Oklahoma City archbishop urges governor to grant clemency to convicted murderer — By: Catholic News Agency

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley. / null

CNA Staff, Nov 10, 2023 / 12:30 pm (CNA).

A state board in Oklahoma this week narrowly recommended clemency for a man convicted of a double murder more than 20 years ago, a decision that Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City urged the state governor to accept.

Coakley thanked the state Pardon and Parole Board for its vote on Wednesday and called on Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt to affirm its recommendation of clemency for Phillip Hancock, who has argued he was acting in self-defense when he committed the 2001 killings for which he was convicted.

“The Catholic Church recognizes the immeasurable harm done to victims of crime and their families, and the need for justice and healing. However, the death penalty is a cruel and archaic method of addressing serious crimes,” Coakley said in a statement shared with CNA.

“Executions serve only to perpetuate cycles of violence and provide no opportunity of healing for victims’ families. We should recall that Our Lord declared those who are merciful as blessed, ‘for they shall receive mercy.’”

The 59-year-old Hancock was convicted of shooting and killing two men in Oklahoma City in 2001. At a hearing this week, Hancock testified that he was originally unarmed and was lured into a trap. The men were trying to kill him and force him into a large cage, he said, and he gained control of one of their guns to defend himself. 

Several family members of the victims testified at the hearing and urged the panel not to recommend clemency. The attorney general’s office has stood by Hancock’s conviction, and he is scheduled to die by lethal injection Nov. 30, barring the governor’s intervention. 

Stitt has granted a death row inmate clemency on only one occasion in the past. In 2021, at the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board’s recommendation, he commuted Julius Jones’ death sentence to life in prison. Coakley praised the decision at the time as displaying “tremendous courage.” 

Stitt has rejected the board’s recommendations on two occasions in the past, most recently in August 2022.

Coakley, who sits on the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, frequently speaks out in favor of life sentences for those sentenced to death in Oklahoma, which has seen a surge of executions in recent years.

He most recently called the September execution of convicted murderer and rapist Anthony Sanchez “fundamentally at odds with the culture of life the state of Oklahoma proclaims to be building.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, reflecting an update promulgated by Pope Francis in 2018, describes the death penalty as “inadmissible” and an “attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person” (No. 2267).

St. John Paul II, calling the death penalty “cruel and unnecessary,” encouraged Christians to be “unconditionally pro-life” and said that “the dignity of human life must never be taken away, even in the case of someone who has done great evil.”

The bishops of the United States have spoken frequently in favor of life sentences for convicted murderers, even those who have committed heinous crimes.

Oklahoma was the first jurisdiction in the world to adopt lethal injection as an execution method, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Since 1976, Oklahoma is the U.S. state with the highest number of executions per capita with a total of 112 executions, according to Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN), a national advocacy organization that advocates against the death penalty. 

Stitt, despite enacting several anti-abortion measures during his tenure as governor of the largely conservative state, lifted a state moratorium on the death penalty in 2020 and has presided over 10 executions since taking office four years ago, as many as took place during the six years between 2013 and 2019.

Capital punishment in Oklahoma has come under scrutiny and criticism in recent years, especially after a botched execution in 2021 during which John Marion Grant began convulsing and vomiting after being administered midazolam, the first drug in a three-drug cocktail used in lethal injections.

Grant’s execution was the first to take place in the state since the botched execution of Charles Frederick Warner in 2015.

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