Statement by Bishop Sullivan on the Death Penalty, July 1992

Year Published
  • 2014
  • English

Bishop Walter F. Sullivan, Diocese of Richmond

On July 23, 1992 the Commonwealth of Virginia executed Edward B. Fitzgerald, known to the inmates on death row as "Fitz" Edward Fitzgerald had committed a horrible, brutal murder. At the time of the killing, Fitz was high on drugs and LSD. Throughout his young life, Edward Fitzgerald knew only violence, first as a young child, the victim of abuse from his alcoholic father, and second as a member of a motorcycle gang in the Richmond area. He was a school drop-out, a Catholic from St Benedict's parish in Richmond.

News Reports

The news reports justified his execution. Newspapers both in Richmond and Norfolk described him as "the killer" and then recalled the gory details of his murder of a young woman. The former Commonwealth Attorney of Chesterfield County, Charles Walson, who prosecuted "the killer" said that recent pleas for mercy or leniency "smelled of an 11th hour sympathy grab. If he had become an ordained minister or the pope, that's irrelevant," Watson said. "One of the reasons for punishment is recovery."

Revenge is the only word that reflects adequately why 80 percent of Virginians favor the death penalty. People mistakenly feel that executions will cut back on the growing number of homicides. Politicians play on the fears of people by advocating that a tough on crime approach will somehow solve the growing instances of violence in the American culture. A "lock 'em up and throw away the key" mentality is a guarantee for re-election.

A Child of God

Edward Fitzgerald was a human being, a child of God. Eddie Fitzgerald was a Catholic from birth. He attended Mass at the Mecklenburg Correctional Center which houses death row inmates. In early July 1, together with Fathers Jim Griffin and Jim Gallagher, I celebrated a Mass of farewell for our Catholic inmates on death row. There were six Catholics on death row, two of whom are converts to the faith. Charles Mahon of The Catholic Virginian came because E.B. Fitzgerald wrote "letters to the editor" on a regular basis. Kathleen Kenney of the diocesan Office of Justice and Peace and Marcelline Niemann were also present.

The Mass was not a death watch but an expression of thanks to one who had become a part of our lives. Eddie expressed no bitterness nor made any excuses for his past. He knew he had to pay his debt t o society and was spiritually ready. He recognized that he came to Mecklenburg 12 years ago "a sick person from years of drugs." He thanked those present because for the past 12 years he experienced the unconditional love of people in the diocese. The month before, he wrote in a letter, "although my time has come to an end on earth, I fear not. I know that Christ is holding me tightly in his loving arms and will protect me from evil. He will walk with me into heaven in a few short weeks"

Violence Begets Violence

Yes, "the killer" is dead, but our streets are no safer. The homicide rate will continue to rise. All studies show that capital punishment does not deter crime. I believe that violence only begets violence. It is a known fact that since the re-institution of the death penalty in Virginia, the number of murders has tripled and quadrupled. Everyone loses whenever the state executes. Our society will never deter violence through the example of violence. We become dehumanized in the process. We need to reject the notion that it is right to kill people who kill people in order to show that killing is wrong. By legal murder, we become like those we consider a threat to society. Instead of loving the sinner as mandated in the gospel, we become like them. In the United States there are now 2,500 persons on death row. Most are black, uneducated, indigent or socially impoverished. We are the only free civilized country in the world that resorts to executions.

Yes, I am totally against capital punishment. In saying this, I am not soft on crime or want to coddle prisoners. I happen to believe in the sacredness and dignify of all life, even that of a murderer. Vengeance or revenge, the only "valid" reason for putting another to death, is contrary to the gospel message. Christ came to save and redeem, not to condemn. Society can still protect its citizens without imposing the death penalty. Believe it or not, life imprisonment without parole is actually a cost savings to the Commonwealth rather than the $1.8 million spent on each death penalty case.

I also have a compassionate concern for victims of crime and their families. I was part of an interfaith group of clergy who recommended to the Virginia General Assembly a bill to compensate victims of crime. Thankfully, the bill was passed overwhelmingly several years ago.

As a realist, I also recognize that about 75 percent of Catholics favor capital punishment. I long for the day that our socalled pro-life beliefs will extend to persons on death row. We simply cannot remain pro-life and at the same time be pro-death. This makes the consistent ethic of life inconsistent or selective.

Yes, "the killer" Edward Fitzgerald is dead. Thankfully he believed when he said, "I know God forgives me." We all seek forgiveness for ourselves. Yet for people on death row there is no forgiveness from society, only death.