Part of my job in leading Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN), the national Catholic organization working to end the death penalty and promote restorative justice, is closely following each and every execution scheduled in the U.S. My role — as advocate, educator, and mobilizer — is about creating opportunities for Catholics to learn about the failed system of capital punishment and to engage in ending it.
Our work to end the death penalty is intimately entwined with human lives. To do it with integrity means listening to the stories and testimonies of these individuals to see them for who they are, beyond their “mugshot” or media headlines. Most often, these stories are conveyed from trusted ministers and chaplains.
What I learn from these trusted colleagues proximate to death row always touches me deeply. It’s not lost on me what is at stake in their ministry.
I remember the exact moment that I learned that Darryl Barwick had been executed by the state of Florida on May 3, 2023. Even before the media sent out their tweets and articles announcing that Darryl had been killed by lethal injection, I received a text message from my friend Fr. Dustin Feddon, who ministered to Darryl while he was on death row. He was there when Darryl took his final breath.
As his spiritual advisor, Fr. Dustin accompanied Darryl to his execution, providing him comfort, reminding him of his God-given dignity.
His presence in that moment was invaluable — to Darryl, I’m certain, but also to me and countless others.
Those who come into contact with the criminal legal system know that it dehumanizes, disenfranchises, and demoralizes. People who experience poverty and mental illness, victims of abuse, and people of color are overrepresented on death row and throughout our carceral system. This creates a critical need for prison, jail, reentry, and detention ministers — those willing to bear witness to the suffering wrought by this system, and prepared to accompany people through it.
I’m looking forward to participating in “Restored by Compassion: Given & Received,” a national virtual conference hosted by the Catholic Prison Ministry Coalition this December. CPMC has been an incredible national convener of prison ministers, chaplains, and criminal justice advocates and allies alike, with the goal of building relationships and learning from one another. CMN is a proud conference sponsor and an ongoing CPMC collaborator.
As the conference approaches, my mind goes back to Fr. Dustin, and the evil that he witnessed that night in May when Darryl’s life was taken.
Fr. Dustin’s presence assured Darryl that he was not alone. His presence reminded those conducting the execution that Darryl was a person who was known and loved. And his presence gave those of us advocating against his execution a glimpse into the transformed life of Darryl Barwick before his life was snuffed out by state-sanctioned execution.
I will always be grateful for the gift of presence that Fr. Dustin gave that night. Not every prison chaplain ministers to people on death row. Just the same, I have a heart full of gratitude for the generosity and faithful presence prison ministers across the country offer to people on the inside every single day.
Our Catholic social teaching principles call upon us to advance a vision of justice that upholds human dignity, so that the journey of healing might begin.
I’m thankful that the December conference will allow for a holy space to find solidarity, share experiences, and draw together from the faith spring that grounds us for the work we know lies ahead.
Krisanne Vaillancourt Murphy serves as the executive director of Catholic Mobilizing Network (CMN) where she oversees the organization’s strategic direction and priorities while empowering a talented and growing staff. In partnership with the board and staff, she has developed the last two comprehensive strategic plans which include an emphasis on partnerships, growth initiatives, and broadening CMN’s impact.