January 28, 2005
Death penalty debate
As Connecticut's first execution since
1960 draws near, state's bishops urge Catholics to speak out
By CLAIRE SCHAEFFER-DUFFY
Just weeks before the scheduled execution of serial killer Michael Ross,
Connecticut’s Catholic bishops urged the state’s more than 1 million
Catholics to “make their voices heard” by calling for repeal of the death
“The death penalty diminishes each of us,” said Bishop William Lori of
Bridgeport. “It offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking
Ross, 45, who would be the first person executed in Connecticut since
1960, has admitted to killing eight young women and is scheduled to die by
lethal injection Jan. 26. He has refused to appeal his case further, saying
he wants to die in order to bring closure to the victims’ families. Death
penalty opponents argue that to execute him would be tantamount to
In addition to the Connecticut bishops’ effort coordinated by that
state’s Catholic conference, religious voices against the death penalty were
also heard recently in New York State, which faces legislative moves to
reinstate capital punishment, and in California, where an interfaith vigil
at a Catholic church was held before the execution of Donald Beardslee early
in the morning of Jan. 19.
In Connecticut, Gov. M. Jodi Rell denied Ross a reprieve of execution
Dec. 6. “To uphold the existing laws of Connecticut is to uphold the death
penalty,” she said in a statement.
On Jan. 18, Dave Robinson, executive director of Pax Christi USA, the
national Catholic peace movement, wrote a letter to Rell, urging her to
commute Ross’ sentence. The death penalty in the United States is a
“seriously flawed system,” Robinson said. “For Connecticut’s criminal
justice system to again head down this road is frightful -- both in terms of
the potential mistakes that could be made in implementing the death penalty,
as well as the racial and moral inadequacies prevalent in every capital
New Hampshire is the only other New England state that still has the
death penalty, but it has no one on death row and has not executed anyone
The bishops of Connecticut’s three dioceses each issued letters
outlining the Catholic church’s opposition to capital punishment that were
to be read at all Masses Jan. 8 and 9. The following weekend parishioners
were invited to sign a resolution written by the Connecticut Network to
Abolish the Death Penalty, calling for the abolition of capital punishment.
A poll taken by Connecticut’s Quinnipiac University last year found that
59 percent of the state’s voters favor capital punishment, while 39 percent
do not. The poll also found that 66 percent of the state’s Catholics
supported the death penalty.
Connecticut bishops said their opposition to capital punishment was
guided by Pope John Paul II’s encyclical letter on the value of human life,
Evangelium Vitae. In the encyclical, the pontiff argued that
“punishment ought not to go to the extreme of executing the offender, except
in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be
possible otherwise to defend society.” He wrote that “such cases are very
rare if practically nonexistent.”
In his Jan. 8 letter, Hartford Archbishop Henry J. Mansell wrote, “Human
life is a gift from God that must be respected from conception to natural
“Some people don’t want to hear this, but the church teaches that Michael
Ross is still a human being. He still has human dignity,” Deacon David
Reynolds, legislative liaison for the Connecticut Catholic Conference, told
the Fairfield County Catholic, newspaper of the Bridgeport diocese.
Accounts about Ross depict a violent and tortured man who has been both
victim and victimizer. In a 1996 article in The Connecticut Law Tribune,
author Martha Elliott reported that Ross was probably physically and
mentally abused by his mother, herself psychologically disturbed, and Ross
was sexually abused at age 8 by his babysitter, a young uncle who committed
suicide at age 14.
Ross’ killings occurred in the early 1980s. Six of his eight victims were
teenagers, including two 14-year-olds killed in a double murder. In that
attack, he raped and strangled one girl while her friend, bound by Ross,
watched. He then strangled the second girl.
Edwin Shelley, father of 14-year-old Leslie, who was killed by Ross
during the double murder, said he firmly believes the execution will bring
closure for his family. “I am looking forward to attending the execution. I
will be there. My wife will be there and my eldest daughter will be there,”
Shelley said he could understand a person being opposed to the death
penalty, but his support for capital punishment was also based on religious
belief. “[Christ] came back not to abolish any rules but to make certain his
father’s words were carried out. In other words, ‘A life for a life.’ I
believe that this message has been lost in religious teaching. This man, he
took not only one life. He took eight lives. He has destroyed nine families.
He has destroyed his father’s life.”
Ross confessed to many of his crimes shortly after his arrest in 1984 and
was given the death sentence in 1987. He has long claimed his mental illness
caused his criminal behavior, and initially fought his death sentence,
arguing that the jury was not allowed to consider his mental illness as a
mitigating circumstance. But as early as 1995 he began seeking ways to
expedite his execution in order to spare his victims’ families a prolonged
“I owe these people,” Ross told Reuters. “I killed their daughters.”
Ross has written numerous reflections about spirituality and life on
death row, some of which have been published in periodicals and posted on
the Web. A Catholic, he wrote that he is “not afraid to face God, for while
I am very ashamed of what I have done with my life and of the many, many
horrible sins I have committed, I know that I am forgiven.” But Ross
admitted he is haunted by the prospect of heaven. Should he get there “after
his time in purgatory,” he doesn’t want to face the women he murdered.
“I don’t want to see the look on their faces or hear the anger in their
voices when they ask, ‘What are you doing here?’ Because there is no
answer for that. It wouldn’t be right for me to be in heaven, and it
certainly wouldn’t be justice. So while the doors to heaven would be open
due to God’s forgiveness and divine grace, I can’t go.”
Attorneys with Connecticut’s Division of Public Defender Services, some
of whom represented Ross until he fired them last year, have unsuccessfully
tried to argue before a lower court and the state’s Supreme Court that Ross,
who has attempted suicide at least twice while in prison, suffers from
depression and is not competent to refuse his appeals. Both courts declared
the inmate to be rational. The public defenders are currently appealing
Connecticut’s Supreme Court ruling before a federal judge.
T.R. Paulding, Ross’ current attorney, suggested that Ross’ actions were
those of a man exhausted from the strain of living under the constant threat
of death. Paulding told The Hartford Courant his client did not
believe an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court would result in an overturning
of his sentence.
While death penalty opponents made a last-minute push to spare Ross’ life
in Connecticut, activists in California held a vigil outside San Quentin
State Prison as Donald Beardslee, 61, was executed by lethal injection
shortly after midnight Jan. 19 for the slayings of two San Francisco area
women, Patty Geddling and Stacey Benjamin, in 1981. The U.S. Supreme Court
denied Beardslee’s appeal for a stay after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger denied
More than 400 demonstrators, most in opposition to the death penalty,
according to the San Francisco Chronicle, gathered at the prison
gates during the execution. Earlier in the evening, an interfaith vigil
protesting the death penalty was held at St. John the Baptist Catholic
Church in El Cerrito, Calif.
In a statement released after Beardslee’s execution, the first in
California in three years, San Francisco Archbishop William Levada said that
life in prison without possibility of parole is “just and exacting
punishment” that would protect the community. “To continue the cycle of
violence by killing Mr. Beardslee undermines society’s commitment to respect
the God-given dignity of every human person.”
Meanwhile, New York religious leaders have joined opposition to
reinstatement of the death penalty in that state, which has not had an
execution since 1963. Capital punishment was made legal in 1995, but in June
2004 the State Appeals Court overturned the law, citing constitutional
flaws. Gov. George Pataki has announced his intention to introduce new
legislation to institute the death penalty this year.
On Dec. 15, a state legislative hearing was held in New York City to
consider the question. Among the numerous witnesses who tried to convince
lawmakers to reject capital punishment were Manhattan District Attorney
Robert Morgenthau, families of murder victims, and Mercy Sr. Camille
D’Arienzo, who spoke as a representative of New York Religious Leaders
Against the Death Penalty (
see accompanying statement).
Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a
freelance writer living in Worcester, Mass. NCR staff contributed to
NCR last reported the names of the
people executed in the United States in mid-October. Since then, 15 more
people have been put to death.
Of these 15, Texas executed 10: Peter
Miniel, 42, on Oct. 6; Donald Aldrich, 39, Oct. 12; Ricky
Morrow, 53, Oct. 20; Dominique Green, 30, Oct. 26; Lorenzo
Morris, 52, Nov. 2; Robert Morrow, 47, Nov. 11; Demarco
McCullum, 30, Nov. 9; Frederick McWilliams, 30, Nov. 10;
Anthony Fuentes, 30, Nov. 17; and James Porter, 33, Jan. 4.
North Carolina executed three: Sammy
Perkins, 51, on Oct. 8; Charles Roache, 30, Oct. 22; and
Frank Chandler, 32, Nov. 12.
Ohio executed Adremy Dennis, 28,
Oct. 13; and California executed Donald Beardslee, 61, Jan. 19.
Since the Supreme Court reinstated the
death penalty in 1976, 946 people have been executed.
We ask prayers for the victims of the
crimes that may have been committed by those listed here, for those
executed and for those participating in the execution done in our names.
Learn more about the death penalty and
organizations working to abolish it at the Death Penalty Information
Center on the Web at
National Catholic Reporter, January 28,