Florida bishops urge governor to halt upcoming execution

Denise O'Toole Kelly

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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Florida's Catholic bishops have called on Gov. Charlie Crist to halt the Sept. 23 execution of Richard Henyard by lethal injection and "put an end to the use of the death penalty in our state."

Henyard, 34, is on death row for the Jan. 30, 1993, murders of 7- and 3-year-old sisters and the rape and attempted murder of their mother.

In a letter to Crist dated Sept. 17, the bishops said that although the "untimely deaths of the two young victims and serious injury to their mother cry out for justice, we are reminded that executions diminish us as a civil society and perpetuate a culture of death."

They added that Henyard's execution would be "another example of our failure to recognize the inherent dignity of every human being, even those guilty of horrible crimes."

The bishop's statement was in a press release issued by the Florida Catholic Conference in Tallahassee, the public policy arm of the state's bishops.

Henyard was sentenced to death in 1994 for the murders of 7-year-old Jamilya Lewis and 3-year-old Jasmine Lewis and the rape and attempted murder of their mother, Dorothy Lewis.

Along with a 14-year-old accomplice, Henyard, who was 18 at the time, abducted the mother and daughters in their car at a neighborhood supermarket. Each of the girls was shot once in the head at close range and the mother survived three close-range gunshot wounds in the mouth, forehead and neck, according to media reports.

The bishops said the details of this crime, including the culpability of the accomplice and the young age of Henyard at the time, are enough reason to question sentencing inconsistencies in Florida, a point made by the Florida Death Penalty Assessment Team in 2006.

"Life in prison without possibility of parole is severe punishment for offenders. While the church acknowledges that society has a right to execute violent transgressors, the ability of the modern penal system to protect society makes the need for the death penalty very rare, if not practically nonexistent," the bishops wrote.

The bishops added that they pray for and grieve with Lewis and cannot truly comprehend the unimaginable loss of two young children.

Signed by the heads of Florida's six dioceses and the archbishop and two auxiliary bishops of the Archdiocese of Miami, the letter to Crist stressed the need to "respect all life, even those who have done great wrong."

"Killing another human being perpetuates violence in our society," the bishops said.

The bishops sent a similar letter to Crist before the July 1 execution of Mark Dean Schwab, which spurred prayerful protests and vigils by Catholics around the state.

Henyard's execution will be the 66th in Florida since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, and the second since July, when executions resumed after an 18-month hiatus on capital punishment while the state's Supreme Court weighed constitutional issues surrounding the type of lethal injection used in Florida's executions.

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