PHOTO: Jeanne Bishop, second from right, shares her story of learning to forgive her sister’s killer, during a March 14 press conference on the death penalty, in the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. With her are Rita Linhardt of the Missouri Catholic Conference; Rev. Dr. Jim Hill of the Baptist General Convention of Missouri; and Rev. Dr. Jane Fisler-Hoffman of the United Church of Christ.
— Photo by Jay Nies
By Jay Nies
A 16-year-old held Jeanne Bishop’s sister Nancy and her husband Richard at gunpoint and then murdered them and their pre-born baby.
Illinois had a law against executing people for crimes committed as a minor, so the killer was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Twenty-three years later, Ms. Bishop wrote to him to let him know that she had forgiven him.
He replied with a 15-page letter, confessing the crime, apologizing and expressing his profound remorse.
“I was able to go and visit him in prison and hear him pour out his shame, his remorse,” she said. “It was deeply healing for me to hear about my sister’s last moments and to have answers to questions that I had had for so long.”
She also got to tell him face-to-face about the affect the murders had on her family and on Nancy and Richard’s friends, neighbors and coworkers.
“That was the best justice I could achieve, and all of that would have been lost to me if he had been executed,” Ms. Bishop stated at a March 14 press conference in a committee hearing room in the Missouri State Capitol.
“I’m so very grateful that he is alive and that we are able to come to this forgiveness and reconciliation,” she said.
Ms. Bishop, who works as a public defender in Chicago, is author of Change of Heart: Justice, Mercy and Making Peace with My Sister’s Killer.
Joining her at the press conference were representatives of the Missouri Clergy Alliance for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (MCAADP), including Rita Linhardt, a prison concerns and death penalty specialist for the Missouri Catholic Conference.
Jim Hall of St. Charles, whose daughter Kelli was murdered, also planned to speak at the press conference but was injured in a car accident on the way to Jefferson City.
The speakers’ goal was to remind people that not all families of murder victims want to have their loved ones’ killers executed.
“I hope my story will serve as a counterpoint to that myth that all victims’ families need the death penalty, that we want the death penalty, in order to achieve this thing called ‘closure,’” said Ms. Bishop.
Loving someone as dearly as her sister and her sister’s husband means there can never be “closure” in this life, she said.
Rev. Dr. Jane Fisler-Hoffman of the United Church of Christ and convener of the MCAADP, noted that there are many important issues vying for attention.
“But I’m here personally and as a Christian minister because I see the death penalty as the perfect storm that tangles together issues of race, mental illness, poverty and classism,” she said. “Each one of these is urgent, and we have to keep working on them throughout our lives.
“Together, we can put an end to the high cost, the vengeance, the violence and judicial failures that are the Missouri death penalty,” she said.
Rev. Dr. Jim Hill, executive director of Churchnet, a ministry of the Baptist General Convention of Missouri, said his opposition to the death penalty is rooted in Scripture — most notably, “Thou shall not kill.”
“And certainly, the only occasion Jesus was invited to concur to capital punishment, He not only declined to do that, He broke up the event and saved the one who was targeted for execution,” said Rev. Dr. Hill.
He believes there are many moral grounds for challenging the death penalty, but he suggested starting simply with the value of human life.
Beyond that, the death penalty is administered unfairly, almost exclusively to minorities and the poor.
Furthermore, he asserted that executing someone convicted of murder does not help the loved ones of the person who was murdered.
“Some people say, ‘If you don’t believe in the death penalty, then you don’t really care about victims or their families,’” he said. “Well I would suggest that there’s no group of people who are more on the front lines of caring for victims than clergy.
“We care very much about the healing process that takes place as you help people recover from tragedies,” he said.
Hope versus despair
Mrs. Linhardt spoke about the Catholic Church’s teaching on the death penalty.
“First of all, we have to affirm human life,” she said, “and this applies to both the victim and their family as well as the person who has done great evil.”
She said it’s important to consider victims and their families, the people who committed the crime and need to be held accountable, and society as a whole.
She spoke of Pope St. John Paul II’s arguments against the death penalty in his encyclical, “The Gospel of Life.”
Throughout his 26-year pontificate, he stated that instances in which capital punishment is necessary to protect society are “very rare, if not practically nonexistent.”
Preaching at a Mass in St. Louis in 1999, he “clearly challenged the followers of Christ to ‘end the death penalty, which is both cruel and unnecessary,’” Mrs. Linhardt noted.
More recently, Pope Francis reminded lawmakers in the United States that every human person is endowed with an inalienable dignity, and that society can only benefit from the rehabilitation of those convicted of crimes.
“It is this respect for all human life that is the basis for the Catholic bishops of the United States long-standing opposition to the death penalty,” said Mrs. Linhardt.
She pointed to the U.S. bishops’ contention that the death penalty “perpetuates a cycle of violence and promotes a sense of vengeance in our culture.”
Many people of faith support the death penalty, but St. John Paul showed that there is a better way when he went to prison to forgive the man who nearly succeeded in shooting him to death.
“Forgiveness and reconciliation are not easy, but they can heal wounds and bring peace,” said Mrs. Linhardt. “Forgiveness communicates God’s mercy to the sinner and can lead to repentance and a new life. As Christians, we believe that no person is beyond the redemptive mercy of God. The death penalty takes this opportunity away. It is a sign of despair, not hope.”
She noted that Pope Francis had called all nations to observe a moratorium on the death penalty during this Jubilee Year of Mercy.
In this legislative session, for the first time since the 1970s, the Missouri Senate debated the merits of a bill to abolish the death penalty in Missouri.
While the bill likely will not be passed this year, discussions held during the Senate debate are a good place to start, said Mrs. Linhardt.
“You start to build consensus by having a dialogue,” she said. “And I think there was some very good dialogue.”
Hopefully, that will help lead to a “climate in our state where opposing the death penalty is not seen as a callous disregard for victims, or an indifference to law and order,” she said.
Sacred and secular
Rev. Dr. Fisler-Hoffman said the website for People of Faith Against the Death Penalty (www.pfadp.org) includes statements by 18 major U.S. Christian denominations, opposing the death penalty.
Meanwhile, about 250 clergy and religious leaders have joined the MCAADP, “and the list continues to grow,” she said.
“Ending the death penalty is a matter of faith for many religious groups,” she stated, “but particularly for people who follow Jesus, an innocent man executed by the state.”
While evaluating the death penalty through the lens of faith, the speakers said there are also compelling ethics-based reasons to oppose it.
“Even apart from belief in God, all people see that there is an inherent sacredness of every human being,” said Ms. Bishop.
She and Rev. Dr. Hill both noted that sometimes, people get things wrong.
“Human error is necessarily a part of every human enterprise, including the criminal justice system,” said Ms. Bishop, “and you can’t undo a death sentence once it’s been carried out.”
Ms. Bishop grew up in Oklahoma City, where Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people by bombing the federal building in 1995.
She said that people who had lost loved ones in the bombing said they didn’t feel any better after the federal government executed the bomber.
Many were upset that he had not apologized or shown any remorse.
“Well, we killed him before he had a chance to feel remorse and apologize,” she said.