection as a method of execution.

Schwab’s was the first execution to be scheduled in Florida since the high court’s April 16 ruling this year which said the use of the three-drug cocktail is not cruel and unusual punishment. The Florida Supreme Court denied his final appeal June 27.

Signed by the heads of Florida’s six dioceses and the archbishop and two auxiliary bishops of the Archdiocese of Miami, the letter to Christ acknowledged the state has the right to execute murderers. However, it pointed to problems with fairness in the way the death penalty has been applied.

“More and more states in our nation are taking a second look at the use of the death penalty as a form of punishment. Over the years, studies within our own state have reported an inequality and inconsistency in who receives a death sentence,” Sheila Hopkins, the Catholic conference’s associate director for social concerns/respect life, said in the conference’s release.

Catholics throughout Florida planned prayerful protests of Schwab’s execution. For example, prayer vigils were scheduled in the Diocese of Venice for the time of the execution, and parishes in the Orlando Diocese chartered a bus to take protesters to demonstrate in Starke outside the prison that houses the death chamber.

The bishops, too, said they were approaching the execution with prayer.

“As we pray for Junny Rios-Martinez and his family, we pray also for you, as well as for those on death row, that we all will acknowledge God as the lord of life, and that we all may learn, not only to obey the commandment not to kill human life, but also to revere it,” they wrote to the governor.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.