Executing a Life and Human Dignity
By Alex Mikulich Ph.D.
DeSoto District Judge Robert Burgess set an execution date for Christopher Sepulvado for Ash Wednesday, February 13, 2013. Sepulvado, 69, has served twenty years on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
A DeSoto Parish jury imposed the death penalty on Sepulvado in 1993 for the March 8, 1992 death of his stepson Wesley Allen Mercer, age 6. Court documents describe the torture the preschooler endured for days leading to his death.
Sepulvado’s wife, Yvonne Mercer Sepulvado was also charged with first degree murder of her son. Her charge was reduced and she was eventually convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to twenty-one years at hard labor. Her conviction and sentence were affirmed on appeal.
The physical abuse that led to Wesley Allen Mercer’s death is abhorrent. As parents, Christopher and Yvonne Sepulvado certainly deserve appropriate and serious punishment. No one disputes that Christopher Sepulvado deserves punishment for this crime.
But what will be accomplished by executing Christopher Sepulvado? What do we intend to achieve as a state and society devoted to the defense of life?
The execution will not bring Wesley Allen Mercer back to life. The planned execution does nothing to prevent physical abuse of children or to help parents develop healthy parenting skills. In no way does an execution make our state and society any safer. It does nothing for the victims of violence; it provides no healing, no reconciliation, no peace. Execution ends the defendant’s opportunity to reform his life before humanity and God.
Blessed Pope John Paul II stated unequivocally in his homily in St Louis on January 27, 1999:
“The new evangelization calls for followers of Christ who are unconditionally pro-life: who will proclaim, celebrate and serve the Gospel of life in every situation. A sign of hope is the increasing recognition that the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil. Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform (cf. Evangelium Vitae, 27). I renew the appeal I made most recently at Christmas for a consensus to end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary.”
Pope Benedict XVI, who has often written letters to halt death sentences on behalf of death row inmates throughout the world, continues the effort of his predecessor. Pope Benedict urges elimination of the death penalty in an address to members of the Community of Sant’Egidio on November 30, 2011:
“I express my hope that your deliberations will encourage the political and legislative initiatives being promoted in a growing number of countries to eliminate the death penalty and to continue the substantive progress made in conforming penal law both to the human dignity of prisoners and the effective maintenance of public order.”
By enacting revenge in this way, we as a state and society violate our most cherished value: the dignity of every human life. In planning this execution we practice behavior we most abhor: premeditated taking of life. However sanitized the state sanctioned machinery of death has become—including the purported diminishment of cruel and unusual punishment through lethal injection—it remains a meticulously planned event that kills human life and dignity.
A turn away from capital punishment does not diminish our support for families of murder victims. Victims carry a lifetime burden of grief and rightly demand justice. Yet as Murder Victims Families for Human Rights (MVFHR) teach us, execution only re-traumatizes victims, and does not necessarily bring healing.
I learned this when I heard Jennifer Bishop recount the horrific story of how her sister, Nancy Bishop Langert, and brother-in-law were brutally murdered in Winnetka, Illinois in 1990. When Nancy lay dying on her basement floor of gunshot wounds, she drew a now famous message into the blood that had drained out of her body: “I ♥ U.” Her final message was one of love. Jennifer Bishop has devoted her life to ending the death penalty, including in her home state of Illinois, which abolished the death penalty on March 9, 2011. Jennifer insists that our primary task as citizens and people of faith is not to re-cycle the violence that we have suffered, but to practice the love that forms the basis of the relationship with those whom we have lost and all others. Jennifer continues to visit the man who committed the murders, both to call him to responsibility and to witness to her sister’s expression of love.
While individuals who have committed abhorrent crimes, including abuse that leads to the death of a child, deserve punishment, their crime in no way diminishes their God-given human dignity.
In recognizing their dignity, we also should recognize that Christopher and Yvonne Mercer Sepulvado were once victims of child abuse themselves. That they are victims does not absolve their responsibility. However, it ought to give us pause as a society to reflect upon the various forms of violence that they experienced in their lives. The death penalty may only continue the cycle of violence that they may have endured as victims of child abuse.
The fact that Louisiana’s death row inmates are overrepresented by individuals who suffered childhood trauma, intellectual disabilities, and mental illness is well documented by Sophie Cull in the study “Diminishing All of Us: The Death Penalty in Louisiana.” Popes and Catholic social teaching call people of faith to practice God’s mercy for all people, including death row inmates, who retain God’s grace and dignity.
The Louisiana Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (LCADP) and Louisiana Catholics Committed to Repeal of the Death Penalty (LCCRDP) are undertaking efforts to avert the February 13 execution of Christopher Sepulvado. Watch the websites of these organizations for details of upcoming actions or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.