By Zelda Caldwell
Florida’s Catholic bishops are calling on Gov. Ron DeSantis to issue a stay of execution for a convicted murderer who is scheduled to die by lethal injection on June 15.
Duane Owen, 62, was sentenced to death for the 1984 murder of a 14-year-old babysitter, whom he stabbed to death and then sexually assaulted. He was also sentenced to death for the 1986 murder of a single mother whom he beat to death with a hammer.
Owen would be the fourth person to be executed in Florida this year, the sixth to die by capital punishment during DeSantis’ administration.
In a May 31 letter on behalf of the bishops to DeSantis, Michael Sheedy, the executive director of the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops (FCCB), appealed to the governor to grant a stay and commute Owen’s sentence to life without parole.
The letter acknowledged the suffering Owen has caused but stated the bishops’ opposition to the death penalty and belief in the sanctity of life.
“His senseless and horrific acts tragically ended the lives of these young women and have caused immeasurable grief and suffering to the victims’ families, loved ones, and communities,” the letter reads. “However, taking Mr. Owen’s life will not restore the lives of the victims. Intentionally ending his life will do nothing but perpetuate violence in a society steeped in it.”
“Justice does not demand state-sanctioned killing that disrespects the dignity and sacredness of human life,” the bishops said in the letter. “Rather, justice is best served by the alternative punishment of lifelong incarceration. Society must be kept safe from Mr. Owen and those like him, but that can be done effectively without resorting to more violence.”
The letter said there are “notable mitigating circumstances” in Owen’s case that argue for granting him a stay of execution.
“He was raised by alcoholic parents who both died when he was a very young child, he lived in an abusive orphanage, endured physical and sexual abuse, and suffered from organic brain damage. Such traumatic experiences and injuries have been shown to profoundly affect a child’s development and subsequent behavior,” Sheedy wrote on behalf of the bishops.
DeSantis had issued an executive order May 22 to delay Owen’s execution in response to Owen’s attorneys’ statement that their client had been declared insane after a psychiatric evaluation.
One week later, DeSantis issued another executive order for Owen’s execution to proceed as planned after a panel of state-appointed psychiatrists established Owen’s mental competency.
The order said the psychiatrists had concluded: “Owen has the mental capacity to understand the nature of the death penalty and the reasons why it is to be imposed upon him.”
The Florida bishops recently condemned DeSantis, a Catholic, for signing a bill that would make it easier to impose the death penalty in the state. The bill eliminated the requirement of a unanimous jury when recommending a capital punishment sentence. The death penalty can now be imposed with only an 8-4 majority of the jury.
“As Florida persists in its implementation of the death penalty, the process should be as reliable and just as possible. Unanimity is required in every other circumstance when a jury is summoned in Florida. The harshest punishment that the state imposes should require the strictest standards,” the bishops said in an April 13 statement.
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).
The change reflects a development in Catholic doctrine in recent years. St. John Paul II called on 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.”