Activists react to pope's intervention in state executions

Anti-death penalty activists in Oklahoma and Georgia welcomed Pope Francis’ direct intervention in executions in their states, though they admit to feeling a mixture of sorrow and hope.

Francis, who spoke out against the death penalty in his address to Congress Sept. 24, sent a letter to Georgia officials pleading for the commutation of the death penalty of Kelly Gissendaner and to Oklahoma officials on behalf of Richard Glossip.

Georgia ignored all pleas and executed Gissendaner Sept. 29. Glossip was set to be executed Sept. 30, when Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin granted a 37-day stay over a question of the correct drug being available. Oklahoma had potassium acetate on hand and they need to see if it is compliant with the state’s court-approved execution procedures and is the same as the protocol calling for potassium chloride.

"I think the Holy Father's request and the moral concerns that I and others have raised about the use of the death penalty in Oklahoma have presented the governor other reasonable perspectives on this difficult issue,” Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley told NCR in a statement. “I would not presume to say that either have led Gov. Fallin to issue the latest stay of execution in the case of Richard Glossip."

Connie Johnson, chair of the Oklahoma Commission to Abolish the Death Penalty, told NCR she was impressed with the pope’s letter.

Glossip was originally scheduled to be executed on Sept. 13, but that date was posted while the Court of Criminal Appeals sought additional information about the lethal injection procedure. Johnson said she knew the pope would do something but she didn’t know what and “I think God had a hand in dictating how the timing would work out.”

Johnson noted that the new date set for execution was after Nov. 1, when a change in the law takes effect allowing the death penalty to take place by any means necessary. This law could become part of the state constitution if voters approve next November on the ballot.

Atlanta Archbishop Wilton Gregory said in a statement he felt sorrow that another individual’s life has been taken, another family has lost a loved one and sorrow that the nation still imposes this penalty.

“But we also feel hope that other jurisdictions will remove the death penalty,” he said. “Nineteen states thus far have removed the death penalty. We certainly would hope that Georgia would consider that as a reasonable and merciful option.”   

Deacon Richard Tolcher of Atlanta thinks the pope should make statements against the death penalty because “he’s a very influential person especially on the heels of his trip to America.” Tolcher said expects more executions in Georgia this year; it has four people in line for capital punishment and three who are close in line.

Elisa Bellotti, program and administrative assistant for the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, told NCR that a single action can never save a man from capital punishment, but “relevant figures [like] the pope have the power to influence, and make a change, towards the abolition of the death penalty. Their voices may influence many people.”

“The pope’s call for mercy may have played an even more powerful role” in the case of Glossip, Bellotti added.

According to a Facebook post by anti-death penalty activist St. Joseph Sr. Helen Prejean, “The news just keeps on getting better: Richard Glossip and all other prisoners scheduled for execution in Oklahoma now have an indefinite stay of execution! All three scheduled executions have been cancelled. This action comes at the request of Oklahoma's Attorney General while the state once again investigates its lethal injection protocols.”

[Elizabeth A. Elliott is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is]

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here