McVeigh execution a catalyst for nun's 'Declaration of Life'

Posted: Friday, May 11, 2001

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) -- Publicity surrounding Timothy McVeigh's scheduled execution is generating renewed interest in an anti-death penalty document already signed by thousands.

The so-called Declaration of Life has a simple message: If I'm murdered, don't execute my killer.

Sister Camille D'Arienzo, a Roman Catholic nun from Brooklyn, N.Y., started the group in 1993 that is responsible for distributing the Declaration of Life.

Any time there's an increase in public discussion about the death penalty, she said, more people sign the declaration.

''Every couple of years something happens and it starts up again, like a big forest fire,'' D'Arienzo said.

The latest catalyst is McVeigh, convicted in the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people. He is scheduled to die by lethal injection on May 16 at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute.

The Declaration of Life document declares that capital punishment is wrong at any time. If the signee is murdered, it requests that the judge not sentence the killer to death.

''People are sick to death of the killing,'' said D'Arienzo, who was not aware of any signer who was later murdered.

Those who sign the two-page declaration, she said, feel in control because it ''relieves the signer of absolute powerlessness'' over the death penalty.

Paul Stevens of Dawson Springs, Ky., whose daughter was murdered in Evansville in 1969, is one of at least 1,500 people who have signed it in recent months.

Stevens, who now works as a prison minister to death row inmates at a state penitentiary in Eddyville, Ky., signed it while attending a speech Feb. 26 by Cardinal Francis George, the archbishop of Chicago.

George spoke in opposition to executing McVeigh, reflecting the Roman Catholic church's opposition to capital punishment.

''I just think people need to let others know how they feel and for what reason, and it does that,'' Stevens said. ''I would've signed it a long time ago if it would've been available because I don't believe in the death penalty.''

Sister Joan Slobig, a nun based in Terre Haute who recently signed the declaration, said doing so is a very personal experience. The document has been distributed to the 600 members of her order, the Sisters of Providence.

''It certainly makes you face the possibility of violence in your own life and deal with the feelings that that generates within you,'' Slobig said.

Since 1998, D'Arienzo has been a spiritual adviser to David Paul Hammer, an inmate incarcerated in the Terre Haute prison. He's on death row for strangling his cellmate in 1996 while in Pennsylvania's Allenwood Federal Penitentiary.

From within the prison in Terre Haute, Hammer was received into the Catholic church by Indianapolis Archbishop Daniel Buechlein and received his first communion last fall with D'Arienzo by his side. Hammer has had three stays of execution; no execution date has been set.

D'Arienzo and Hammer correspond weekly and also have regular phone conversations, D'Arienzo said. Hammer is also visited weekly by a nun from the Sisters of Providence.

An article D'Arienzo wrote about Hammer and the Declaration of Life published Feb. 19 in America, a weekly Catholic magazine, prompted many to seek out a copy of the declaration, she said.

Those who sign the declaration are asked to trim a portion of it off and send it -- along with $1 -- to Cherish Life Circle, D'Arienzo's group. In return, they receive a wallet-size card, making it clear they have made the declaration.

Because not everyone mails in the trimmed part, it's difficult to gauge the true number of signees, D'Arienzo said. About 10,000 have sent the stub to Cherish Life Circle, but D'Arienzo estimates 20 to 30 times more people have signed it.

The declaration has been signed by actors Susan Sarandon and Martin Sheen, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, whose husband was killed by a gunman on a New York commuter train.


On the Net: Sisters of Mercy in Brooklyn, N.Y.,:

National Coalition Against the Death Penalty:

America, a national weekly Catholic publication:

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