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The Death Penalty
Why he changed his mind  

“Since 1999, when Pope John Paul II stood on American soil and renewed his appeal “for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary,” the annual number of U.S. executions has dropped by more than half, from 98 to 42. In that time the annual number of new death sentences has dropped 60 percent.” - United States Conference of Catholic Bishops brochure - A Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty.

Last year, the Catholic Bishops of Florida mounted a campaign to end the use of the death penalty in America. They initiated a series of seminars that focused attention on Catholic teaching on the death penalty. The seminars were conducted in parishes throughout Florida.

Key to the bishop’s increased advocacy efforts were seminar leaders Dale Recinella and his wife Susan Recinella, Ph.D. Dale serves as the Catholic lay chaplain to Florida’s death row inmates. Susan, a clinical psychologist for mentally ill adults at Northeast Florida State Hospital, serves as a Catholic lay minister to the families of the executed.
  Dale Recinella and his wife Susan Recinella, Ph.D.

Susan has always been pro-life and against the use of capital punishment. Dale, an attorney, was active in the Right to Life movement as a college student, but didn’t quite grasp the church’s teaching on the death penalty until the early 1990’s.

“Even though our Catholic bishops were calling for an end to the use of the death penalty as far back as 1980, I had not heard it. I didn’t understand that the death penalty is a respect life issue,” admits Dale.

Florida has the second largest death row in America with about 400 men held in six by nine-foot cells. The ministry is door-to-door at cell front. Bishop John J. Snyder, retired bishop of Saint Augustine and Deacon Marcus Hepburn of Tallahassee join Dale for monthly sacramental rounds in North Florida prisons. Dale’s pastor, Father Jose Maniyangat, hears confessions and performs last rites. Fellow parishioner Kenneth Cochran, Ph.D., assists the team during major holy days.

The Recinellas never dreamed that ministering to death row inmates and their families would become their life’s work. While living in Tallahassee (1986-96), the couple ministered to people dying of terminal illness (Dale) and their caregivers (Susan). Dale was also a volunteer chaplain at a large state men’s prison in the panhandle. About a third of the men were serving life terms.

“I had never imagined the spiritual growth that men can make in prison - even in prison for the rest of their life. It made me squirm over the question: Do we have the right to shorten their God-given time to find salvation and grow in holiness?” says Dale.

After living two years in Rome, Italy, just blocks from St. Peter’s Basilica, the Recinellas’ moved to Macclenny, Fla. in 1998, 15 miles from death row. Three weeks later, Dale was serving as a Catholic lay chaplain on death row.

In 1998, Father Joseph Maniangat had been ministering to death row inmates alone for 15 years. “I was happy to assist him in the cell-to-cell ministry. I looked forward to bringing prisoners Communion, fellowship and prayer regardless of their beliefs. I never thought ahead to where it was leading,” Dale reflects.

It did not take long to find out. Men who grew close to him spiritually needed a spiritual advisor when their death warrant was signed. The spiritual advisor meets with the man during the weeks before his execution, stays with him at his cell during the five hours before his execution, and attends the execution as support for the man being killed.

By 1998, Father Joseph had witnessed four executions by electrocution. At the last execution the man caught fire - burning alive in the chair.

“In ten years I have witnessed five lethal injection executions. At the last one the man had chemical burns in both his arms at least 11-inches wide. What is the difference between burning a man to death from the outside in or burning him to death from the inside out?” Dale asks.

There was more. The men to be executed frequently had large families. The mother and father, sisters and brothers, children and grandchildren poured into town during those final weeks to say good-bye. Where would they be during the execution? Who would minister to them? That is where Susan steps in.

“The first time this happened, I went with Dale and Father Jose, to meet the family at our church. Here was this huge Catholic family. They must leave the prison grounds six hours before the execution. They’re not allowed to be there for the execution. I found myself sitting with the mother as her son was being killed by our state,” says Susan.

The experience had a surprising and deep impact on Susan. She explained that she and Dale also minister to families of murder victims in non-death penalty cases. “We have spent agonizing hours with parents after their son had been killed in a crime. As I prayed and cried with this wonderful Catholic family at my church, I experienced their grief as the same grief that I had experienced with the families of murder victims. It struck me that these people had also done nothing wrong. We were creating a whole new family of victims. But this time it was us - the people of Florida - who were creating this agony,” she says.
  The daughter of Angel Nieves, left, and her aunt, Nena Nieves, right, cry outside the Florida State Correctional Facility in Starke, Fla. Dec. 13, 2006 before Diaz was executed in the prison.

The Recinellas recall trying to understand why some people are advocates of the death penalty. The official teaching of the Catholic Church is that, although the death penalty has long been recognized as a right of government, it should not be used unless there are absolutely no other means to protect innocent life in society, a situation unimaginable in our first-world country. “We know how to keep dangerous people in prison securely enough to protect innocent life in society. There is no need to execute them,” says Dale and Susan.

As Dale researched why America, of all the western democracies in the world, continues to be the only one to have the death penalty for crimes less than treason, he discovered some amazing facts.

The death penalty in America is not just a Catholic phenomenon according to Dale. He says it is unique to the Bible Belt, adding, “The U.S. Supreme Court launched the great death penalty experiment in 1976. In the last 31 years there have been 1,096 executions at the state level (excluding three federal executions). Almost 88 percent of them occurred in Bible Belt states. The two most Catholic states in the northeast have had none. In fact, the eight most Catholic states in the United States have had a grand total of two executions in 31 years. More than 91 percent of U.S. executions have occurred in just 14 states and 17 states have had none.”
The following are excerpts from A Catholic Campaign to End the Use of the Death Penalty by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops:

• The Catechism of the Catholic Church invokes “principles which do not exclude absolutely capital punishment but give very severe ‘criteria’ for its moral use. It seems to me it would be very difficult to meet the conditions today.” - Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) at a Sept. 9, 1997, press conference at the Vatican introducing the new edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

• Pope John Paul II and the bishops have clearly asked us to act to end the use of the death penalty.

• Catholic teaching, as expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and other statements of the Vatican and the bishops, makes clear that the use of the death penalty cannot be justified when the state has other ways to protect society.

• The death penalty in our land is deeply flawed. More than 127 people on death row have been exonerated. [The number has been updated]

• The death penalty is unfairly applied due to many factors, including where a crime is committed, a race of the victim and offender, and the quality and costs of defense.

• Catholics are re-examining and changing their minds about the use of the death penalty. Less than half of all Catholics now support the use of the death penalty, down substantially from past years.

• The death penalty diminishes all of us. Its use ought to be abandoned not only for what it does to those who are executed, but what it does to us as a society. We cannot teach respect for life by taking life.

Dale was surprised to learn that many Bible Belt death penalty supporters believe they are obligated to support capital punishment or else they would be opposing God’s word in the Bible. Over the course of five years, Dale says he researched and reconstructed the biblical death penalty from the Hebrew Scriptures and Talmud. His findings are reported in the scholarly book, The Biblical Truth about America’s Death Penalty (2004).

He identifies 44 minimum requirements imposed upon the biblical death penalty in order to meet the high standards of Scripture. Then he compares the American death penalty to those standards.

“The conclusion of the book is unequivocal. The American death penalty scores zero for 44. No one can honestly use the Bible to support the death penalty that we actually have,” he states. And he believes that message is getting out, even in the Bible Belt.

“A decade ago, many evangelical leaders were claiming the Bible mandates the death penalty. This was supported with a few Scripture quotes. Now, the best evangelicals theologically are saying that Scripture recognizes the death penalty as an option. Once support has moved from a God-given mandate to merely an option, then reason can be engaged. That will be the end of it because when reason looks at the American death penalty, reason is horrified,” says Dale.

Both Dale and Susan believe there are many reasons for that horror: for example, the irreversible and constant risk of executing the innocent (127 people have been released from America’s death rows for innocence - more in Florida than any other state); the continuing bias against the poor, minorities and those with the worst lawyers; its heavy application against the severely mentally ill; and the needless creation of a whole new family of victims.