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Supreme Court overturns death penalty for man with intellectual disability

Washington D.C., Feb 19, 2019 / 03:29 pm ().- In a ruling released Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the death penalty sentence of a Texas inmate whom the court found to be intellectually disabled.

The Catholic Mobilizing Network applauded the court’s decision, saying it “parallels a growing consensus among the American public that the death penalty is falling out of favor.”

“It is encouraging to see that even in Texas, one of the last strongholds for capital punishment in the U.S., executions like this will no longer be tolerated,” CMN's Executive Director, Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy said in a Feb. 19 statement.

“Though Texas accounts for 13 of last year’s 25 executions, in the years since Bobby James Moore was sentenced to death, we have seen a growing number of TX District Attorneys pledging to seek the death penalty less frequently.”

In a 6-3 decision, the Supreme Court found that “on the basis of the trial court record, Moore has shown he is a person with intellectual disability.”

Bobby James Moore had been convicted in 1980 – and again in 2001 on a retrial – of robbing a convenience store and killing an employee. He was given a death sentence.

A state habeas court, however, said that Moore met the clinical criteria for being intellectually disabled – which would exempt someone from execution under the Eighth Amendment, as the Supreme Court had ruled in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002.

With Moore, the habeas court used the standard “three-prong” test to determine intellectual disability, which is part of the clinical consensus on the matter, the Supreme Court found.

This test looked for “intellectual functioning deficits,” or an IQ score of around 70 adjusted for error; “adaptive functioning deficits”; and whether these deficits began to show when the person was still a minor.

A Texas criminal appeals court, however, disregarded five of Moore’s seven IQ scores that factored into the habeas court’s ruling, keeping only scores of 74 and 78 that Moore received in 1989 and 1973, respectively, and “discounted the lower end of the standard-error range associated with those scores,” as the Supreme Court’s opinion noted.

The appeals court ruled that according to an earlier medical standard of intellectual disability – which was in place before Moore was convicted in his 2001 re-trial – as well as according to the state’s “Briseno factors” test, Moore was eligible for the death penalty.

The Briseno factors test is a standard used by Texas in addition to the three-pronged standard for disability. The test includes questions like whether someone is able to lie, and if their neighbors thought they were disabled as a child. Critics have insisted that these factors are non-clinical.

Critics also note that the Briseno factors are not used to determine one’s eligibility for other state programs like social services. They have been used to deem others in Texas fit for the death penalty, including in 2012 a man who scored a 61 on an IQ test.

Moore’s case was eventually appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 5-3 decision in 2017, the Court overturned the criminal appeals court’s decision, saying the Briseno factors were outside of the clinical consensus means of evaluating one’s mental capacity and adding that the appeals court strayed from Supreme Court precedent in its decision.

The Supreme Court told the lower court to reassess Moore’s eligibility for the death penalty using the updated standards. The appeals court reconsidered the case but again concluded the Moore was eligible for the death penalty.

However, the Supreme Court said Tuesday that the appeals court demonstrated “too many instances in which, with small variations, it repeats the analysis we previously found wanting, and these same parts are critical to its ultimate conclusion.”

“We conclude that the appeals court’s opinion, when taken as a whole and when read in the light both of our prior opinion and the trial court record, rests upon analysis too much of which too closely resembles what we previously found improper,” the Supreme Court found. “And extricating that analysis from the opinion leaves too little that might warrant reaching a different conclusion than did the trial court.”

Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch dissented from the majority ruling, saying that the Supreme Court had not been clear in stating how lower courts should apply standards for evaluating intellectual disability. They said the role of the Supreme Court was to consider the standards used by lower courts, not to review factual findings of a particular case.

In their response to the ruling, the Catholic Mobilizing Network said they “continue to pray for Bobby James Moore’s victim, James McCarble, and his family,” and encouraged Catholics to defend all human life.

“As a Church, we are called to the work of building a culture of life that upholds human dignity,” Murphy said. “Catholics should pay attention to death penalty cases before the Supreme Court such as this one, because they serve as important measures of how the highest court in the land is working to defend or disregard human life.”

 

Assisted suicide threatens the entire medical profession, Maryland doctor warns

Baltimore, Md., Feb 19, 2019 / 01:14 pm ().- Assisted suicide contradicts the foundations of medical ethics, violates the basic standards of medical care, and threatens people who most need the assistance of the medical profession, warned a doctor who is opposing Maryland’s proposal to legalize the practice.

“If we allow this form of euthanasia into our health care system, it will inevitably corrode and destroy the values that define the health professions and lead to public trust in them,” said Dr. Joseph Marine, a Maryland cardiologist. “No one will be immune to its long-term corrosive and destructive effects on the health care system.”

Marine is a professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine who has practiced medicine for close to 20 years. He is also a member of the coalition Maryland Against Physician Assisted Suicide.

His Feb. 18 essay in the Baltimore Sun made a case against a proposal in the state legislature to legalize assisted suicide.

“Physician-assisted suicide is not medical care,” Marine said. “It has no basis in medical science or medical tradition. It is not taught in medical schools or residency training programs.” The drug combinations used to end patients’ lives “come from the euthanasia movement and not from the medical profession or medical research.”

The doctor warned that “patients will not trust physicians who prescribe death.”

Laws permitting assisted suicide create a new class of “human beings denied the protection of the law” and hinders the work of medical professionals who are “committed to preserving rather than taking life,” he said.

Marine’s commentary followed the introduction of the “End-of-Life Option Act” in both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly earlier this year, listed as House Bill 399 and Senate Bill 311.

If passed, the bill would permit doctors to prescribe lethal medications to patients with a terminal illness and an estimated six months left to live, while protecting prescribing doctors from prosecution. The bill would supersede a 1999 ban on assisted suicide.

The proposal is supported by Compassion and Choices, an Oregon-based group formerly known as the Hemlock Society, which advocates for assisted suicide.

Delegate Shane Pendergrass, a Democrat from Howard County who chairs the Health and Government Operations Committee is again sponsoring the bill after previous years’ versions were withdrawn before being voted down.

“Every person is one bad death away from supporting this bill,” she said. “Many of us have been there and many of us are on the way to another one of those.”

Pendergrass said she believes the bill can pass this year, the Baltimore Sun reported. The legislation has a new co-sponsor, Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee vice-chairman Sen. Will Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat.

For Marine, physician-assisted suicide is a dangerous practice, with promised safeguards “an illusion.”

“Suicidal impulses of everyone else in society are treated with crisis intervention,” said Marine, who argued that patients who qualify for legal assisted suicide are denied such intervention and are “tacitly or explicitly encouraged to take their own lives.”

He objected to the lack of required formal psychiatric evaluation and minimal informed consent for a patient seeking assisted suicide. No witnesses are required for the consumption of the lethal drugs, and legal assisted suicide proposal lacks routine audits and impartial third-party oversight.

“In addition, physicians and other participants are given broad legal immunity and records are excluded from legal discovery or subpoena. There is no accountability,” Marine said in his Baltimore Sun essay.

In practice, assisted suicide means prescribing a non-FDA-approved lethal overdose of a drug or drugs to a person “believed to have a terminal illness.”

In Washington state, doctors experimenting with new physician-assisted suicide drug cocktails caused some patients to scream in pain before dying, said Marine, who cited a Kaiser Health News report published Feb. 16, 2017 in USA Today.

The lack of medical witnesses for 80 percent of patient deaths in assisted suicide means it is unknown whether complications took place.

Marine said assisted suicide advocates make false assumptions about the reliability of a terminal medical prognosis. Some patients who received a prescription for assisted suicide drugs, but did not use it, continued living for several years.

In practice, doctors are unable to determine whether a patient considered “terminal” has six months to live with “sufficient reliability,” Marine said. This means some patients would die needlessly.

The “vast majority” of doctors will not take part in assisted suicide, he added. Where it is legalized, almost all prescriptions are “written by a small handful of doctors who may know little about the patients requesting it.”

After the District of Columbia legalized doctor-assisted suicide in 2017, only two of the 11,000 licensed physicians signed up to prescribe the relevant drugs, Marine reported.

Marine cited opposition to physician-assisted suicide from the American Medical Association, the American College of Physicians, the American Nurses Association, the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization and the World Medical Association. Almost all disability rights organizations also oppose the practice.

Doctor-assisted suicide has led to wider forms of euthanasia in every country that has legalized it, he said.

Marine praised Maryland’s palliative and hospice care, saying its programs are recognized as among the best in the country. He said support for these programs should be the primary focus of the state legislature, and not assisted suicide.

Maryland’s latest assisted suicide bill is the fourth proposal in five years. Similar bills were introduced in 2015, 2016 and 2017 but were withdrawn before they could be voted down.

The legislation has also drawn opposition from the Maryland Catholic Conference, the Maryland Psychiatric Society and Baltimore City Medical Society.

“As Catholics we stand firm with our partners across the state to strongly oppose this legislation,” Jennifer Briemann, executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference, said Feb. 1.

“Our state has repeatedly rejected this group’s agenda and with good reason: assisted-suicide threatens Maryland’s most vulnerable, putting those with disabilities, the elderly, our veterans, and those battling prescription drug addiction at grave risk,” she said.

Assisted suicide is legal in seven U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

 

Bishops ask Supreme Court to hear case on racism in death sentencing

Atlanta, Ga., Feb 19, 2019 / 03:27 am ().- Three U.S. bishops have called on the Supreme Court to take up the case of a death row inmate in Georgia whose sentence may have been prejudiced by the racism of a juror.

“There is no toxin more pernicious than hatred based on racial stereotypes,” the bishops warned in a Feb. 17 opinion piece in The Atlantic.

They said that despite some progress in overcoming racism, it still exists in America today.

“Whenever personal prejudices surface in a trial, society relies on appellate courts and especially the Supreme Court to rectify these biases.”

The opinion piece in The Atlantic was written by Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Atlanta; Bishop Frank Dewane of Venice, Florida, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development; and Bishop Shelton Fabre of Houma-Thibodaux, Louisiana, chairman of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism.

The bishops pointed to the case of Keith Tharpe, who was convicted in 1990 of two counts of kidnapping and the murder of his sister-in-law, Jacquelyn Freeman.

Tharpe was scheduled to be executed in September 2017. The Supreme Court intervened with a temporary stay of execution just hours before the inmate was set to be put to death. The Supreme Court ordered a federal appeals court in Atlanta to re-examine the claim that one juror’s racist views had prejudiced the case. In an affidavit after the trial, the juror had used racial slurs and said he “wondered if black people even have souls.”

The appeals court barred Tharpe’s appeal on procedural grounds and ruled that the Supreme Court’s 2017 opinion allowing courts to consider evidence of jurors’ racial prejudice could not be retroactively applied to Tharpe’s case.

Now, Tharpe has asked the Supreme Court to consider the merits of his case - to examine whether the inmate was unconstitutionally sentenced to death based on the racism of a juror. The Supreme Court has yet to announce whether it will take up the case.

Since there is clear evidence that racism may have played a part in Tharpe’s sentence, the bishops said, the Supreme Court should take up the case and “correct the clear, documented racism in the case by granting him a new sentencing hearing.”

Last November, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops released a pastoral letter recognizing the stain of racism on the history of the United States and reaffirming the importance of fighting the sin of racism today.

The letter, entitled “Open Wide Our Hearts – The Enduring Call to Love,” stressed that racism is a failure to recognize human dignity.

“In our pastoral letter, we explain that racism comes in many forms—and one of them is the sin of omission,” the bishops said in the opinion piece for The Atlantic.

“This occurs when individuals, communities, and even churches remain silent and fail to act against racial injustice when it is encountered. To do justice requires an honest acknowledgment of our failures and the restoring of right relationships among us. That’s why we are speaking out about Tharpe’s case.”

Archbishop Gregory, Bishop Dewane, and Bishop Fabre offered prayers for Freeman – Tharpe’s victim – and her family.

They also noted that the Catechism teaches that the death penalty is as inadmissible violation of human dignity, even for those who have committed violent crimes.

“As bishops, we take very seriously Jesus’s call to visit those in prison,” they said. “We have visited prisoners, including those on death row. In most parishes with prisons or jails, a priest or deacon visits every week to offer religious services.”

“We have been blessed to witness true rehabilitation and meet prisoners who earnestly seek redemption through God’s grace.”

The bishops emphasized their duty as religious leader to insist that racism be challenged on the grounds that “we are all brothers and sisters, equally made in the image of God.”

“The U.S. Supreme Court must intervene in his case to ensure that fairness is protected and justice is defended—before it’s too late,” they said. “To do nothing would be tragic not only for Tharpe, but for our collective dignity.”

 

Emergency declaration raises new questions about Texas border chapel

Brownsville, Texas, Feb 18, 2019 / 01:00 pm (CNA).- President Donald Trump’s declaration of a national emergency on the southern border has again raised the possibility of a barrier being constructed through La Lomita Historical Park, blocking access to an historic chapel on the site.

 

A recent congressional funding compromise allocated more than a billion dollars for border barrier construction, but expressly forbid the use of appropriated funds to construct a barrier through La Lomita and a handful of other locations. But the president’s subsequent moves to access other sources of funding for the project have raised questions about the effectiveness of the site’s congressional protection.

 

La Lomita Historical Park is a small park located in Mission, Texas, which contains the La Lomita Chapel, built in 1865. The chapel is owned by the Diocese of Brownsville and administered by the nearby Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church. If the border wall were to be constructed as planned, the chapel would be located on the southern side of the wall and would be much harder to access by the wider community.

 

On Feb. 15, President Trump signed the Consolidated Appropriations Act into law, which included the stipulation that “none of the funds made available by this Act or prior Acts are available for the construction of pedestrian fencing” or any other barrier in La Lomita Historical Park.

 

That bill allocated $1.3 billion in funding for the border wall, far short of the $5.7 billion Trump had requested.

 

The same day Trump signed the bill into law, he declared a national emergency along the southern border and invoked the National Emergencies Act. The declaration is expected to grant Trump access to the remainder of the funds he had requested to build a border wall, plus further additional funding.

 

With the national emergency declaration, it is now uncertain if the exclusion of the La Lomita site and the other locations specifically mentioned in the bill remains intact, as the emergency funding may not be subject to the same spending restrictions as the money allocated by Congress.

 

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal cited a senior administration official who claimed that the White House considers the restrictions in the appropriations bill only to apply to the $1.3 billion it allocated by Congress, and not to the additional money accessed by the emergency declaration.

 

A source familiar with the case told CNA that there is no clear precedent to determine whether or not the emergency funds can be used to build in La Lomita Historical Park.

 

The source told CNA that an argument could be made that, by including the exemption in the appropriations bill, Congress had prohibited the use of any funds for border wall construction in those specific places, and that any attempt by the administration to build in the exempted areas would be highly contentious.

 

Shortly after the emergency declaration was announced, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced he would be filing suit against the Trump Administration to dispute whether the current situation on the U.S.-Mexico border constitutes an emergency.

 

The Diocese of Brownsville has been contesting the possible construction of a border wall near La Lomita Chapel for months.

 

Earlier in February, a federal judge ruled against the diocese, who had argued that allowing the government to survey the land around the chapel to determine its suitability for a wall was a violation of religious freedom. The judge ruled that the act of surveying land did not require or impede access to the chapel or the exercise of religious liberty.

 

Lawyers representing the Diocese of Brownsville told CNA that they were not surprised by this decision, but felt as though they would have a stronger case if the construction of the wall were to move forward and cut off worshippers’ access to La Lomita Chapel.

 

In response to the passage of the appropriations act and the declaration of emergency by the president, Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville released a statement to CNA calling the congressional exemptions “commendable” given the “the significance of the La Lomita chapel to the Catholic community” and to the history of the region.

 

Flores then said that he would be praying that those charged with planning any construction  would use prudence in making their decisions.

 

“I pray that in the days to come a spirit of good will and good judgment will animate all of our national leaders as they make decisions that affect daily life in our local communities along the Border,” Flores said.

Catholic Charities unveils plan to fight chronic homelessness in Southern Nevada

Las Vegas, Nev., Feb 17, 2019 / 04:48 pm (CNA).- As part of a new nationwide program, Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada is hoping to reduce chronic homelessness in the area by 20 percent in the next five years.

Las Vegas is one of five cities taking part in the Healthy Housing Initiative – a partnership announced Feb. 13 between Catholic Charities USA, local Catholic Charities and Catholic health care agencies. Detroit, Portland, St. Louis, and Spokane are also part of the initiative.

Deacon Thomas Roberts, president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Southern Nevada, said the partnership simultaneously tackles shelter issues and the root problems beneath many cases of chronic homelessness – mental health and addiction.

“We think that it’s important to recognize the reasons why people have become chronically homeless and to address those issues,” he told CNA. “I think that is where we can have really meaningful change.”

Within five years, the project hopes to have built 100 homes, in either one or two buildings. Roberts said this will be enough to support 20 percent of the just over 500 chronically homeless individuals surveyed to be in south Nevada. He explained that the chronically homeless are those who have been homeless for at least two years.

The initiative does not stop with housing development. Instead, it includes plans to develop mental health offices in the housing units or transportation to a location off campus.

“Often, because [homeless people] don’t have transportation, if you don’t bring the resources close to them or provide them access to get to resources, you have got them housed but you have not addressed the underlying cause of what got them homeless,” Roberts said.

Having worked for Catholic Charities for six years, Roberts has witnessed homeless people continue to abuse alcohol and drugs as they struggle with mental health issues. This creates additional obstacles for people during their rehabilitation, he said.

He also pointed to the 2018 housing survey from Help Hope Home, which found that out of 16,641 cases of homelessness last year, nearly half were linked to mental health or addiction.

“Half of the people are stepping up and saying that mental health and addiction are primary cause for homelessness,” he said.

“If you don’t address that along the way, then people get into housing and they fall right back into…where they started.”

Roberts said the partnership will unite the strengths of three different organizations: Catholic Charities USA offers institutional and financial resources; Dignity Health can implement mental health and addiction programs; and the local Catholic Charities branch understands the regional community and can execute programs accordingly.

The initiative is a practical implementation of social justice, rooted in faith, he said, pointing to Pope Francis’ emphasis on caring for the vulnerable.

“As the Pope would say, we should be medics and we should smell like the sheep,” said Roberts. “Homelessness, mental illness, and addictions are ground zero for hopelessness, so it’s exactly where the Church belongs.”