LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Pope Benedict XVI and four Catholic bishops in Kentucky asked Gov. Steve Beshear on Thursday to commute the death sentence of an inmate set to be executed Sept. 16.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville presented Beshear with a letter Thursday written on the Pope’s behalf by Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the papal nuncio to the United States. It asks that 53-year-old Gregory L. Wilson not be executed because of questions about Wilson’s mental status.
Beshear met with Kurtz and representatives of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky on Thursday, one week before Wilson’s scheduled lethal injection at the Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville.
Wilson was sentenced to death 22 years ago for the kidnapping, rape and murder of 36-year-old Deborah Pooley in northern Kentucky in 1987. A co-defendant in the case, Brenda Humphrey, is serving life in prison.
Diocese of Owensboro Bishop William Medley, who didn’t attend the meeting, said in a statement that Wilson has converted to Catholicism while on death row. The bishop also paid a visit to Wilson last week and said the inmate spoke of his faith and understands he may die soon.
“I am saddened to think of Gregory’s death at the hands of the state,” said Medley, whose diocese includes the prison.
Beshear’s office had no immediate comment on Thursday’s meeting.
Papal intervention in an American execution case is unusual but not unheard of. Pope Benedict XVI sent similar letters earlier this year to the governors of Florida and Georgia, opposing putting inmates there to death.
Meanwhile, a judge in Frankfort is weighing whether to stop Wilson’s execution. Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd heard arguments Wednesday that the state’s lethal injection protocol wasn’t adopted properly and is incomplete because it fails to address several key issues.
Shepherd said he planned to issue a ruling by week’s end.
Wilson was moved Friday morning from death row to a holding cell in the building where the execution would take place.
“We wait and we pray and hope,” said Robert Castagna, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky. “We’re prayerfully optimistic.”
The letter from the Vatican doesn’t mention specifics of Wilson’s case. Instead, it asks Beshear to heed the Catholic church’s call for the abolition of the death penalty. The family of crime victims suffer, Sambi wrote, so the request isn’t made lightly.
“This request for clemency is a heartfelt call for mercy beyond the strict confines of justice,” Sambi wrote.
The Catholic Conference and the bishops, though, focused on questions about whether Wilson is mentally retarded and the fact that no court has made a determination one way or another. A Kenton Circuit judge recently declined to grant Wilson a hearing on the issue, saying there’s insufficient evidence of mental retardation to warrant a hearing.
The Kentucky Supreme Court is considering an appeal of that ruling filed by Wilson’s lawyers.
Kentucky has a shortage of sodium thiopental, a key drug used in lethal injections.
Beshear signed the warrant for Wilson because his was the oldest of a trio of cases the Attorney General the attorney requested death warrants for. The state has executed three people since 1976, the last one taking place in 2008.
Executions in Kentucky have come under fire in recent years, with a challenge to lethal injection going to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld the three-drug method in 2007. Inmates have also challenged the way the protocol was adopted in May.
Castagna said Beshear was “most cordial” during the 25-minute meeting. The group asked Beshear to consider the facts of the case and an ongoing American Bar Association study of the death penalty in Kentucky before deciding Wilson’s case.
“He does not appear to be a current threat to society. Wouldn’t it be the prudent thing to do to stay the execution?” Castagna asked. “We pray for the governor. This is not an easy decision to make.”