Capital Punishment Back in Catholic Consciousness After Executions

The U.S. Supreme Court’s rejection of legal challenges against the reinstitution of federal executions has renewed the national debate over the death penalty.

A sign directs visitors to the entrance of the Federal Correctional Complex Terre Haute in Terre Haute, Indiana. The federal government ended a 17-year hiatus from capital punishment this month.
A sign directs visitors to the entrance of the Federal Correctional Complex Terre Haute in Terre Haute, Indiana. The federal government ended a 17-year hiatus from capital punishment this month. (photo: 2019 photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — Dustin Lee Honken’s final words were a plea to Mary, Mother of God.

“Mary, Mother full of God, pray for me,” Honken said while strapped to a gurney staring at the ceiling.

With that, it was time for Honken to leave the mortal world.

Honken, 52, became the third convict to die by lethal injection in July, after the federal government ended a 17-year hiatus from capital punishment.

In July 2019, Attorney General William Barr announced that the Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Prisons would resume federal executions for the first time in nearly 20 years, and he named five people, including Honken, who would be the first group of federal death-row inmates to be executed.

Four of the convicts, all of whom were sentenced to death for multiple murders, challenged a new execution protocol that permits the use of only one lethal drug instead of the three drugs normally used. In November 2019, U.S. district Judge Tanya S. Chutkan issued an injunction delaying the executions until the U.S. Supreme Court ruled whether or not to take up the case. 

But on June 29, the Supreme Court declined to hear the inmates’ challenge, clearing the way for the executions to take place as planned.

Father Mark O’Keefe, Honken’s spiritual adviser, stood wearing a face mask in the corner of the execution room and watched him die. He, along with the spiritual adviser for Wesley Ira Purkey, had sued the Justice Department in an effort to stop the executions. They argued the timing, in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, made it dangerous to attend the executions and therefore interfered with the free exercise of religion.

The Supreme Court dismissed those claims on July 16, allowing both executions to be carried out.


Catholic Opposition

All four Catholic bishops in Honken’s home state of Iowa wrote to President Donald Trump on July 1, pleading with him to commute Honken’s sentence to life without the possibility of parole.

“We believe that state-sanctioned killing would not deter or end violence, but instead perpetuate a cycle of violence,” the Iowa bishops wrote. “We oppose the death penalty to follow the example of Jesus, who both taught and practiced the forgiveness of injustice.”

Before the federal executions resumed, the U.S. bishops also appealed to the Trump administration to reverse course. “As articulated to the Supreme Court in another case earlier this year, the bishops have been calling for an end to the death penalty for decades,” Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said in a June 29 statement. “Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis have all called for an end to the death penalty around the world.”

In the same week as Honken’s death, the government executed convicted killers Daniel Lewis Lee, 47, and Purkey, 68, at the Terre Haute prison.

Lee, a white supremacist, stood convicted of the 1996 Arkansas murders of William Frederick Mueller, his wife, Nancy Ann Mueller, and Frederick Mueller’s 8-year-old stepdaughter, Sarah Elizabeth Powell. Purkey stood convicted of the 1998 interstate kidnapping and killing of 16-year-old Jennifer Long of Kansas.

Attorneys for Lee and Purkey appealed the executions all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which allowed the government to proceed in a 5-4 vote.

Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy, executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network, an organization that opposes the death penalty, condemned Lee’s execution in a statement. Lee’s death was the first of the three executions.

“By all measures, this execution was unnecessary and avoidable,” Vaillancourt Murphy said. “The federal government relentlessly plotted its course to execute Daniel Lee despite a historic decline in public support for the death penalty, clear opposition by the victims’ family, unwavering Catholic opposition to the restart of federal executions, and an unyielding global pandemic, which has already taken more than 135,000 American lives.”


Development of Catholic Thought

The three executions in July, and another planned in August, run counter to contemporary Church teaching, which opposes the use of the death penalty.

In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae, Pope St. John Paul II instructed that, due to the availability of other means to ensure public safety in modern societies, cases where it is still justified to execute criminals “are very rare, if not practically nonexistent.” That teaching was subsequently incorporated into the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1997.

Pope Francis further amended the Catechism in 2018 to state, “The death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person.” His update pledges the Church to work toward abolishing the death penalty worldwide.

John Paul’s II’s earlier change already left little room for Catholics to approve of the death penalty in the United States or other developed countries, said Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“In these circumstances, where people’s lives are not endangered by someone who committed capital crimes, Pope John Paul II urged strongly that it not be done,” Bishop Sheridan said. “He advocated respect for the dignity of all human life all the way to the end, even under these circumstances. That’s where I am on this issue.”

Until 2018, support for the death penalty had trended downward in the United States over the last two decades, even though support only dropped below the majority of the general population in 2016 to 49%. A Pew Research Center poll in 2018 shows that support for capital punishment grew in the U.S. general population, and the increase was more pronounced among Catholics.


Honken Died a Catholic

A jury sentenced Honken to death in 2005. He stood convicted of killing five federal witnesses, including two children, in the early 1990s. Prosecutors said Honken killed people he feared might help convict him of making and dealing methamphetamine.

Relatives of Honken’s victims issued a statement saying the execution brings “a sense of closure.” Though he opposes the death penalty, Bishop Sheridan said he understands the comfort it brings survivors of murder victims. He would compassionately advise them to find a more lasting and meaningful means of moving on.

“While an execution might bring some kind of closure, I don’t think it’s the best kind of closure. A road toward forgiveness is a much better way to bring closure for those who have suffered such unimaginable loss,” the bishop said.

Witnesses of his execution say a medical team released a fatal dose of pentobarbital into intravenous lines that ran into Honken’s right hand and left arm. He died shortly thereafter.

By the accounts of people close to him, Honken died as a Catholic who devoted his life to Jesus in prison. Before praying for Mary’s intercession, Honken recited the 19th-century poem Heaven-Haven: A Nun Takes the Veil by Jesuit Father Gerard Manley Hopkins.

“He was really a redeemed man,” said Vaillancourt Murphy. “He had undergone a very real conversion. This is very sobering and very sad.”


Efforts to Halt Execution

Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, was the archbishop of Indianapolis when he visited Honken in prison. Like the bishops of Iowa, he wrote a plea to the president to stop Honken’s execution.

“He is serene about the future and tries to show solace for his companions on death row,” Tobin wrote to the president.

Honken’s lawyer, Shawn Nolan, issued a statement saying the government killed the wrong Dustin Honken. They killed the man who was reborn as a follower of Jesus, not the old drug dealer convicted of murder.

“There was no reason for the government to kill him, in haste or at all,” Nolan said in a written statement. “In any case, they failed. The Dustin Honken they wanted to kill is long gone.”

Register correspondent Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado.

Catholic News Agency contributed to this report.