National Catholic Register


Colorado Prosecutor Refuses to Seek Death Penalty for Cop-Killers

Prepared to Sacrifice Job for Catholic Convictions

BY Wayne Laugesen

December 9-15, 2001 Issue | Posted 12/9/01 at 1:00 PM


CANON CITY, Colo. — Outside this small town's courthouse in November, about 75 people with protest signs shouted words of anger at District Attorney Ed Rodgers. Inside, Rodgers was asking a judge to spare the lives of two cold-blooded cop killers — 24-year-old twins Michael and Joel Stovall.

While sparing their lives, Rodgers was likely committing political suicide. He was placing his personal opposition to the death penalty — a philosophy grounded in his Catholic faith — above the wishes of his constituents in a law-and-order county that's home to state and federal prisons.

The case has Catholics debating among themselves about a question shrouded in confusion: Can Catholics, particularly Catholic prosecutors, support capital punishment?

“It's the Church's position that the state always has the right, in extreme cases, to exercise the death penalty,” said Father Paul Montez, who was the celebrant at the funeral for a police officer. “But the Pope has said the state should not exercise that right if it has the ability to protect society from a predator without taking his life.”

The Stovall twins confessed to killing Fremont County Sheriff's Deputy Jason Schwartz as he arrested them Sept. 28 on misdemeanor charges for killing their neighbor's dog. The twins worked for their father making “freedom keys” — plastic gadgets designed to open handcuffs, as advertised in Soldier of Fortune magazine.

As Schwartz carted the twins to jail, Michael Stovall unlocked his handcuffs while sitting in the back of the patrol car. With his hands free, he retrieved a concealed handgun and shot Schwartz repeatedly from behind. As the twins escaped, they shot at officers who were tracking them down, seriously injuring one.

Rather than prosecute the twins before a jury, risking a conviction that could lead to capital punishment for both men, Rodgers opted to plea the case. As a result, rather than facing possible state-imposed death, each twin faces life in prison without the possibility of parole, plus 896 years each for additional charges of attempted murder.

Meanwhile, the district attorney is facing an aggressive recall campaign in which activists, including the deputy's widow, are gathering petitions for a special election to oust him. He's refusing all requests for media interviews, including a request by the Register.

But he isn't without supporters, including Father Montez, a self-described “conservative orthodox” Catholic. Father Montez firmly opposes capital punishment, even though he believes Catholics have the option of favoring the death penalty without violating official Church teachings.

Father Montez and most other priests in the deanery of Pueblo signed a letter of support for Rodgers regarding the district attorney's handling of the Stovall case.

“It's a struggle to be a Catholic prosecutor,” said Father Montez, parochial vicar to the Sacred Heart Cathedral of Pueblo. “You're elected as a voice for the people of the community, not as a voice for the Catholic Church. But if you're baptized as a Catholic, you have a moral obligation to follow the pro-life teachings of the Church — and to respect the advice of the Pope — in all of your thoughts, words and deeds. Ed Rodgers is being a good Catholic, and he's being persecuted for it.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that while “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude” the death penalty, “Today … as a consequence of the possibilities the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm — without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself — the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically nonexistent” (No. 2267).

In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Pope John Paul II declared, “[T]here is a growing tendency, both in the Church and in civil society, to demand that [the death penalty] be applied in a very limited way or even that it be abolished completely” (No. 56).

Despite the deanery of Pueblo's letter, not all Catholics in Fremont County are applauding Rodgers. Deputy Schwartz's widow, Sheryl Schwartz, is Catholic and used to attend the same parish as Rodgers in Canon City. She began attending another parish so she wouldn't be tempted to confront Rodgers in public with her anger over his refusal to seek death for her husband's killers.

“This was a cold-blooded, calculated, premeditated murder,” said Mrs. Schwartz. “I'm very pro-life. I'm 100% against abortion, because that's the killing of innocent life. These men are not innocent. They are a threat to innocent life. They have little in common with an unborn child.”

The widow suspects Pope John Paul II might understand her desire to see the Stovalls killed, because she would try to convince him it's a matter of protecting innocent life.

“It came out in a hearing that Michael Stovall had often spoken of his desire to kill a cop, and he was just waiting for the chance,” she said. “These men are facing life sentences plus another 896 years. If they simply enjoy killing — which became apparent with my husband's murder — they have absolutely no incentive not to kill in prison if given the chance. What do they have to lose?”

She expressed her feelings to Father Montez, a longtime personal friend with whom she attended college. Mrs. Schwartz says Father Montez did not condemn her for wanting to see both men die.

A Priest's Empathy

Father Montez has experienced first hand the loss of loved ones to murder. In 1997, his fellow Benedictine priests, Father Louie Stovick and Father Tom Sheets, were murdered in a Pueblo parish. Diocesan priests, including Father Montez and Pueblo Bishop Arthur Tafoya, vowed to fight any efforts by prosecutors to seek death for the killer, a man who was later found innocent by reason of insanity.

“I understand why [Mrs. Schwartz] wants the death penalty,” said Father Montez. “Her world has fallen apart over this. Her desire to see the death penalty carried out does not make her a non-Catholic.”

Added Father Montez, “What I say to people in her position is this: ‘Pray and ask God to help you understand his will. Ask God for his guidance and to help bring you peace.’

Putting these men to death will not bring anyone peace.”

Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.