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75 Tampa Bay area religious leaders call for end to death penalty in wake of Harvard report

TAMPA — The names of those who signed the letter read like a who's who of the local religious community, with Catholics, Jews and various Protestant denominations represented.

There was James Favorite, the pastor of Beulah Baptist International Church. There was Betsy Torop of Congregation Beth Shalom in Brandon. There was Bishop Robert Lynch of the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg.

The three were among 75 Tampa Bay clergy members who urged Hillsborough and Pinellas prosecutors on Monday to put an end to the death penalty.

Addressed to Hillsborough State Attorney Mark Ober and Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, the letter referenced a report from Harvard's Fair Punishment Project, which found the two counties are among 16 in the nation that sentenced five or more people to death between 2010 and 2015. Researchers accused prosecutors in both counties of being overzealous in pursuit of capital punishment, and noted racial disparities and cases in which defendants had severe mental illness or intellectual disabilities.

"None of us deny the need for accountability and severe consequences for those guilty of grave crimes," the group stated. "At the same time, our criminal justice system must recognize the dignity of every person, and not close off hope and the possibility for redemption."

Nine Tampa Bay area pastors and priests carried the letter to a news conference in Joe Chillura Courthouse Square in downtown Tampa. They stood together to denounce capital punishment before delivering their missive to the State Attorney's Office.

Ober, in a statement, didn't directly address the demand from the clergy members but said his office would continue its practice of reviewing cases individually, while following the law as interpreted by courts.

McCabe and his chief assistant were both unavailable for comment Monday, his office said.

After the Harvard report was released, both Ober and McCabe defended the handling of death penalty cases by their respective offices. Both said the report was unfair and written in a manner that favored an anti-death penalty position.

Appearing at the news conference across the street from Ober's office were the Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches; the Rev. Dr. Bernice Powell Jackson of the First United Church of Tampa; Pastor Robert Schneider of St. Stephen Catholic Church in Valrico; Pastor Mel Harris of Destiny Baptist Church in Spring Hill and five other clergy who signed the letter.

"Right now, today, the time has come, the moment is here," Meyer said. "It is our opportunity as faith leaders and as people of good will from across the state of Florida and particularly Tampa Bay to say it's time to end the death penalty. It serves no public good."

Bishop Lynch, who leads Catholics in Tampa Bay and the north Suncoast, was among the most prominent names on the list. He signed the letter but could not attend Monday's gathering because he was out of the country, said Sabrina Schultz of the Diocese of St. Petersburg. The Catholic Church maintains an official stance against the death penalty.

Meyer, who recited a litany of moral and legal objections, noted the death penalty's effect even on victims' families, who are often subjected to years of legal wrangling before an execution.

"It's punitive to the families of the victims," Meyer said. "Why would we put families who are victims of horrendous crime through decades of emotional torture?"

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

75 Tampa Bay area religious leaders call for end to death penalty in wake of Harvard report 10/17/16 [Last modified: Monday, October 17, 2016 9:49pm]
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