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Pope Asks Virginia to Stop Execution Scheduled for Thursday

Pope Asks Virginia to Stop Execution Scheduled for Thursday
Photograph by Andrew Propp.

The Holy See is asking Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe to block the execution of a convicted serial killer who could be put to death Thursday night pending a hearing tomorrow, Catholic officials in Virginia tell Washingtonian. The Apostolic Nunciature to the United States—the Vatican’s equivalent of an embassy—sent a McAuliffe a letter on Pope Francis‘s behalf urging the governor to spare the life of Alfredo Prieto.

Prieto, 49, is convicted of the 1988 slaying of a young couple in Reston, and was scheduled to be executed tomorrow at 9 PM until a federal judge ordered a stay pending a hearing into how Virginia acquired the drugs that would be used in the lethal-injection procedure. Virginia officials recently bought three vials of pentobarbital, one of the chemicals used in the fatal cocktail death-row inmates receive, from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to replace an expiring supply of midazolam, the Associated Press reported last week. States where capital punishment is on the books have had trouble acquiring some of the drugs used in lethal injection as drug manufactures have resisted selling their products knowing they will be used for such purposes.

Judge Anthony Trenga of US District Court in Richmond issued a temporary stay of execution for Prieto pending a hearing tomorrow at 2 PM to determine if Virginia’s acquisition of the pentobarbital was conducted properly. State officials have been reticent to disclose many crucial details of the purchase, including the name of the manufacturer, its potency, and whether it was packaged and shipped safely.

Prieto is unlikely to earn any sympathy during the hearing, even with his claims of an intellectual disability. And if Trenga turns down his appeal, he could still be executed Thursday night. Besides the Reston murders of 22-year-old Rachael A. Raver and Warren H. Fulton III, Prieto has been connected through evidence to two more killings in Virginia and five in California. Authorities also believe Prieto raped several female victims, including Raver, as they died. Prieto was already on death row in California when he was charged with and convicted of killing Raver and Fulton.

But the scheduled execution presents political and religious tests for McAuliffe, a practicing Catholic who has said he is personally opposed to the death penalty. The letter from Vatican officials comes shortly after one signed by bishops Paul Loverde and Francis DiLorenzo of the dioceses of Arlington and Richmond, respectively, that asked McAuliffe to commute Prieto’s death sentence.

Jeff Caruso, executive director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, says it is “standard practice” for the bishops to send the governor a letter when an execution is scheduled, but the message from Francis underlines the church’s push. During his address last week to a joint session of Congress, the pontiff called for an end to capital punishment.

The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development,” Francis said. “This conviction has led me, from the beginning of my ministry, to advocate at different levels for the global abolition of the death penalty.”

Prieto would be the first death-row inmate to die under McAuliffe, who is Virginia’s third consectuive Catholic governor. Bob McDonnell presided over five executions, while McAuliffe’s fellow Democrat, Tim Kaine, presided over 11 during his four-year term. Despite McAuliffe’s personal concerns, he has shown no effort to overturn Virginia’s death penalty, which has executed 110 prisoners since being reinstated in 1982, the third-most of any state.

McAuliffe also backed the passage of a bill earlier this year that allows state corrections officials to keep secret information about the sources and handling of the drugs used in lethal injections—exactly what is being challenged in tomorrow’s hearing.

“As governor, he was elected to uphold the laws of the commonwealth,” says McAuliffe’s communications director, Brian Coy. “I think this [law] is an extension of that.”

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Staff Writer

Benjamin Freed joined Washingtonian in August 2013 and covers politics, business, and media. He was previously the editor of DCist and has also written for Washington City Paper, the New York Times, the New Republic, Slate, and BuzzFeed. He lives in Adams Morgan.