Culture of Life
Execution Up Close Underscores The Indignity of Death Penalty
BY Nancy O'brien
December 06-12, 1998 Issue | Posted 12/6/98 at 2:00 PM
DALLAS—When the State of Texas executed Jonathan Wayne Nobles on Oct. 7 for the 1986 murder of two women, Bishop Edmond Carmody lost a friend and Third Order Dominicans lost a brother.
Nobles, who converted to Catholicism seven years ago, fasted on his final day and took Holy Eucharist as his final meal, according to Bishop Carmody. At Nobles' request, the bishop witnessed his execution by lethal injection.
“It's sad,” said Bishop Carmody of Tyler, Texas, near the state's death row prison in Huntsville. “It's a terrible thing to witness a person being executed.” Bishop Carmody derided the use of euphemisms in executions. “People call it a ‘process’ or ‘event,’ rather than an execution,” he said.
Nobles, 37, developed a devotion to the rosary and prayed the glorious mysteries with a handful of visitors who came to see the him the day he was put to death. Country and Western singer Steve Earle, Bishop Carmody, a Dallas priest, and visitors from England, were among those dropped in on Nobles.
“Isn't it marvelous to say the rosary at your own wake?” Nobles said, without a trace of irony or cynicism, Bishop Carmody recalled. Praying the rosary is central to Dominican spirituality. According to tradition, the Virgin Mary gave the rosary to St. Dominic in a vision.
Bishop Carmody read scripture and counseled Nobles during a face-to-face pastoral visit on his last day. The prelate, who had frequently visited Nobles for years and corresponded with him, hugged the death row inmate.
“It wasn't ‘jailhouse religion,’” Bishop Carmody said of Nobles' conversion. “It was genuine. He came to Mass regularly and participated.” Nobles renounced his former way of living, asked forgiveness from God, and tried to explain the Catholic faith to fellow death row inmates. “He was a blessing to them,” Bishop Carmody testified.
In September 1986, Nobles stabbed to death Kelly Joan Farquhar and Mitzi Johnson Nalley with a hunting knife in their Austin home, and he wounded Nalley's boyfriend, Ronald Ross. Nobles, who claimed to be on drugs, stabbed each woman at least 10 times.
A Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in June 1992 upheld Nobles' conviction. Linda Edwards, a spokeswoman for Gov. George Bush, pointed out that the state constitution gives the governor the right to issue a one-time delay of 30 days for each execution. Otherwise, the governor cannot intercede in a case, unless the Board of Pardons and Paroles recommends that a death penalty sentence be commuted, which did not occur in Nobles' case.
“A lot of people think that the governor can step in on any of the cases,” and commute sentences, she said. “That isn't the case.” Nonetheless, “each inmate has an opportunity to pursue remedies in court.” Bush won re-election by a landslide on Nov. 3 and is the early front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000.
Richard Lopez, a permanent deacon, played an important role in Nobles' conversion, Bishop Carmody said.
Speaking into a microphone at 6 p.m. in the death chamber Oct. 7, Nobles expressed his regret to the families of his victims.
A few weeks before his execution, Nobles received a visit from Nalley's mother, who forgave him, Bishop Carmody said. CBS-TV plans to air an episode on its television show 48 Hours in January about the reconciliation, Bishop Carmody said.
Nobles also read from the 13th chapter of 1 Corinthians. He declared his intention to go to Heaven singing “Silent Night,” which he sang, but did not complete because he died five minutes later. At 6:26 p.m. on the feast of the Holy Rosary, Nobles was declared dead. At 7:30 p.m., St. Thomas Church in Huntsville held a funeral Mass for Nobles, and he was buried in the Dominican habit, with a rosary in his hand.
Capital punishment enjoys heavy support in Texas, and the state's laws do not give juries the option to hand down life sentences without parole for capital offenses, Bishop Carmody said. “It's a huge rock to move,” he said of death penalty's popularity.
In addition to offering juries more sentencing options, Texas should stop executing mentally retarded convicts, Bishop Carmody said.
“We're playing God,” in executing criminals, he added. “We're very religious people in Texas, but we don't realize that only God can give and take life.” Catholics and other Texans need to be united in their convictions that human life is sacred from the moment of conception until death, he said.
Americans should also realize that it's cheaper to maintain prisoners in prison for life sentences without parole, rather than executing them, Bishop Carmody said. “We're not talking about huge numbers,” since there are more than 3,500 people on death row around the country.
“Vengeance doesn't benefit society. It isn't the answer to sadness and grief,” said Bishop Carmody, who oversees an East Texas diocese with 50,000 Catholics, about 4% of the population. He expressed sympathy for the families and victims of violent crime.
During an October 1997 visit to Texas' death row for men, Pierre Sane (accent on the “e” in his last name), the secretary general for Amnesty International, criticized the legal process for death penalty cases in Texas, as well as the prisoners' living conditions. He called their cells “cages,” and urged Texas to slow down its capital punishment process. In 1997, Texas executed 37 convicts, half of the national total. Amnesty International also issued a 24-page report last year, which lambasted the state's practices.
A small group of death penalty protesters gathered outside the Huntsville prison on occasion, but Nobles discouraged such displays. “It's love that will change society,” rather than conflict, he had told his bishop.
For years, Nobles tried to petition prison officials to allow him to become the first executed convict to donate his internal organs, but he failed in his quest, in part because the state would not pay for any surgical costs and would have to kill him through a non-poisonous lethal injection.
The revised Latin version of the universal Catechism of the Catholic Church (2267) reads, “The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude … recourse to the death penalty when it is the only practical way to efficiently defend the lives of human beings from the unjust aggressor.” It continues, “Today, in fact, because the means states have to repress crime efficiently and render (criminals) inoffensive … the cases where it is absolutely necessary to suppress the guilty are today very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
Despite this advancement in Church teaching, the number of Americans who support the death penalty has remained steady during the past 10 years at around 70%, said Daniel Misleh, policy advisor on non-violence issues at the Department of Social Development and World Peace at the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington. A majority of Catholics in this country also back capital punishment.
The bishops in the United States have denounced capital punishment for 30 years in 100 different statements, according to Misleh.
Misleh predicted that the drive to curtail the number of court appeals by death row inmates will lead to more innocent people dying. Thirty-eight states have legalized the death penalty, following a 1976 Supreme Court opinion that gave them that right.
Racial and economic discrimination plays a role in capital punishment, according to Misleh. About 47% of death row inmates around the country are white and 53% are minorities, according to Oct. 1 figures from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples.
Prosecutors and the jury in capital criminal cases are generally white and male, while those who are sentenced to death are usually minorities or those who are poor, Misleh pointed out.
More than half of all U.S. murder victims are ethnic or racial minorities, but 88% of those executed were convicted for the murder of a white person, according to Amnesty International.
U.S. society's acceptance of the death penalty shows our hardness of heart, according to Misleh. “We have to examine the effects on families, prisoners, and victims. There are other ways of protecting society.”
Bishop Carmody, who came to San Antonio from his native Kerry, Ireland, after his 1957 ordination, said Nobles' execution was unlike anything he'd experienced in his priesthood.
William Murray writes from Kensington, Md.
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