Episcopal congregation near death row prison braces for first federal execution since 2003

By David Paulsen
Posted Nov 18, 2019
Terre Haute prison

A corrections vehicle patrols near the Federal Corrections Complex in Terre Haute, Indiana, in May. Photo: Reuters

[Episcopal News Service] Federal executions are scheduled to resume next month for the first time since 2003, at the prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, and the nearby congregation of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church has joined other faith groups and anti-death penalty advocates in leading discussions on the issue.

St. Stephen’s hosted a forum on Oct. 29 featuring a retired executioner and a murder victim’s family member. The Rev. Drew Downs, the church’s rector, has blogged on the issue and plans to attend a prayer vigil on Dec. 9, the morning of the first scheduled execution. Long-time parishioners still have vivid memories of the frenzy in 2001 when Timothy McVeigh was executed there.

“It was a very tense time,” said Gene England, 79, a death penalty opponent who has been a St. Stephen’s member for 50 years. Reporters and activists on both sides of the issue swarmed the city before McVeigh’s execution, fueling some conversations at the congregation’s parish picnic that year.

England, in an interview with Episcopal News Service, recalled that even some who opposed the death penalty thought it might be justified for McVeigh, who killed 168 in the 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. But since then, England thinks many of his fellow parishioners “have come to feel that they just can’t support capital punishment because of their strong feeling against taking a life of any kind.”

Not taking a life of any kind is the official stance of The Episcopal Church. It has spoken against the death penalty since 1958, when General Convention passed a resolution asserting a theological basis for the belief that “the life of an individual is of infinite worth in the sight of Almighty God; and the taking of such a human life falls within the providence of Almighty God and not within the right of man.” General Convention has reaffirmed its opposition to capital punishment several times since then, most recently with a resolution passed in 2018.

“It has never meant a bit of sense that we ought to kill somebody to prove that killing is wrong,” Downs said in a blog post last month. “And as a person of faith, that is even more the point.”

When reached by phone, Downs told ENS he thinks his congregation is in some ways still in shock at the decision to resume executions at the federal prison in Terre Haute, where most of the 62 federal death row prisoners are held. “The timeframe has been so quick that we haven’t had much of an opportunity to wrestle with it,” said Downs, who has served at St. Stephen’s for five years. Some of his parishioners remember the “psychic effect” that the sudden attention had on the community in 2001.

This year, Downs and other faith leaders in the city have partnered with a group called Terre Haute Death Penalty Resistance to coordinate events in response to the federal developments.

The death penalty still is in effect in 29 states, but the number of executions nationwide has dropped since 1999, from a high of 98 that year to 20 in 2016, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. The U.S. government hasn’t carried out an execution since 2003, partly due to concerns about the effectiveness and availability of the three-drug cocktail used in lethal injections.

Federal charges are tried in federal courts, where certain crimes under U.S. law carry with them the possibility of the death penalty at facilities administered separately from state prisons. The Justice Department under President Donald Trump announced in July this year it would resume executing prisoners on the federal death row using the single drug pentobarbital.

“We owe it to the victims and their families to carry forward the sentence imposed by our justice system,” Attorney General William Barr said in a written statement announcing the decision.

The Episcopal Church, through its Washington, D.C.-based Office of Government Relations, condemned the Trump administration’s decision in a statement that argued killing as retribution “for even the most heinous crimes” is wrong.

“The death penalty is not theologically justifiable, in part because it is not necessary for the protection of innocent people, and the state cannot morally justify killing for the sake of vengeance,” the church said while invoking Christ’s atonement for all sin through his own death. “The premeditated and unnecessary killing of a person is unchristian and beyond the legitimate powers of the state.”

England said he agrees with the church’s stance and supports Episcopal advocacy on the issue, and he shares the concerns of those who question “the fairness of who is executed, who isn’t executed.” Critics of the criminal justice system argue that poor defendants are more likely to be convicted and sentenced because they can’t afford better legal representation.

The Oct. 29 forum at St. Stephen’s, “The Human Toll of Capital Punishment,” featured a screening of the movie “The Executioner’s Shadow” and drew about 40 attendees, and other groups are hosting events in the city in the coming weeks to spark further discussion.

A free event on Dec. 8, the eve of the upcoming federal execution, will be held at St. Benedict Catholic Church in Terre Haute and will feature a full lineup of speakers from secular and faith-based groups that oppose the death penalty. Early the next morning, Downs plans to join a group gathering at a city park that will make its way to the prayer vigil outside the federal prison, south of downtown.

At dawn, Daniel Lewis Lee is scheduled to be executed for killing a family of three, including an 8-year-old girl, in 1999.

Downs recently spoke to the prison chaplain about the prison’s preparations for the execution, and “he said they were getting started really from the day it was announced.” As a rector, Downs is focused on the pastoral needs of his congregation and community as they approach Dec. 9, “bracing for what’s to come.”

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.