Death Penalty - Monsignor Roland

Monsignor Charles Rowland of Holy Spirit Catholic Church on Johns Island has been one of many in the state's Catholic community fighting against the death penalty for years. Pope Francis announced on Aug. 2, 2018, that the death penalty is inadmissible in all cases, saying that it is an attack on "the dignity of the person." There are currently 37 people on death row in South Carolina. Kathryn Ziesig/Staff

Before the state of South Carolina puts another person to death, Catholics will hold a vigil outside the governor's mansion in Columbia, pleading for mercy for a convicted killer.

By the time the execution begins at 6 p.m. — it always happens at 6 p.m. — the protesters will gather outside the Broad River Correctional Institution and fall silent in prayer or reflection.

The activists won't all be Catholic, but many will. Catholics have joined or led protests at each of the state's 43 executions since 1985.

As part of a continuing shift in doctrine in the Catholic Church, Pope Francis announced Aug. 2 that the death penalty is inadmissible in all cases, saying the practice is "an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person." Previously, the church taught that the death penalty was inadmissible in all but the most extreme cases.

Father Jeff Kirby, pastor at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church in the Charlotte suburb of Indian Land, said his parishioners were hardly surprised by the pope's pronouncement this month. It was a subtle, almost academic shift, and many lay members believed the church already stood in full opposition to capital punishment.

"In our tradition as Catholics being pro-life, we see it as being consistent with our opposition to abortion, our opposition to war. We see this as a single message," Kirby said.

South Carolina's estimated population of 200,000 Catholics has been on the rise in the past decade, fueled by migration from Northeastern states. Historically, the church's leaders in the state have taken consistent, sometimes lonely stands against execution.

Great migration from northeastern U.S. fuels Catholic growth in South Carolina

Ron Kaz, chairman of South Carolinians Abolishing the Death Penalty, is not a religious man but has stood side-by-side with Catholics at each of the protests outside the Broad River facility where the state stops men's hearts. While nothing has changed in the law and powerful South Carolinians still call for blood after high-profile murders, he said the protests are not in vain and will resume if the state decides to kill again.

"We used to be harassed at vigils — pickup trucks full of college kids driving by screaming, 'Fry the bastards.' There’s been a dramatic drop in the intensity of people's support for the death penalty," Kaz said.

Maria Cordova Salinas, a Mount Pleasant resident and member of Charleston's Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, attended some of the earliest protests with Kaz in the 1980s and '90s.

She said she regularly meets South Carolinians who oppose abortion and support the death penalty at the same time, and she can't make sense of it. "Nobody has the right to terminate anybody's life."

Now she falls silent at home every time the state executes a criminal.

"It's an intense moment. As a Christian, you pray," she said. "Somebody's life is being taken away."

A long plea for mercy

Today, South Carolina has 37 people on death row and hasn't carried out an execution since 2011. The only thing preventing further executions is the refusal of pharmaceutical companies to sell U.S. governments the drugs used in lethal injections. The state's supply of pentobarbital expired in 2013, stalling any further executions.

Proponents of the death penalty have offered a few remedies. Some have promoted a so-called "shield law" that would keep the sellers of lethal injection ingredients a secret, but similar laws have been blamed for botched executions in other states, introducing the possibility of cruel and unusual punishment.

Others have suggested that the state bring back the electric chair (it's still an option, should inmates choose it) or the firing squad.

In the meantime, state leaders still beat the drum for death from time to time.

When Dylann Roof was convicted of the June 2015 mass murder at Emanuel AME Church, Gov. Nikki Haley called for the ultimate punishment. Bishop Robert Guglielmone of the Diocese of Charleston disagreed, siding with some of the victims' own family members in opposing the death penalty.

"The Church believes the right to life is paramount to every other right as it affords the opportunity for conversion, even of the hardened sinner," Guglielmone wrote in a public statement on Jan. 10, 2017. The next day, U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel sentenced Roof to death by lethal injection.

Guglielmone's stance was consistent with that of his forebears.

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Death Penalty - catechism

The "Catechism of the Catholic Church," which outlines the teachings and beliefs of the Catholic faith, sits in the middle of Monsignor Charles Roland's desk in his office at Holy Spirit Catholic Church on Johns Island on Wednesday, July 8, 2018. Kathryn Ziesig/Staff

Monsignor Charles Rowland, 79, remembers the previous generation of Catholic leaders who stood in the brink against capital punishment. During 16 years stationed at a parish in Columbia, he visited death row several times to deliver Bibles and pray with men condemned to death.

He was also close with Monsignor Thomas Duffy — "Tommy," to friends — who publicly protested the death penalty and visited even the most hardened killers in their final hours. He recalls debriefing with his friend after Duffy had visited the infamous serial killer Donald "Pee Wee" Gaskins on death row in 1991.

"He used the term 'evil,' but I would never use that term," Rowland said. "Tommy would always believe that there's the last split-second for redemption."

Now serving the parish of Holy Spirit Catholic Church on Johns Island, Rowland said he knows the church's teaching against execution can be a hard pill to swallow, particularly for parishioners whose loved ones have been murdered.

But he emphasizes that the church's teaching on the subject is nothing new.

'Love the enemy'

During a national moratorium on capital punishment that began in 1962, Bishop Ernest Unterkoefler of the Diocese of Charleston took a public stand against bringing the practice back. He spoke to a Congressional subcommittee in July 1978 opposing a bill that would have effectively reinstated the death penalty at the national level.

He was in the minority. A 1974 survey conducted by The State newspaper had found that 64 percent of South Carolinians favored reinstating the death penalty, while 25 percent opposed it and 11 percent had no opinion.

Executions resumed in South Carolina in 1985 following state and national legal battles and a reinstatement of the death penalty by the state legislature.

The first man South Carolina executed under the new regime was Joseph C. Shaw, who happened to be Catholic and a former altar boy. He and two accomplices had been convicted of murdering and raping three victims in Columbia, including a 14-year-old girl whose corpse Shaw later had sex with.

On the day of the execution, Jan. 11, 1985, a crowd of 300 anti-death penalty protesters marched on the prison, the state Supreme Court and the Statehouse in freezing rain. Inside the prison walls, Monsignor Duffy of Charleston conducted mass for Shaw and his family after a final meal of pizza and salad.

Shaw made peace with God, according to his public testimony in the newspaper. He said in one of his final public statements, "Killing was wrong when I did it, and it is wrong when you do it." 

The state killed Shaw in an electric chair over protests from Unterkoefler and the Rev. Joseph Clelland of Christ Sanctified Holy Church in Columbia, who had both pleaded with then-Gov. Richard Riley to spare Shaw's life.

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A year later, the state took the life of James Terry Roach, convicted of rape and murder at age 17. This time the Catholic Mother Teresa and the Baptist former President Jimmy Carter joined an international plea for mercy. Riley again refused to grant clemency.

In January 1987, according to a Post and Courier report, Monsignor Duffy squared off with Charleston Police Chief Reuben Greenberg in a public debate about the death penalty at Charleston's Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. The city's top cop favored the death penalty, telling the audience, "Logically and morally it follows that a killer should share his victim's fate."

Duffy was by then known as a vocal opponent of war, abortion and the death penalty. He spoke directly to one woman in the audience who said she supported the death penalty after being robbed at gunpoint three times while running a store on Meeting Street.

"Love the enemy," Duffy pleaded. "Love will heal me and love will heal my enemy."

The electric sofa

Not all Catholics agreed with the monsignor. In fact, prominent Palmetto State Catholics have come down vehemently on either side of the issue.

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Charlie Condon rose to national prominence for aggressively pursuing capital punishment in Charleston-area cases starting in the 1980s. He sought the death penalty for four teenagers in a 1991 murder case, including one 14-year-old.

In another 1991 case, Condon successfully secured a death penalty for 35-year-old Bud Von Dohlen in the shotgun slaying of 21-year-old Margaret Smith McLean in a Goose Creek dry cleaning shop. Appealing to the jury in the case, he reportedly had tears in his eyes as he showed a black-and-white photo of McLean's naked, bloody body on the floor of the dry cleaner.

"Show him the mercy he showed Margaret McLean," he told the jury according to a May 29, 1991, report in The Post and Courier. In 2004, the State Supreme Court upheld Von Dohlen's conviction but overturned his death penalty.

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roof questions.jpg (copy)

Dylann Roof, represented by Ninth Circuit Public Defender Ashley Pennington, answers questions from Judge J.C. Nicholson at the Charleston County Court on April 10, 2017, as Roof enters a guilty plea on murder charges in Charleston. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

Later, as the state's first Roman Catholic attorney general, Condon cheekily proposed constructing an "electric sofa" to speed up executions.

Another Catholic working in the Ninth Circuit, public defender Ashley Pennington, has fought the death penalty in numerous cases, including Roof's trial.

But Pennington says his opposition to the death penalty is based on legal and practical considerations, not religious ones. Capital punishment is often more expensive than housing a convict for life, and execution has been shown to be an ineffective deterrent to crime.

"Because it's so expensive and consuming of resources, it only gets used when people are the angriest. It often gets used when you have victims who are white, and it reflects the bias of the community to look after the victims who are the most favored," Pennington said.

In all, South Carolina has executed 282 people since 1912: 208 black and 74 white. Prior to Aug. 6, 1912, individual counties carried out executions by hanging.

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.