I Was In Prison

Dale S. Recinella, Catholic Lay Chaplain, Florida Death Row and Solitary Confinement
Susan M. Recinella, Clinical Psychologist for mentally ill adults, and Catholic Lay Minister to Families of the Executed
Interview on Vatican Radio
Vatican Radio Midday Show (worldwide English)
Friday 8 October 2004

Dead Men Talking

Vatican Radio: Hello and welcome to today’s program. The city of Montreal in Canada is currently hosting the 2nd World Congress Against the Death Penalty, to try and push for an abolition of state executions worldwide.

Speakers of the four-day meeting include former death row inmates who have been proved innocent, families of murder victims who oppose the death penalty, and a whole host of experts, campaigners, and well-known personalities.

Topics for debate include terrorism and international justice, China’s use of the death penalty in light of the next Olympic games in Beijing, and the issue of capital punishment vis-à-vis the American presidential campaign.

All sorts of cultural and educational activities will be taking place alongside the conference and the meeting is due to wind up on Saturday with a march through the streets of Montreal.

Among the participants is the renowned religious Sister Helen Prejean whose book about a man facing execution became the subject of the film Dead Man Walking.

Another Catholic participant who will be discussing religious perspectives on the death penalty is Dale Recinella, a Catholic lay chaplain on Florida’s death row and a regular guest on our program. He joins us now, live, on the line from Montreal. Hello, Dale.

Recinella: Good morning, Phillipa.

Vatican Radio: Thank you for joining us here on the program. Now, as I said, this is the 2nd World Congress Against the Death Penalty. The first one was held in Strasbourg in France. Just tell us a bit about what’s going on there at the meeting.

Recinella: As you said, this is the 2nd World Congress Against the Death Penalty, being co-sponsored by the group Together Against the Death Penalty [ECPM]. It’s been very exciting and encouraging to participate. The opening was done by Ms. Bianca Jagger, the good will ambassador for abolition of the death penalty from the Council of Europe, and by a video message from Mr. Robert Badinter, the Senator and former-President of the French Constitutional Court, which abolished the death penalty in France. One of the noteworthy opening messages also came from Ms. Margherita Boniver, Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs from Italy. And most important of all, for me as an American Catholic, was the opening message delivered from Pope John Paul II, It was read by Monsignor Allan McCormack, the legal vicar in Canada, and representative of the Holy See. I’d like to read just a portion of the opening message from our Pope.

“The Montreal Congress takes place at a time when the campaign to abolish the death penalty has made considerable progress especially in the western world. Encouraging the work of the Congress, His Holiness invites the participants to reflect on the guiding principles and practical measures required for a criminal justice system which would better correspond to present day needs and concerns while defending the common good and making possible the correction and rehabilitation of the guilty.”

And of course that is in fact what has been taking place through the discussions here. One of the key organizers who spoke on the opening of the congress is Mr. Mario Marazziti from the Sant’Egidio community in Rome. The meeting in Rome in May of 2002, the historic meeting, that created the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, is the one that established October 10 as the World Day Against the Death Penalty, and that will be on Sunday after the conclusion of this Congress.

Vatican Radio: Dale, as you’re saying, there’s been a lot of mobilization, a lot of campaigning within the Catholic world, starting with Pope John Paul himself, who spoke out often against the death penalty. He talked about it even when he went to the United States. How much does this Catholic voice, if you like, count in the fight to abolish the death penalty? Given also the fact that many Catholics—particularly in the U.S.—are still in favor of the death penalty.

Recinella: The Catholic voice on the issue is very present here. For example, one of the co-sponsors is Archbishop Roger Ébagur of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. Catholic press, both written and televised, has been very present here. So we see a tremendous Catholic presence, and one of the questions that has come up frequently has been the role of Catholic teaching in abolition of the death penalty. This has come up not just in connection with the United States, but also in connection with the situations in Africa and in Asia where there is the presence of the Catholic Church. For example, Rwanda: a panel that was conducted yesterday spent significant time on dealing with the issue of whether or not resort to the death penalty will be taken in Rwanda with respect to those guilty of the genocide. And it has been mentioned several times, the role of Catholic teaching in that situation. Perhaps most significant, the Congress has called everyone’s attention to our new environment after the advent of these terrorist acts that have been experienced around the world. And a question has been posed by many speakers about Spain. Several people have called attention to the fact that Spain suffered this horrific terrorist attack in March, yet no one—no political leaders, no religious leaders, no grass roots leaders—have called for resort to the death penalty. The question has been asked, why is this true in Spain? One of the suggestions that has been offered is that Spain is a country with a Catholic culture, and that the teaching of the Catholic Church has a profound impact on the choices that are made there. So not just in the United States, but also from a world perspective, we are seeing a definitive role of the leadership of the church in the move toward abolition of the death penalty.

Vatican Radio: Your speaking as well, aren’t you, about the religious implication or religious perspective on the death penalty, basing your words on the Bible. Words taken from the Bible directly. Just tell us a bit about this. Your book is due out next month, I believe, isn’t it?

Recinella: Well in my presentation of our particular situations in the United States, I have to bifurcate my focus in two ways. The first, and this is the primary, is the role of the bible belt in the United States, which is the deep south where almost ninety percent of the actual executions take place, and where a hundred percent of all those executed for crimes as juveniles since 1976 have been executed. This area of the United States is heavily dominated by the religious philosophy of a fundamentalist-type approach to scripture. So in order to come against that, we have to work from the very specific texts of the scriptures. And this is what I have attempted to do in my book, The Biblical Truth about America’s Death Penalty, which is being released in November. When I speak to Catholic audiences, and I’ve had the opportunity to do that here through the media both written and televised, I focus them upon paragraph 2267 of the Catechism which says that, as a condition to any discussion of the death penalty, we must first assume that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility has been fully determined. In the United States, we have the Supreme Court decision of Herrera that has said actual factual innocence cannot be taken into account after the deadlines for new evidence have passed. Here’s a man who was factually innocent, another man had confessed under oath, and yet Herrera was executed anyway. And we have several statues now that have been passed to prohibit and eliminate the admission of evidence of innocence after very short deadlines. With those situations, it is not possible to assume that the guilty party’s identity and responsibility have been fully determined. And so as I speak to the Catholic audiences here and elsewhere with respect to the death penalty in America, I call their attention to the fact that based upon faithful adherence to our Catechism, we cannot support the American death penalty as it exists today.

Vatican Radio: You’re also hearing testimony there at that Congress, aren’t you, from former death row inmates who have since been proved innocent. These must be some of the most powerful speakers to try and sway people against the death penalty.

Recinella: There is no question, Philippa, that the most moving moments of this conference have been the testimonies from two groups. The personal testimonies of members from Murder Victim’s Families for Reconciliation. These are people who have had loved ones murdered, not just in the U.S., but in other countries as well, who have actively opposed the imposition of the death penalty in those cases, and found that their healing came from forgiveness. Then of course the testimonies of men from the United States, Ireland, and other countries who have been on death row and then have been exonerated and shown innocent. Last night I sat on the stage next to Juan Roberto Melendez, who I used to minister to on Florida’s death row. He was the 99th person to come off death rows in the United States exonerated. He was the 24th to come off of Florida’s death row. Just four years ago, I was praying with him in his cell on death row. Last night I was sitting next to him on the stage and listening as he gave his testimony. I can tell you that it was incredibly moving for me. And that his presence there, as a free man, gives me great hope that someday soon we will all be free of this barbaric practice which is both cruel and unnecessary.

Vatican Radio: You mentioned of course Spain, a very Catholic country. It’s also true that across Europe, whatever the different cultures, the death penalty is very much something of the past. And a lot of the work at this Congress is trying to make those countries which have already abolished the death penalty stronger advocates to try and persuade other countries to do the same.

Recinella: The object of this Congress is to build upon the first congress in Strasburg by going beyond the call for abolition and passing resolutions later today that will call for specific actions throughout the world. The focus is upon new restorative justice alternatives to the death penalty for ordinary crimes, safeguards to guarantee full and fair tribunal hearings, and alternatives to the death penalty for terrorist type crimes. And an extreme concern that attention must be brought to bear upon the situation in China, which will be hosting the Olympics in 2008 and yet, at this very time, is carrying out mass executions in the stadiums where some of the very games might be held. So I am anticipating that these resolutions plus a new resolution calling upon participants in the abolition movement to find ways to reach out to the victims of murders and violent crime, their families and their survivors, will be passed at the closing session this afternoon.

Vatican Radio: Just finally, Dale, we’re fast running out of time. You said that each life saved to you is a huge sign of hope, a huge step forward. What is your message to people listening to this program, people who would like to get more involved in the campaign to abolish the death penalty?

Recinella: I think the most important thing is to be involved, to be willing to make the commitment to stay on top of the facts, and to be ready to present them one-on-one, or to leaders, to church leaders, to call our leaders political and religious to accountability, to state clearly the teaching of our church in response to calls for the death penalty, and to call our governmental leaders to accountability to find ways to invest the time and the money to find restorative justice alternatives that meet the needs of society for punishment, and yet focus upon the rehabilitation of the offender and the restoration of the victims.

Vatican Radio: Dale Recinella, joining us live there--on the line—from Montreal, Canada, where that 2nd World Congress Against the Death Penalty is going on. Dale, thank you once again for being our guest on the program. We wish you all the very best.

Recinella: And thank you, Philippa.

Vatican Radio: Bye bye.

© 2004 Dale S. Recinella & Vatican Radio.
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No further reproduction or republication without prior written permission.