Anti-death penalty activist says she wrestled with issue and ‘God won’

People hold a banner and signs on the steps of the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta during a 2011 vigil for a Georgia death-row inmate before his execution. (CNS file/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)

People hold a banner and signs on the steps of the Georgia Capitol in Atlanta during a 2011 vigil for a Georgia death-row inmate before his execution. (CNS file/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)

By Carol Zimmermann
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — Marietta Jaeger-Lane has faced the death penalty issue head-on.

In 1973, when her 7-year-old daughter was kidnapped during a family camping trip in Montana and murdered by her captor, the mother of five said she would have killed the person who did it with her “bare hands.”

“But my Catholic faith calls me to something different,” she said, explaining how she came to a change her opinion on the death penalty, which she likened to a “wrestling match where God won.”

Jaeger-Lane, speaking to reporters in a May 11  press call officially launching the National Catholic Pledge to End the Death Penalty, said most people have “a gut level response to acts of extreme violence, but when they are educated on the reality of the death penalty, they begin to rethink their position.”

She told reporters that her daughter’s kidnapper called her a year to the day of the kidnapping and was arrested soon after, but she asked the prosecutor for the alternative sentence of mandatory life without parole. Only when the kidnapper was offered that, she said, was he willing to confess to the murders of three children, including her daughter Susie, and a 19-year-old.

For decades, Jaeger-Lane, who forgave her daughter’s killer, has spoken out against the death penalty, urging people to see that capital punishment does not bring the closure or healing that victims’ families are seeking. She said it also denies the criminals the chance for the “mercy of God working in their lives.”

She said she signed the anti-death penalty pledge, sponsored by Catholic Mobilizing Network, because she believes “the Catholic community can be the one to end the death penalty.”

She also is convinced there is more Catholics can do, stressing that she would like to hear priests speak out against the death penalty as they do against abortion as a pro-life issue. She also pointed out that many parishes have prison ministries — noting that she is part of a ministry that visits a prison every week — but she thinks there needs to be more of an outreach of support for victims’ families.

They need to be listened to in their desire for revenge, she said.

Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, who also took part in the press call, similarly urged the church to take up the “ministry of accompaniment” to support victims’ families.

The bishop, who signed the pledge May 9, stressed that its key components call people to be educated on the death penalty, advocate against it and pray for it to end.

He said Catholic bishops have spoken out for decades against the death penalty, stressing that the “human dignity in every human being must be respected.”

The idea for the pledge campaign began in January, said Catholic Mobilizing Network executive director Karen Clifton. She said Arkansas’ bid to execute eight death-row prisoners in a 10-day span in April — four were ultimately put to death — “exacerbated the situation and showed it as a very live example of who we are executing and the reasons why the system is so broken.”

The pledge campaign is supported in part by a $50,000 grant from the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Communication Campaign. It can be signed here: https://catholicsmobilizing.org/action/pledge.

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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