This Lent, U.S. Catholics are called to reckon with the sin of capital punishment

By Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy
America: The Jesuit Review of Faith & Culture
March 23, 2020

On March 5, Thursday in the first week of Lent, the state of Alabama executed Nathaniel Woods, a 43-year-old black man convicted of the murders of three white police officers.

The thing is, he did not kill anyone. This fact is undisputed.

Mr. Woods’s co-defendant, Kerry Spencer, took sole responsibility for the shootings—“[Woods] is 100% innocent,” he put in a handwritten letter. Nevertheless, an overwhelmingly white jury voted 10 to 2 to execute Mr. Woods in the only U.S. state to still allow death sentences by nonunanimous juries.

On the night of Mr. Woods’s execution, outrage erupted across the country, including from Catholic leaders like Helen Prejean, C.S.J., who asked, “Would [this execution] ever happen to a white person of means?”

Underlying the outrage was a simmering truth: Racialized killing in the United States has been going on for a long, long time.

In the holy season of Lent, from the solemn reminder on Ash Wednesday that we are dust, and to dust we will return, to the liturgical commemoration of Christ’s crucifixion on Good Friday, matters of life and death come keenly into focus. It is also meant to be a time of repentance, a reckoning with our sinful ways. Yet in the middle lands of these 40 days, I am burdened by the fact that our society has not yet reckoned with the ongoing sin of capital punishment nor the full extent of our country’s racist past, which props up our death penalty system to this day.

Take, for instance, the vast disparities in death sentencing that hinge on a murder victim’s race. After Mr. Woods’s execution, the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative reported that “a stunning 84% of Alabama executions in the modern era have been carried out for crimes involving white victims even though only 20% of the state’s homicide victims are white.”

Racial discrimination in jury selection also remains rampant, including in Mr. Woods’s case, where prosecutors excluded “every qualified black prospective juror except two in a county that is majority black,” according to E.J.I.

In its 2018 pastoral letter against racism, “Open Wide Our Hearts: The Enduring Call to Love,” the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops names how “the evil of racism festers in part because, as a nation, there has been very limited formal acknowledgement of the harm done to so many, no moment of atonement, no national process of reconciliation and, all too often a neglect of our history.”

The reality is that racism permeates our death penalty system in the United States, especially in southern states like Alabama, where legacies of slavery and lynching set a gruesome backdrop for our racialized application of state-sanctioned killing.

Indeed, the recent execution of Nathaniel Woods struck an eerie chord for many, given the similarities between his story and countless others in our nation’s past.

One case, in particular, has recently recaptured America’s attention following the December 2019 release of “Just Mercy,” the award-winning film adaptation of E.J.I. founder Bryan Stevenson’s bestselling memoir by the same name.

“Just Mercy” tells the story of Walter McMillian who, like Nathaniel Woods, was a black man convicted of murdering a white victim in Alabama. In both cases, it was a majority-white jury that decided their lives had lost their value. One was eventually exonerated. One was executed.

From where I sit at Catholic Mobilizing Network, the national Catholic organization working to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice, it has been heartening to watch Catholics flock to this film. In the three months since the film’s release, more than 10,000 Catholics have sought out C.M.N.’s Just Mercy Catholic Study Guide, and another 800 church leaders opted into a webinar C.M.N. co-hosted about the film.

“Just Mercy” has exposed a hunger to reckon with painful truths in order to transform our broken systems and sinful ways. Lent is the time to recommit to that work. It is our Gospel call.