NEW ORLEANS ––  A federal judge in Baton Rouge issued a stay of execution Feb. 7 for death-row inmate Christopher Sepulvado, who had been scheduled to be executed at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola on Ash Wednesday, Feb. 13.

The seven Catholic bishops of Louisiana had urged that the inmate be given a life sentence without possibility of parole.

U.S. District Judge James Brady imposed the stay because the Louisiana Department of Corrections, whose personnel would administer a lethal injection of pentobarbital, did not provide a written protocol of its "single-drug" method. His ruling could be appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

At a prayer service at the Notre Dame Seminary chapel in New Orleans Feb. 7, Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond of New Orleans told 150 laypeople and seminarians that while he was pleased to hear of the stay of execution, Sepulvado's fate appeared to rest on "technicalities."

"The execution of Christopher Sepulvado by the state has been postponed because of some technicalities regarding the drug and the information about the drug that will be used to put him to sleep — to execute him, to take his life," Archbishop Aymond said. "We ask God to speak loudly and clearly. We as Catholics cannot accept and can never accept the death penalty."

Sepulvado, 69, was convicted 20 years ago in the horrific death of his 6-year-old stepson, Wesley Allen Mercer, who was tortured in the days leading up to his death. Sepulvado has spent the past 20 years on death row.

Archbishop Aymond told those attending the prayer service that nothing ever could condone the crime Sepulvado committed and that he should remain in prison for the rest of his life. But he said the Catholic Church has taught clearly that while the death penalty might be allowed if it were the only way to protect society against an aggressor, those cases, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, are "very rare if practically nonexistent."

Archbishop Aymond acknowledged that the church's opposition to the death penalty is "a very hard teaching" for many people, including faithful Catholics, but he especially urged those in the pro-life community to embrace life from conception to natural death.

"Those of us who respect life from the moment of conception to natural death cannot play God and take life into our own hands," he said. "We must allow persons to change their lives and move toward repentance and salvation."

In a written statement Feb. 1, the seven Catholic bishops of Louisiana said Sepulvado had "expressed remorse for his actions while at the same time embracing his faith and ministering to his fellow inmates."

Sepulvado would be the first person from Louisiana older than 62 to be executed in the state since 1722. The previous execution in Louisiana was Jan. 7, 2010, when 47-year-old Gerald Bordelon, who hired an attorney to block any appeals that might have saved his life, was put to death at Angola.

The previous execution of a prisoner who fought the death penalty was May 10, 2002.

Archbishop Aymond said his experience in opposing the death penalty was sharpened when he was bishop of Austin, Texas, from 2001 to 2009.

"Texas is the death penalty capital of the world, not the United States, but the world," he said.

The archbishop said he met a Texas couple whose daughter had been raped and murdered, and for months their rage and anger directed toward the killer made any movement toward forgiveness impossible.

"After many months and years, they realized the rage and revenge and hatred were eating them alive," Archbishop Aymond said. "As they brought this to prayer, it was clear that God was calling them to change their hearts. They even went to court and specifically asked that he not be given the death penalty, that he be given life without parole."

Even more amazing was the pledge they made, he said. "They said as long as he lives — and he is still living — they would fast every Friday, not just during Lent, for his conversion."

The archbishop said he hoped to speak personally with Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, a Catholic, to ask him to block Sepulvado's execution. He also has asked Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, papal nuncio to the U.S., to request a personal letter from Pope Benedict XVI pleading with the state to cancel the execution.

The state's Catholic bishops had asked that Jindal, along with the Louisiana Parole/Pardon Board, halt Sepulvado's execution and specifically noted that the originally slated execution day on Ash Wednesday "would be inconsistent with the Lenten call for reconciliation and redemption and an unnecessary tragic irony."

Jindal's office told news outlets the governor had rejected the request from the state's Catholic bishops to stop the lethal injection.

Finney is executive editor/general manager of the Clarion Herald, newspaper of the New Orleans Archdiocese.