U.S. Attorney General William Barr is set to receive the Christifideles Laici Award award from the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast on Wednesday, a development that has riled Catholics who object to the Trump administration’s renewing the federal death penalty after it has been dormant for almost two decades.
The DOJ made the announcement about the death penalty in July 2019 to address “the most horrific crimes:”
Attorney General William P. Barr has directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to adopt a proposed Addendum to the Federal Execution Protocol—clearing the way for the federal government to resume capital punishment after a nearly two decade lapse, and bringing justice to victims of the most horrific crimes. The Attorney General has further directed the Acting Director of the BOP, Hugh Hurwitz, to schedule the executions of five death-row inmates convicted of murdering, and in some cases torturing and raping, the most vulnerable in our society—children and the elderly.
“Congress has expressly authorized the death penalty through legislation adopted by the people’s representatives in both houses of Congress and signed by the President,” Attorney General Barr said. “Under Administrations of both parties, the Department of Justice has sought the death penalty against the worst criminals, including these five murderers, each of whom was convicted by a jury of his peers after a full and fair proceeding. The Justice Department upholds the rule of law—and we owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system.”
The San Francisco Chronicle reported on what it said is the objection to Barr getting the award:
Outraged at Barr’s decision to reinstate the federal death penalty after a 17-year pause, they are using the occasion of the award to emphasize the church’s teaching on the death penalty — that it is wrong and should never be used — and to highlight what they say is Barr’s flagrant violation of Catholic doctrine.
The keynote speaker at Wednesday’s virtual award ceremony is the Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles, Robert Barron, an influential Church official. He often appears on cable news and is “one of the world’s most followed Catholics on social media,” according to his personal website, with more than 50 million YouTube views and 3 million Facebook followers.
Barron’s participation in the award ceremony has drawn the ire of death penalty foes, as the award becomes part of a larger battle over capital punishment in America and the church’s proper role in that fight.
“It’s a big stink, frankly,” Nancy Haydt, a California defense attorney who grew up Catholic and directs Death Penalty Focus, a nonprofit based in Sacramento working to end capital punishment, said in the Chronicle report. “It’s a big blowup within the Catholic Church.”
The Archdiocese of Santa Fe issued a news release that called on the award not be given to Barr.
“Let us not become the evil we despise,” the news release said.
“Last year, after Pope Francis ordered a change in the church’s catechism to call the death penalty morally ‘inadmissible,’ U.S. bishops supported his move by a vote of 194 to 8,” the Chronicle reported.
But the DOJ laid out the brutal facts of the five executions it oversaw:
- Daniel Lewis Lee, a member of a white supremacist group, murdered a family of three, including an eight-year-old girl. After robbing and shooting the victims with a stun gun, Lee covered their heads with plastic bags, sealed the bags with duct tape, weighed down each victim with rocks, and threw the family of three into the Illinois bayou. On May 4, 1999, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas found Lee guilty of numerous offenses, including three counts of murder in aid of racketeering, and he was sentenced to death. Lee’s execution is scheduled to occur on Dec. 9, 2019.
- Lezmond Mitchell stabbed to death a 63-year-old grandmother and forced her nine-year-old granddaughter to sit beside her lifeless body for a 30 to 40-mile drive. Mitchell then slit the girl’s throat twice, crushed her head with 20-pound rocks, and severed and buried both victims’ heads and hands. On May 8, 2003, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona found Mitchell guilty of numerous offenses, including first degree murder, felony murder, and carjacking resulting in murder, and he was sentenced to death. Mitchell’s execution is scheduled to occur on Dec. 11, 2019.
- Wesley Ira Purkey violently raped and murdered a 16-year-old girl, and then dismembered, burned, and dumped the young girl’s body in a septic pond. He also was convicted in state court for using a claw hammer to bludgeon to death an 80-year-old woman who suffered from polio and walked with a cane. On Nov. 5, 2003, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri found Purkey guilty of kidnapping a child resulting in the child’s death, and he was sentenced to death. Purkey’s execution is scheduled to occur on Dec. 13, 2019.
- Alfred Bourgeois physically and emotionally tortured, sexually molested, and then beat to death his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. On March 16, 2004, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas found Bourgeois guilty of multiple offenses, including murder, and he was sentenced to death. Bourgeois’ execution is scheduled to occur on Jan. 13, 2020.
- Dustin Lee Honken shot and killed five people—two men who planned to testify against him and a single, working mother and her ten-year-old and six-year-old daughters. On Oct. 14, 2004, a jury in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa found Honken guilty of numerous offenses, including five counts of murder during the course of a continuing criminal enterprise, and he was sentenced to death. Honken’s execution is scheduled to occur on Jan. 15, 2020.
The Christifideles Laici Award is given to a lay Catholic “for fidelity to the Church” and “exemplary selfless and steadfast service in the Lord’s vineyard,” according to the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast.
The DOJ has overseen five executions and is expected to approve two more.
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