LEHIGH ACRES | The Diocese of Venice took part in the annual “Cities for Life” prayer vigil to end the death penalty Nov. 30, at St. Raphael Parish in Lehigh Acres, with a featured speaker who shared his firsthand experiences on death row before being exonerated.
As part of the prayer service, 22 candles were lit and held by participants throughout the service — one for each man from the territory of the Diocese of Venice who is now on Florida’s death row — but also for the victims and the families. Six larger candles were lit for: the victims of violent crimes; the families of victims; the inmates on death row; the families of the inmates; public officials and prison workers who are affected by executions; and finally, the people of the state of Florida, in whose name the executions are done.
“Cities for Life” is a worldwide annual event that was begun in 2002 by the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome, where the Colosseum was lit up during the night. Nov. 30 was chosen because it is the anniversary of the first civil state in the world to do away with the death penalty in Tuscany, Italy, in 1786 — 229 years ago. An estimated 2,000 cities in 80 countries joined in the call for the end of the use of the death penalty by lighting civic or religious buildings around the world, along with prayer services and educational programs. The 2017 vigil is the third time the Dioceses in Florida have participated.
Out of the 352 individuals on death row in Florida — 349 males and 3 females — 22 men are from the 10 counties of the Diocese of Venice. One man, Michael Lambrix, a veteran and Catholic convert from Glades County, was executed Oct. 5.
Many of these sentencings were not by unanimous jury. Sometimes only one person made the difference in a decision of death over life in prison without parole. The 22 men range in age from 40 to 75. Four are Catholic, one was received into the Church a few years ago. When asked why he wanted to become Catholic, one of the men who went through the RCIA program said, “I want to belong to the Church that wants to belong to me.”
The featured speaker was Randy Stiedl who was wrongly convicted of a double murder in 1986 and spent years on death row in Illinois before being exonerated in 2004. A seasonal resident of Southwest Florida, Stiedl is now a spokesman for Witness to Innocence, a group of exonerated former death row inmates who speak publicly, seeking an end to the death penalty in the U.S.
Steidl was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death in 97 days. Now 66, he looks back at the lost 18 years of his life in amazement that it actually happened to him, knowing that he didn’t kill anyone while having an air-tight alibi. In fact, while he sat in prison waiting to die, all witnesses later recanted and a further review of the evidence cleared him, but he remained on death row and incarcerated for so long.
“It really isn’t about the lost 18 years, it’s about the next 18 years looking forward,” he added. “The public needs to give up its needing a pound of flesh for a few minutes of gratification. You can release an innocent person from prison, but you can’t release someone from the grave.
Stiedl is one of 167 death row inmates who have been exonerated in the U.S. since the death penalty was reinstated in 1973.