COCOA BEACH | Parishioners of Our Saviour Parish in Cocoa Beach gathered together with Christians from throughout Brevard County Nov. 30, in commemoration of International Day of Cities for Life, Cities Against the Death Penalty.
Our Saviour now joins parishes in more than 2,000 cities in 80 countries that celebrate this day, including Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Daytona Beach.
“As a Catholic church, we are pro-lifers,” Father Percival “Val” DeVera, pastor of Our Saviour told the 50 gathered. “We promote life. We protect life. This gathering helps people realize how sacred life is and that only God has the right to take life.”
The worldwide movement to abolish the death penalty began in Italy with the Community of St. Egidio. Events are held Nov. 30, the anniversary of the first abolition of the death penalty in 1786 in Italy. The Cocoa Beach event is fruit of the new Social Concerns Ministry initiated by parishioner Anne Goodin. After attending several death row executions at the Florida State Prison in Starke with former parish pastor, Father Fred Ruse, Goodin, her husband, Tom, and several others wanted to educate parishioners on issues of social justice.
After attending the Cities for Life event at Our Lady of Lourdes last year, the group decided to become involved and offer the awareness event at Our Saviour with the help of Deborah Shearer, director of Advocacy and Justice at Catholic Charities of Central Florida, as well as Florida Alternatives for the Death Penalty.
“Pope Francis has, most recently, updated the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2267) to state that executions are ‘contrary to the Gospel’ because it is the intentional taking of a human life,” Shearer said. “In this era of the availability of life in prison, especially in Florida, there is no legitimate reason for the death penalty. In fact, 28 innocent people on Florida’s death row have been exonerated, most recently this month, reinforcing the inconsistency and injustice of this practice.
“Consequently, the Church teaches, in the light of the Gospel, that ‘the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person’, and she works with determination for its abolition worldwide.’”
Shearer said she is grateful parishes around the diocese are joining the campaign to raise awareness of abolition of the death penalty.
“Next year, we hope at least one parish in each of our counties will participate. It is important to educate Catholics on the Church’s teaching on the death penalty as it denies the dignity and sacredness of the life of a person and dehumanizes life for all of us,” she said. “We pray for and look forward to the day when executions are a disquieting memory in Florida’s history.”
Michael Pirolo, chief assistant public defender for Brevard County and parishioner of Ascension Parish in Melbourne, also spoke at the gathering. He quoted several staggering numbers: 1,486 individuals have been executed in the U.S. since 1976, including 96 in Florida, where there are 343 inmates on death row. There have been 21 executions this year in the United States, with four more scheduled for the remainder of the year, including that of Florida death row inmate José Antonio Jimenez on Dec. 13.
“There have been 164 death row exonerations in our country,” Pirolo said. “That means these people were found completely innocent. We had the potential of executing innocent people.”
“We must acknowledge that mistakes have been made and will continue to be made as long as we continue to execute people,” said Father Phil Egitto, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Daytona Beach. “At our services, we also pray for the victims we are about to create, as a state. José Jimenez is someone’s son and we are about to make a victim out of his mother by committing a state sanctioned murder.”
Father Egitto does not exaggerate that point. On the inmate’s death certificate, cause of death is officially listed as homicide.
Speaking for these victim survivors was Juanita Perez, the family member of three murder victims in 2006. Perez explained how the death penalty does not bring closure. Her families’ case took an agonizing 11 years to prosecute.
“It does not bring my family members back,” she said. “(Killing a death row inmate) just adds to the (number of) survivor victims.”
Justin Heyne, Perez’s families’ convicted killer, was given the death penalty for two of the crimes, and a life sentence for the other. This year, Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill requiring a unanimous vote in death penalty cases. While the Florida Supreme Court upheld Heyne’s three murder convictions, because of the signed law, he will undergo a new sentencing phase.
Father Ruse had previously counseled a death row inmate — Rigoberto (Ricky) Sanchez Velasco —who was executed in 2002. Father Ruse said rather than execute those convicted, “conversion and repentance is what we’re about.”
“Our endeavor should be to protect that ground to make sure it is possible,” he added. “We should be most vocal and most engaged in pursuing the abolishment of the death penalty.”