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Louisiana religious leaders urge court to spare life of death-row inmate

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New Orleans Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond speaks during the National Right to Life Convention in New Orleans July 9. (CNS photo/Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald)
New Orleans Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond speaks during the National Right to Life Convention in New Orleans July 9. (CNS photo/Peter Finney Jr., Clarion Herald)

Catholic News Service

NEW ORLEANS — More than 100 religious leaders across the state of Louisiana filed an amicus brief Oct. 19 with the Louisiana Supreme Court in hopes of sparing the life of a convicted murderer.

The religious leaders who signed the brief “have a substantial interest in ensuring that Louisiana courts are fair and juries are not wrongfully persuaded to impose the death penalty by a prosecutor’s personal interpretation of the Bible,” the brief said.

They are seeking a stay in the death sentence of Rodricus Crawford, born in 1988, who was convicted in 2013 in the killing of his year-old son.

“Signers grieve every wrongful death,” said the brief, also known as a friend-of-the-court brief. “But signers do not believe that further death at the hands of the government is a just or moral response.”

The brief called the conduct of the prosecutor in the capital case, Dale Cox, “inappropriate and unconstitutional.”

“The prosecutor, as an agent of the state of Louisiana, should not have misused and misinterpreted passages in the Bible to support his call to the jury for the execution of Mr. Crawford. The prosecutor’s own private interpretations of the Bible are his own and he is entitled to his own opinions,” it added.

“The problem is that at critical times the prosecutor, Mr. Cox, acting as an official agent of the State of Louisiana, publicly injected his own private religious interpretations of the Bible into the trial as the State’s justification to argue for the execution of Mr. Crawford. Mr. Cox’s statements are particularly egregious in a parish that leads the country in executions per capita and primarily due to the efforts of Mr. Cox.”

During the trial, in questioning Crawford’s pastor, Cox asked, “Referring to children, Christ said to his followers: Woe unto you, any of that would harm one of these. It would be better … as though you will never born. You will have a millstone put around your neck and dropped into the sea. Do you believe in that concept?” After some back-and-forth with the pastor, who said he believed not only in that passage from the Gospel but also in mercy, Cox asked him, “So, Pastor, then we should just ignore that Scripture from Christ?” Cox used the passage once more in his closing argument.

Cox is the acting district attorney for Caddo Parish, or county, which accounts for nearly half of the Louisiana’s death sentences in the past five years. Further, from 2010 to 2014. more people were sentenced to death per capita in Caddo Parish than in any other county in the United States, among counties with four or more death sentences in that time period.

Crawford, who is African-American, is the second youngest man on death row awaiting execution at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. Critics of his death sentence say Crawford was charged with smothering his baby based on a flawed pathology report, because the autopsy also showed the baby had pneumonia but the finding was dismissed by the forensic pathologist as a coincidence.

The brief noted that most major faiths in the United States oppose the death penalty. Among the religious groups it cited was the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which says: “Since 1999, the (USCCB) has called for the end of the death penalty in the U.S.A. stating ‘opposition to the death penalty is important not only for what it does to those guilty of horrible crimes but what it does to all of us as a society.'”

Other groups cited in the brief include the American Baptist Churches USA, the American Friends Service Committee, the American Jewish Committee, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, The Church of the Brethren, the Episcopal Church, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Mennonite Church, the National Council of Churches, the Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Church in America, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church and the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Of the 108 signers, 59, or more than half, are Catholics. They included Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans and Bishops Michael G. Duca of Shreveport, Shelton J. Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Ronald P. Herzog of Alexandria, Michael Jarrell of Lafayette, Robert W. Muench of Baton Rouge, and Glen J. Provost of Lake Charles. Other Catholic signers included Jesuit Father Fred Kammer, head of the Jesuit community in New Orleans and former head of Catholic Charities USA, and Sister Helen Prejean, a Sister of St. Joseph who for decades has been an active opponent of capital punishment and advocate for inmates sentenced to death.

Posted Oct. 20, 2015

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