Bishop Reflects on Death Penalty Following Execution

It wasn’t easy for Bishop R. Daniel Conlon to watch Michael Beuke lie strapped down on the gurney in the Lucasville death chamber last week.

“I was feeling a great sadness. A sadness for the tragic loss of life 27 years ago and the loss of life that day,” said Conlon, bishop of the Steubenville Catholic Diocese.

Beuke was executed Thursday at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility at Lucasville for the 1983 murder of Robert Craig and the shooting of two other men during a three-week string of shootings in the Cincinnati area. He was labeled by the news media at the time as the “homicidal hitchhiker” after receiving rides from his three victims.

The Associated Press reported Beuke said he committed the crimes because he needed $2,500 to hire an attorney to defend him on a drug trafficking charge and needed a stolen car to rob a bank for the money. Last-minute appeals based on his 27 years on Ohio’s death row and possible problems with the execution because of his prescription medication were rejected.

Conlon first met Beuke as a teenager in Cincinnati.

“Michael’s father was very active on the Catholic scouting committee. Michael was in his mid teens when I met him. He attended Catholic schools in Cincinnati. But I really didn’t know him,” Conlon recalled. “Bishop George Murry of the Youngstown Diocese mentioned to me at a meeting that Michael Beuke had known me from before and desired a visit with me. We did have some correspondence after he was initially incarcerated, but I had lost contact with him over the years.

“Twenty-seven years is a long time. But once his execution date was set, I felt a pastoral obligation to visit with him. So I started visiting him while he was on death row in the Youngstown state prison,” Conlon added. “A priest deals with lots of trying situations. We minister to people who are dying. But I was visiting with a perfectly healthy human being who had a fixed date with death. Neither of us could do anything about that except to prepare spiritually.”

Conlon, along with Murry and two Cincinnati diocesan priests who knew Beuke’s parents, traveled to Lucasville to serve as spiritual advisers to Beuke. The two bishops also served as witnesses to the execution at Beuke’s request.

Beuke was pronounced dead at 10:53 a.m. after a 17-minute “final statement” that included a Catholic prayer.

While on the gurney in the death chamber, Beuke looked directly at Susan Craig, the widow of Robert Craig, and at the children of an intended victim and apologized for all three shootings. He then delivered the longest final statement on record in the state, according to the AP.

“Michael was actually praying the Rosary. He prayed from the Apostles’ Creed through the Glorious Mysteries to the concluding prayer,” Conlon said.

After witnessing Beuke’s execution, Conlon said he remains opposed to the death penalty in Ohio.

“I am a Catholic and a Catholic priest, so I subscribe to the teachings of the Catholic Church. The church acknowledges the right of the state to punish people for their crimes, even punishment by death,” observed Conlon. “But even that ultimate punishment can only be used as a last resort if the state feels it can’t protect others. My sense is there are virtually no such situations existing in the state of Ohio. In accord with the teaching of our church, the death penalty should virtually never be imposed.

“As bishops, our role as teachers is to put forth the teachings of the church on this matter to our people. If we are speaking to elected officials on this matter or other moral issues, we do discuss the church’s teaching,” Conlon continued. “As far as I know, since I have been bishop there have been no legislative proposals in Ohio to modify the statutes pertaining to capital punishment … we as bishops would be very active in supporting measures to end the death penalty.”

Conlon also asserted that taking a life through capital punishment differs little from taking a life through a crime.

“Pope John Paul II talked about the dignity of life from conception to natural death. There are occasions when humans are tempted to take control by trying to create human life or denying it. Those are occasions when we are unwilling to stand humbly before God,” Conlon said.

“What Michael did 27 years ago was to take the place of God by ending someone’s life. Capital punishment, in effect, does the same thing.”