Denial of Clemency to Death-Row Inmate Disappoints Oklahoma Archbishop

Archbishop Paul Coakley spoke about the decision Sept. 28.

One day after a parole board denied clemency to death-row inmate Benjamin Cole, the archbishop of Oklahoma City registered his disappointment in the decision.

“The denial of clemency by the Pardon and Parole Board is disappointing, as there is hardly any justice to be seen in taking the life of a man who is hardly able to speak and lacks the basic understanding of why the state is seeking his execution,” Archbishop Paul Coakley said Sept. 28.

“While it is too late to provide Benjamin Cole with any care or treatment that might have prevented his crime almost 20 years ago, we still have an obligation to recognize the dignity bestowed upon him by God and the effects of his debilitating mental illness.”

Cole, the archbishop said, “should be allowed to live out what remains of his life in the hope that he receives the mental-health care he should have received decades ago. Pray for the victims of violence and their families, that God brings them comfort and peace. Pray for the soul of the condemned and those who will be involved with his execution.”

The Pardon and Parole Board voted 4-1 to deny clemency to Cole, 57, on Sept. 27.

In 2002, Cole killed his 9-month-old daughter, Brianna.

His attorneys maintained that Cole is “severely mentally ill and that he has a growing lesion on his brain,” The Associated Press reported. The lawyers told the board that he has refused medical care and has little or no communication with others.

Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor welcomed the panel’s decision, saying, “Although his attorneys claim Cole is mentally ill to the point of catatonia, the fact is that Cole fully cooperated with a mental evaluation in July of this year. The evaluator, who was not hired by Cole or the state, found Cole to be competent to be executed and that ‘Mr. Cole does not currently evidence any substantial, overt signs of mental illness, intellectual impairment, and/or neurocognitive impairment.’”

Cole had been incarcerated previously for the abuse of another of his infant children, and prosecutors, according to the AP, “noted that [Brianna] had numerous injuries consistent with a history of abuse.”

Relatives of Brianna’s mother asked that the board deny clemency.

A county judge is due to decide whether a trial will be held to determine whether Cole is competent to be executed. 

The parole board having denied clemency, the Oklahoma governor is unable to commute Cole’s sentence. Cole is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection Oct. 20.

While the Church teaches that capital punishment is not intrinsically evil, both Pope Francis and his immediate predecessors have condemned the practice in the West.

Regarding the execution of criminals, the Catechism of the Council of Trent taught that by its “legal and judicious exercise” civil authorities “punish the guilty and protect the innocent.”

St. John Paul II called on Christians to be “unconditionally pro-life” and said that “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.” He also spoke of his desire for a consensus to end the death penalty, which he called “cruel and unnecessary.”

And Benedict XVI exhorted world leaders to make “every effort to eliminate the death penalty” and told Catholics that ending capital punishment was an essential part of “conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.”

In August 2018, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a new draft of the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s paragraph regarding capital punishment.

Quoting Pope Francis’ words in a speech of Oct. 11, 2017, the new paragraph states, in part, that “the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person,’ and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

Reasons for changing the teaching, the paragraph says, include: the increasing effectiveness of detention systems, growing understanding of the unchanging dignity of the person, and leaving open the possibility of conversion.

Dominican Father Thomas Petri, a moral theologian at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., told CNA at the time that he thinks this change “further absolutizes the pastoral conclusion made by John Paul II.”

Father Petri continued: “Nothing in the new wording of Paragraph 2267 suggests the death penalty is intrinsically evil. Indeed, nothing could suggest that because it would contradict the firm teaching of the Church.”

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