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Faith leaders call to end death penalty

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Leaders of Muslim, Jewish and Christian congregations gathered Thursday at the Capitol to call for an end to the death penalty in Mississippi.
Death penalty supporter Ann Pace of Jackson, meanwhile, held pictures of her daughter, who she said died at the hands of a serial killer.
The main point of contention between the Mississippi Religious Leadership Conference and Pace is whether the death penalty effectively deters crime, but the issue also hinges on inequity in the criminal justice system and religious principles.
“We face the real possibility of three state-sanctioned executions within the next month,” said the Episcopal Rev. Carol Borne Spencer. “The organization thus felt that the time was now for us to ask our state leaders to find new ways to deal with one of the largest societal dilemmas of our time, that is how to deal with heinous criminal actions of murder and violence and still hold people accountable in ways that do not require the killing of a person.”
On Wednesday, the Mississippi Supreme Court set execution dates for two convicted killers, and Attorney General Jim Hood has requested an execution date for a third.
The religious conference, which grew out of the 1960s civil rights movement, asked Thursday for crime victim support. But members said executions only create new victims — the families of executed criminals. Isolating criminals is better than condemning them to death, members said.
Pace, whose daughter Murray Pace was slain by reputed south Louisiana serial killer Derrick Todd Lee in May 2002, disagrees.
Lee, 43, sits on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola for Pace’s murder. Murray was killed at the age of 22, one week after graduating with an MBA from Louisiana State University.
Lee is suspected of killing seven south Louisiana women between 1998 and 2003, but Pace said he has not yet been put to death because Louisiana state law allows too many appeals.
“Even though the case is a DNA case, his DNA in seven murders, and it’s been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court twice, Louisiana still provides for a system called post-conviction relief that can go on for years and years and years, and it made sense before forensic science. It does not make sense now,” said Pace.
She cited a series of studies in the early 2000s finding that each execution prevents between three and 18 slayings. The studies have been widely disseminated by pro-death penalty advocates but widely criticized for technical and conceptual errors by those who oppose execution.
“I am here for those three to 18 additional victims,” Pace said. “I think abolishing the death penalty is idealistic, sounds good, feels good to support, but it does not protect life, it does not protect us, and I think our most important moral obligation in our life is to protect ourselves, our children, and our community, and I think that the death penalty does in fact do that.”
In addition to the debate over deterrence, the Capitol press conference brought up issues of social equality and faith.
Okolo Rashid of Jackson’s International Museum of Muslim Cultures signed the MRLC’s call for a moratorium. She said her faith would allow her to support the death penalty if the system did not disproportionately execute black men.
Another MRLC member invoked the symbolism of the Christian day of Good Friday, which marks the day Jesus Christ was crucified.
“We know that Jesus Christ would not want the death penalty for anyone, having suffered himself at the hands of the state,” said the Catholic Bishop Joseph N. Latino of Jackson.
Set to be executed May 10 is Benny Joe Stevens, now 52, who was sentenced to death in 1999 for killing his ex-wife and her husband, his 11-year-old son and his son’s 10-year-old friend.
Meanwhile, state officials have set a May 17 execution date for Rodney Gray, now 38, who was sentenced to death in 1996 for the 1994 rape and murder of 79-year-old Grace Blackwell of Louin. Blackwell, who had last been seen withdrawing a large amount of money from her bank, was found shot multiple times in Newton County.
Robert Simon Jr. was sentenced to death for the killings of three members of a Quitman County family, but his attorneys say a fall has rendered him incompetent for execution. Hood had earlier asked for an April 20 execution date.

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