In early July, the Nebraska Supreme Court issued an Aug. 14 execution date for Carey Dean Moore.
Moore, 60, has been sitting on death row for nearly four decades. It was 1979 when he killed two Omaha cabdrivers five days apart, and in 1980 he was sentenced to death for these crimes.
I’ve met Carey, and I’ve corresponded with him recently. So it was with no small sense of irony that I noted that on the day after his death warrant was set, July 6, we observed the feast of St. Maria Goretti.
When I was a child, the nuns who taught me held up Maria Goretti as an example, reaffirming that she, at only 11 years old, died to maintain her purity.
If this young Italian girl could die to preserve her virginity, it was strongly suggested, we girls could certainly develop a healthy respect for our own.
In this era of #MeToo, Maria Goretti does stand out as an apt example of a female victim of brutal assault and attempted rape. Stabbed 14 times, she died a horrendously painful death following surgery without anesthesia. Throughout her ordeal, she remained courageous and prayerful.
But it was only when I was older that I realized the standout theme of Maria’s martyrdom was not sex. It was mercy.
Goretti and her murderer were both members of a poverty-stricken, illiterate Italian underclass. When her father died, Maria’s mother assumed his role in the fields alongside the other children as they eked out a subsistence income.
Maria kept the house running. So, her attacker, Alessandro Serenelli, almost 20, knew she was alone and had previously made advances before the day that her resistance resulted in her cruel death.
On her deathbed, she forgave Serenelli. He was sentenced to 30 years in prison, where he was a vicious prisoner until the night Maria Goretti came to him in a dream. From that moment on, he became a changed man, a man who accepted the forgiveness that was offered him by Goretti and, most importantly, by God.
Upon his early release from prison, he begged forgiveness from Goretti’s mother, who granted it. Serenelli attended Goretti’s canonization in 1950 and led a life of devotion and prayer.
And Carey? The Nebraska Legislature abolished the death penalty in 2015. I worked on that cause, and I saw the large files of information given to each legislator. It was a well-debated, thoughtful discussion and the facts won out.
Unfortunately, with the financial assistance of our wealthy governor, a petition to repeal the abolition put the issue before voters. Nebraskans voted overwhelmingly to reinstate the death penalty — it’s a conservative state and “that’s the way we’ve always done it” won out.
If each thoughtful Nebraska voter could have personally read those files we presented the legislators, the vote would have been different. But education was a gargantuan effort.
So, Carey and 11 others face possible execution, depending on a few outstanding court challenges. For his part, Carey is not contesting the execution.
To live in the on-again, off-again environment of state-sponsored death wears one down. He sent me a brochure that detailed his own spiritual journey, recognizing the terrible wrongs he did and the way his “heart has been torn in so many pieces,” and yet acknowledging the mercy of God.
I am grateful that the authorities did not execute Alessandro Serenelli. It gave God — and Maria Goretti — a chance to turn his heart toward love. May St. Maria Goretti pray for Carey, and for our nation, one of the last “civilized” countries that kills its own.
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Well said Steve, so dismissive of “two Omaha cab drivers.” Like the “civilized” also so dismissive of the other point of view.
Not two “Omaha cab drivers” two men with families and histories and lives cut short by Mr. Moore’s deliberate and callous choices. I have long forgiven Mr. Moore as my faith demands but his penalty has been set and he is now paying it. It is God’s judgement he must face now. I cannot however forgive those who continue to paint Mr. Moore as the victim. He should simply be commented on as the murderer of Maynard Dean Helgeland (my father) and Raul Van Ness.
Steve, My heart goes out to you and all those who have lost loved ones through violence and crime. I commend you for finding it in your heart to forgive Carey Dean Moore, just as Maria Goretti’s impoverished and courageous mother was able to forgive a violent murderer and rapist. I pray that whatever the next few weeks brings in our criminal justice system, you will continue on a journey towards peace.
“The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgment that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers.” (Thomas Aquinas, SUMMA CONTRA GENTILES, Book 3, part 2, ch. 146)