Missouri bishops speak out against execution

May 13, 2005

Missouri's two Episcopal bishops have spoken out against the scheduled execution of a man they say is deserving of the state's mercy because of mitigating circumstances in the man's life and what the bishops call "the racism inherent in the death penalty's use" in Missouri.

In a Pentecost letter to clergy in their dioceses, Bishop Barry R. Howe of West Missouri and Bishop George Wayne Smith, whose Diocese of Missouri covers the eastern half of the state, asked the clergy to pray that Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt will grant Vernon Brown clemency and halt his execution scheduled for May 18.

Brown is on Missouri's death row for two separate acts of murder. He was convicted in 1988 of the October 1986 strangulation death of a nine-year-old girl in his home in St. Louis. While imprisoned on that charge, he was convicted in 1991 of the March 1985 strangulation and stabbing death of a 19-year-old St. Louis woman.

Court-appointed attorneys for Brown argued that their client had a tumultuous childhood in which he was abandoned by his parents and sent with his siblings to live with his grandparents. His grandfather allegedly physically and sexually abused Brown. Sometime in his youth he suffered a head injury that forced him to drop out of high school and caused headaches and blackouts. The attorneys also argued that Brown was under the influence of the drug PCP, an anesthetic used by veterinarians and commonly abused by addicts. They said the drug caused uncontrollable rage and left their client with no memory of his crimes.

Brown has exhausted all legal appeals and a state clemency board recommended against clemency, although the final decision rests with Gov. Blunt.

If the state of Missouri proceeds with the May 18 execution, Brown would be the third person since March 16 executed by lethal injection in Missouri. Like Brown, the executed prisoners were African-American, a fact the bishops said cannot be accepted "merely as a matter of coincidence."

"We ask you to especially consider the racism inherent in the death penalty's use, a well-known and carefully documented aspect of this criminal sentence," wrote Howe and Smith, who were meeting today with other Midwestern bishops in an informal gathering in Kansas City.

The bishops said they have no doubt of Brown's guilt, noting that he confessed to his murders. But they said they do doubt "the quality of justice whenever the death penalty is applied, a doubt exemplified in Brown's story." Throughout the judicial process, wrote the bishops, "we find instance after instance in which the quality of mercy should have been applied for Mr. Brown. The circumstances of his life were lost or deliberately suppressed through the legal process, and mercy never received a consideration. Without mercy, say the prophets, justice is cheated."

The bishops asked that the clergy share the letter with their congregations as they see fit. In it, they ask that prayers be said for Brown and the other 56 men and women on Missouri's death row and the 3,455 persons nationally facing execution. They asked for prayers for the prisoners' families, for the victims, and the victims' families.

"We can pray for those who have the power to do justice and to grant mercy to these persons, that their hearts might be inclined to justice and mercy," they wrote, adding that those reading the letter make their beliefs on the death penalty known to those around them and those in authority.

It was not known today whether the Governor's Office had seen or heard of the bishops' letter. Gov. Blunt is a proponent of the death penalty. As late as April 26, the governor went against the clemency board's recommendation to commute the sentence of Donald Jones, even though the family of his victim pleaded with Blunt to spare Jones' life. Jones died from a lethal injection the next morning. In rejecting clemency, Blunt said "we have the death penalty because we believe as a society, we believe as a state, we believe as a people that some crimes are so horrific that the only appropriate punishment is the death penalty."

With one week to go before Brown's execution, Howe and Smith acknowledged it may be too late to affect the outcome, "but we must nonetheless bear witness, lest we passively submit to the powers of death and injustice. Obedience to Christ, raised from the dead, requires us to speak out."

Since 1958, the Episcopal Church has been officially opposed to the death penalty.