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Vatican urges La. governor to clear state's death row

The overture comes amid a fierce legal battle for the state's right to execute, and for the outgoing governor's plan to grant widespread clemency.

Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards talks to media at his campaign office in 2019, (Gerald Herbert/AP Photo)

The Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life has joined calls for Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards to grant clemency to prisoners on his state’s death row, sending the outgoing politician a letter last week urging him to act on his Catholic faith.

The letter from academy president Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia was dated September 26 and comes after months of speculation that Edwards would soon empty his state’s execution log—though by unconventional means. Edwards officially announced his opposition to the death penalty earlier this year.

“Much like you, the Catholic Church believes that our society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of individuals who have been convicted of crimes,” Paglia wrote to Edwards.

“We think that the clearing of Louisiana’s death row would be a monumental step towards the abolition of the death penalty.”

The Vatican communique is only the latest effort to urge Edwards to act on capital punishment before the expiration of his current and final term as governor. Nearly every prisoner on Louisiana’s death row requested clemency earlier this summer, following Edwards’ comments opposing his state’s use of execution.

In early August, Edwards directed the state pardon board to hear the prisoners’ cases and make a determination, which he would presumably sign in favor of commutation to a life sentence.

Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans, whose ecclesiastical province includes the entire state of Louisiana, has spoken out in support of Edwards’ efforts. He noted the work of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops to mobilize Catholics against the death penalty by means of direct advocacy at the state capitol and said his chancery will continue to work for the end of the state’s death penalty.

Edwards’ comments this year have also brought cheers from other Whole Life advocates in the Church, including the Catholic Mobilizing Network, which works to support restorative justice nationwide—including death penalty abolitionism.

“The last lethal injection in Louisiana took place in 2010,” said Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, CMN’s executive director.

“It is long past time for Louisiana to take capital punishment off its books.”

A wide coalition of social justice advocates also wrote to the governor the day before Paglia sent his letter, noting that most capital murder cases in Louisiana concern African Americans—part of an enduring national trend that has long brought accusations of racism related to the death penalty. (Two-thirds of the 56 current death row inmates in Louisiana are Black, well above the already disproportionate national average.)

Edwards’ new stance has caused consternation among many in Louisiana, a solidly Republican state that, like others, has a majority who support the use of the death penalty. Edwards, a centrist Democrat, is the only Catholic governor in the country known to oppose both abortion and capital punishment; even so, his advocacy was not enough to garner support for a bill this year in the state legislature that would have abolished the latter.

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry, the leading Republican candidate for this fall’s gubernatorial race, sued the state pardon board on September 20, arguing that the wholesale move toward clemency hearings is illegal.

“The Board of Pardons should not sacrifice the rule of law, the rights of victims, and the public’s participation simply to achieve the Governor’s political objective,” Landry wrote. 

“The laws on our books must be enforced and proper procedure must be followed.”

Landry, who is also a Catholic, has followed the GOP party line on the death penalty, as have several Catholic governors across the country, including Ron DeSantis of Florida, Greg Abbott of Texas, Joe Lombardo of Nevada, and immediate past Arizona governor Doug Ducey. Despite an ongoing moratorium on federal executions, President Joe Biden’s administration has also recently backed the death penalty in multiple cases.

In Louisiana, there hasn’t been an execution since 2002 under Republican Gov. Mike Foster, its most recent non-Catholic governor. All 56 of the state’s current death row inmates have applied for clemency, and roughly a third have had a hearing scheduled. Edwards, who will hold office until January, has not commented publicly on the new letter from the Vatican.

The state’s jungle primary election for governor is scheduled for Saturday, October 14.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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