Florida Catholics plan prayer vigils with hope of blocking execution

In a sign of mounting opposition to the death penalty, Catholics plan prayer vigils across Florida this week in an effort to block the scheduled execution of a convicted murderer who has spent half his life on Death Row.

Despite the statewide protests, Gov. Rick Scott intends to carry out Thursday’s scheduled execution of Johnny Kormondy, 42, convicted of killing Pensacola banker Gary McAdams and sexually assaulting his wife, Cecilia, after they returned home from her 20th high school reunion on a summer evening in 1993. They had left the front door of their home unlocked to let a puppy outside.

In more than a dozen cities, including St. Petersburg and Miami, Catholics will urge Scott to commute Kormondy’s sentence to life in prison without parole.

The Florida Catholic Conference said capital punishment “contributes to an ever-growing disrespect for the sacredness of human life and feeds a sense of vengeance, rather than justice.” The group urged all people of faith to pray for an end to the death penalty.

Kormondy would be the 21st inmate to be executed since Scott took office, tying the number of executions under former Gov. Jeb Bush, who served for eight years. Scott has just begun his second term.

At a time when use of the death penalty is declining across the country, the pace of executions in Florida has accelerated under Scott, from two in 2011 to three in 2012, seven in 2013 and eight last year.

Only two other states executed more inmates in 2014: Texas and Missouri had 10 each.

Since 2007, six states have abolished the death penalty: Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York.

“The governor has a very solemn duty to uphold the law,” said Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz.

Among those taking part in the prayer vigils is the Rev. Robert Schneider, pastor of St. Stephen Catholic Church in Valrico.

“Life in prison without parole is preferable to capital punishment,” Schneider said. “It has the same effect and it breaks the cycle of violence.”

Father Schneider said he’s troubled by the 23 cases in which Florida has exonerated Death Row inmates, more than any other state.

“The system is very flawed,” he said. “We don’t know how many people were actually guilty of the crime.”

State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, who is Catholic, said it was a good thing that her church “at least is consistently pro-life,” a reference to the church’s strong opposition to abortion.

“It’s very difficult, but I think some of the heinous crimes that we have seen deserve capital punishment,” Detert said, citing the “Ted Bundys of the world,” in reference to the serial killer executed in 1989 whose victims included two sorority sisters at Florida State University.

Kormondy was convicted largely on the testimony of two accomplices, James Hazen and Curtis Buffkin, both of whom received life sentences. Buffkin later recanted his testimony and claimed that he shot McAdams by accident, but the Florida Supreme Court refused to accept his altered version of events.

In 2013, the Legislature passed and Scott signed the Timely Justice Act, which requires the state Supreme Court to notify the governor’s office when a Death Row inmate has exhausted all court appeals.

Kormondy did, but so have scores of other inmates who have been on Death Row for many more years. That has prompted questions as to why Scott signed Kormondy’s death warrant, but the process is cloaked in secrecy.

Kormondy’s attorney, Michael Reiter of Panama City, suspects that politics played a role, noting that Cecilia McAdams personally lobbied Scott to sign Kormondy’s death warrant last year.

On her Facebook page, Cecilia McAdams wrote in July that Kormondy “deserves to die for what he did!!!! I have met with Governor Scott and I do believe he will see this through.”

Scott spokeswoman Schutz could not confirm that Scott met with Cecilia McAdams but said: “He looks at every case in the same manner.”

Pete Antonacci, who was Scott’s legal counsel when the Kormondy death warrant was signed, did not respond to requests for comment.

Prayer vigils will be held Thursday at Saint Martha Catholic Church in Miami Shores following the 11:45 a.m. Mass, and at 5:30 p.m. at St. Vincent de Paul parish in Holiday.

Tallahassee Citizens Against the Death Penalty will hold an interfaith prayer vigil outside the Governor’s Mansion at 6 p.m. Thursday, the scheduled time of Kormondy’s execution.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com. . Follow @stevebousquet.