Archbishop at World Day Against Death Penalty webinar
Archbishop Jason Gordon has said that the issue of the death penalty is one of the “very troubling issues” that Caribbean countries still regard.
It is, however, clear, the Archbishop asserted, that capital punishment must be abolished, and the Church must be part of that conversation.
Archbishop Gordon shared this view during the 18th World Day Against Death Penalty webinar on Saturday, October 10, a day first organised by the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty in 2003 to advocate for the abolition of the death penalty and to raise awareness of the conditions and circumstances which affect prisoners with death sentences.
The event was hosted by Greater Caribbean for Life (GCL) an independent, not-for-profit civil society organisation, with a view to bring together all activists and organisations to work towards the permanent abolition of the death penalty.
Capital punishment remains in the legal system of 13 countries in the region. Since the Caribbean Court of Justice’s ruling in a case in Barbados in 2019 on the abolition of the mandatory death penalty, it is clear that when Barbados changes it law, Trinidad and Tobago will be the only country in the English-speaking Caribbean that retains the mandatory death penalty.
Archbishop Gordon was among the panellists which included local attorney Gregory Delzin, Antiguan and Barbudan attorney Dr David Dorsett, and Kevin Rivera-Medina, attorney, and president of the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty. Recording of the webinar here.
The moderator was Chair of the Catholic Commission for Social Justice (CCSJ) Leela Ramdeen, who is also the Chair of GCL.
Archbishop Gordon shared he never thought much of the death penalty until an encounter, while a seminarian, with some “zealous lawyers”, including young Delzin, who were challenging the State on the death penalty.
“And I remember being struck by it and trying to understand what was wrong with these guys. And as I mused over it more and more… It was understanding that there was something fundamentally wrong in our society… and the lack of due process on the one hand but laws that are so archaic that it needed to be challenged if we were going to become the society that we were called to become,” the Archbishop said.
The Archbishop remembered Archbishop Anthony Pantin being at court praying the rosary for a stay of execution. This he saw, was Archbishop Pantin being an “amazing prophetic witness” at a time where the Catholic Church “hadn’t quite clarified the issue”.
He recalled it was Archbishop Pantin who had requested his presence at the Royal Jail on Frederick Street, Port of Spain to “minister” to death row inmate Glen Ashby for his execution in 1994.
Reflecting on that day, the Archbishop commented that he realised he was part of a “state-sponsored murder”.
“And I can’t call it anything else. It was cold blooded. It was murder; it was the taking of a life. It was deliberate, and there was nothing inside of me that allowed me to put together the society we wanted to be with the act that I had been privy to as a priest and as a minister. And that to me was something that was irreconcilable.”
He continued, “That I could belong to a country that would deliberately, cold heartedly take a person’s life years after….in a way that was so callous…” the Archbishop said.
Local news reports stated that Ashby was “hurried” to the gallows around 6.30 a.m. Minutes later, word arrived that the Privy Council had granted the stay of execution.
The Church’s anti-death penalty position, the Archbishop said is emphasised in Pope John Paul’s II encyclical Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life (1995). It states that capital punishment should be avoided unless it is the only way to defend society from an offender in question.
The Antilles Episcopal Conference (AEC) Bishops, the Archbishop highlighted, issued two pastoral letters against capital punishment during the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy in 2016.
More recently, Pope Francis in his third encyclical Fratelli tutti, stressed that it is impossible to imagine that today’s States have no other means than capital punishment to protect the lives of the people from the unjust aggressors.
To this end, Archbishop Gordon asserted that Pope Francis has now closed the door on death penalty.
The Archbishop reiterated that every human person has an alienable dignity that is not dependent upon the actions of the person. It cannot be taken even when the person has done the most heinous of all crimes.
Therefore, any taking of life at any stage from natural conception to natural death, really must be fought against by all people of good will, Archbishop Gordon said.
By Kaelanne Jordan