FRANKFORT, Ky. – Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear signed a death warrant for Gregory Wilson Sept. 2, which cleared the way for his execution Sept. 16, barring a last-minute court reprieve.
Kentucky’s Catholic conference and the bishops who make up the body have been actively involved in Wilson’s case, as have many parishes and groups opposed to the death penalty.
Busloads of people were scheduled to bring people from Covington and Louisville for a vigil outside the prison in Eddyville, where the execution is to take place. Prayer vigils were planned for Catholic parish churches and cathedrals in Louisville, Covington, Owensboro, Bowling Green and Lexington.
Efforts to block Wilson’s execution extended to Europe, where the Sant’Egidio community was organizing protest activities.
In a unanimous decision Sept. 3, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected Wilson’s appeal, saying that by adopting new regulations for executions in May, Kentucky did not “stop the clock” and enable Wilson to appeal on new grounds.
“Here, the state merely adopted its pre-existing protocol as a regulation, making no material changes to the method of execution,” said Judge Danny Boggs, writing for the three-judge panel. “As it relates to Wilson’s claims, the new regulation is indistinguishable from the previous lethal injection protocol,” he wrote, according to The Associated Press.
Wilson, 53, was convicted in 1988 of abducting, raping, robbing and murdering Debbie Pooley, an assistant restaurant manager. He has appealed his death sentence on a variety of grounds ranging from incompetent defense counsel to low IQ, but courts have repeatedly turned them back.
His co-defendant, Brenda Humphrey, testified against him and received a sentence which might allow her to be paroled after 25 years.
Father Patrick Delahanty, associate director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, said Wilson’s case is fraught with red flags, from problems during his trial and questions about whether he should be exempt from capital punishment under a Supreme Court ruling barring the death penalty for people who are mentally disabled.
There also are side issues unrelated to Wilson himself, said Father Delahanty, such as the looming expiration date of the state’s single dose of the drug used in the lethal injection procedure. A nationwide shortage of the anesthetic sodium thiopental, a key part of the three-drug cocktail used for most lethal injections, has caused several states to postpone executions.
Beshear announced that he would sign only one of the three execution orders he had pending because the state has only enough sodium thiopental for one execution and the amount expires on Oct. 1.
Father Delahanty told Catholic News Service he also thinks politics had a role in Wilson’s execution being timed for just 14 days after Beshear signed the warrant. Normally there is a five-week advance notice, he said. But Kentucky is hosting the World Equestrian Games, a major international sporting event, beginning Sept. 25, he noted.
With Beshear coming from the heart of the state’s horse country in Lexington, Father Delahanty said he expects the governor would “avoid having an execution while all the countries of Europe are represented here.”
Kentucky has executed three people since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 and has 35 people on death row.
Meanwhile, Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland commuted the death sentence of Kevin Keith to life imprisonment without possibility of parole.
In a Sept. 2 statement, Strickland said important questions have been raised about forensic evidence that led to Keith’s conviction in the deaths of two women and a 4-year-old girl who were killed in a hail of gunfire that hit an apartment.
“I find the absence of a full investigation of other credible suspects troubling,” said Strickland’s statement. He left open the possibility of further steps toward reviewing Keith’s conviction.