As students from Rosati-Kain High School prepared May 3 to depart for the Eastern Reception, Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre, Auxiliary Bishop Mark Rivituso offered a prayer and blessing over them.
“We ask You to continue to bless us in our own commitment to be witnesses of the Gospel of Life. We pray for all who may be committed to the death penalty, that they may have conversion of mind and heart to the Gospel of Life and the way to uphold the dignity of every person,” Bishop Rivituso prayed.
Five Rosati-Kain students, accompanied by campus minister Erin Brennan, Marie Kenyon of the archdiocesan Peace and Justice Commission, and Father Mitch Doyen, pastor of St. John the Baptist Parish, traveled to the correctional center to participate in a prayer vigil with Missourians For Alternatives to the Death Penalty and others during the state’s execution of Carman Deck.
“Like the sign (we made) says: ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,’” senior Julia Hulsey said. “You can’t murder someone to show that murder is wrong.”
Julia and fellow seniors Lili Stout and Julia Michalski had also participated in a similar prayer vigil outside the correctional center during the execution of Ernest Lee Johnson on Oct. 5.
“It was really hard, but it was very fruitful, seeing other people that also care about this issue and talking with the people that knew Mr. Johnson and their experiences,” Lili said. “These people that are being put to death have lives and families and friends and people that they matter to.”
“I wanted to show my support for (Deck) in the same way that I did for (Johnson),” Julia Michalski said. “Just to be there and stand there with him.”
Deck died by lethal injection at the correctional center at 6:10 p.m.
Deck was convicted of first-degree murder for the 1996 shooting death of James Long, 69, and Zelma Long, 67, during a robbery at the couple’s home in De Soto. He was sentenced to death three times, only to have those sentences overturned. His death sentence was reinstated in October 2020.
On the bus rides to and from the correctional center, the Rosati-Kain group spent time discussing Catholic social teaching, praying the Rosary and talking through the emotional experience of praying just outside the facility while Deck was put to death inside.
“It’s really affecting. They’re sad, but they’re also glad that they were there and that they bore witness, and we talk about what that means,” Brennan, the campus minister, said. “Just like we send so many kids to D.C. for the March for Life, this is another way to witness to life at the other end of the spectrum that is really difficult. It’s not pretty, but it’s needed.”
As juniors, the students learned about the death penalty and Church teaching during their social justice theology class. Participating in the execution prayer vigil is a way for them to be able to put their faith into action, they said.
“It’s a real-world connection,” Julia Michalski said. “Being out in the world, making a difference, showing up to an event like this, is putting all the work that we’ve done in Catholic school to fruition.”
“We don’t just learn about the death penalty in class; we’re given an opportunity to bear witness to it and show people that we’re educated about the subject and know that it’s wrong,” Lili said.
Missouri bishops and other faith and civic leaders had asked Gov. Mike Parson to grant Deck clemency in a letter April 12. The bishops and others who advocated for Deck’s clemency noted that he faced abuse, neglect and violence throughout his childhood.
The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith in 2018 added a new directive to the Catechism of the Catholic Church stating that capital punishment is inadmissible in all cases. “The Church teaches, in light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person.’”
Deck is the fifth person executed in the United States this year. There now are 18 people living under death sentences in Missouri.
“As people of faith and people of the Gospel, we believe in redemption and rehabilitation for every single person,” Brennan said. “We believe in the opportunity for reconciliation, and we’ll fight for it as often as we have to.”
Catechism teaching on the death penalty (updated 2018)
Recourse to the death penalty on the part of legitimate authority, following a fair trial, was long considered an appropriate response to the gravity of certain crimes and an acceptable, albeit extreme, means of safeguarding the common good.
Today, however, there is an increasing awareness that the dignity of the person is not lost even after the commission of very serioius crimes. In addition, a new understanding has emerged of the significance of penal sanctions imposed by the state. Lastly, more effective systems of detention have been developed, which ensure the due protection of citizens but, at the same time, do not definitively deprive the guilty of the possibility of redemption.
Consequently, the Church teaches, in light of the Gospel, that “the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and the dignity of the person,” and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.
Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2267