Ron Steiner, an advocate for abolishing Oregon’s death penalty, speaks last year to students at Regis High School. “Too many people pop off and say they are for the death penalty and don’t have very good reasons for it,” Steiner says. “They don’t know enough.” (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
Ron Steiner, an advocate for abolishing Oregon’s death penalty, speaks last year to students at Regis High School. “Too many people pop off and say they are for the death penalty and don’t have very good reasons for it,” Steiner says. “They don’t know enough.” (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)
A Catholic death penalty abolitionist will be honored April 24 by Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon.

Ron Steiner, a member of Queen of Peace Parish in Salem, has been the anchor man for Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty for 18 years. He says his faith and an encounter with Sister Helen Prejean of “Dead Man Walking” fame changed his life.

“Sister Helen lit my candle,” says Steiner, who heard the Louisiana-based Sister of St. Joseph speak in 2000 about her experiences on death row. “I hadn’t thought about the death penalty at all. My view changed dramatically when I thought of these inmates as human beings.”

The award will be given to Steiner during the annual Ecumenical Ministries dinner at the Benson Hotel. Ecumenical Ministries cited not only Steiner’s work on overturning Oregon’s death penalty, but his commitment to restorative justice — bringing offenders and victims together so they can understand one another more.

“It’s a dialogue,” Steiner says. “People need to be able to listen and engage in that. Forgiveness is the essence of restorative justice.” Steiner hears from murder victim families who say forgiveness is the only way to move forward.

“The transformative work Steiner does heals fractured communities,” the EMO citation reads.

Oregon’s death penalty has been under a moratorium since 2011 and has not been used since 1997. Steiner and his allies say it now makes sense to take executions off the state’s books.

Steiner, 80, was a longtime television marketing executive and consultant in New Mexico. He began volunteering with Dismas Ministry, a Catholic prison outreach, when he heard Sister Helen argue that the death penalty is both inhumane and a spiritual violation that nixes the possibility of conversion and recompense.

By the end of 2000, he was on the steering committee of a coalition seeking to ban executions in New Mexico. Starting in 2001, he was visiting Oregon regularly because it seemed that many voters here were troubled by the morality and expense of capital punishment.

The New Mexico legislature repealed that state’s death penalty in 2009 and later that year, Steiner wound down his television career and relocated for full time community service and advocacy in Oregon.

He also has volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and an organization that supports Native American chil-dren. In many social advocacy groups, he finds people who are good-hearted but not skilled in marketing their noble ideas. That’s where Steiner comes in.

On the death penalty, Steiner has learned that most people don’t know the facts and he spreads them: executions are a poor deterrent to crime, minority prisoners are killed disproportionately, the death penalty is much more expensive than life in prison, many families of murder victims report that killing the killer offers no true peace.

Despite facts and logic, politics sometimes impede a good idea, Steiner says. For example, in New Mexico in the mid-2000s, Gov. Bill Richardson aspired to run for president and didn’t want to seem soft on crime. Only after his presidential ambitions fizzled did Richardson finally assent to a repeal that had long seemed ripe for the passing.

Many people stick by the death penalty for political gain, Steiner surmises. Others simply don’t know the facts.

“Too many people pop off and say they are for the death penalty and don’t have very good reasons for it,” Steiner says. “They don’t know enough.”

Steiner says that inevitably, the more people research and discover about the death penalty, the more they oppose it.

And the tide may be turning. Washington state and California just took steps to erase or block executions. And in the summer of 2018, Pope Francis declared that the death penalty is incompatible with human dignity.

“This all increased the conversation, and that is what we are all about now,” said Steiner. “We want people to talk about it and think and study and pray.”

Steiner and Frank Thompson, former warden of the Oregon State Penitentiary, have a road show in which they speak about the death penalty and its problems. Thompson once oversaw executions and now opposes them. Hoping to reach future voters, the men travel to high schools often, including places like Regis and, soon, Marist. They also speak at churches of all kinds.

Steiner is disappointed by polls showing that a majority of white Catholics still favor the death penalty. But he has hope. He cites Sister Helen, who has said, “Support for the death penalty is a mile wide and an inch deep.”

Many mainline Protestant congregations — including Presbyterians, Methodists, the United Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ and Unitarians — have adopted statements in opposition to the death penalty. Steiner and others in the coalition are trying to build relationships with evangelical leaders. Younger evangelicals, Steiner says, tend to oppose the death penalty.

Local rabbis disapprove of executions. They explain that the biblical teaching about “an eye for an eye” was never meant to justify killing. The state of Israel, for example, has executed only one person, Holocaust organizer Adolf Eichmann.

Steiner says he is slowing down because of age, but insists that his commitment to abolition is as strong as ever. He remains on the advisory council of Oregonians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. He calls the group “very strong” and “full of bright and well-connected people.” The council has 90 members and includes leaders who are Catholic — chairman is Lance Mayhew of The Madeleine Parish and vice chairwoman is Lynn Strand of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego. Father John Kerns, pastor of Our Lady of the Lake, is a member.

Father Tim Mockaitis, Steiner’s pastor at Queen of Peace, is also on the council.

“I’ve come to deeply appreciate Ron’s single-minded determination to remain an inspiring champion for the abolition of the death penalty,” Father Mockaitis said. “As I’ve worked on several presentations with Ron, I admire his humility and clear respect for the dignity of the human person, which he will tell you is at the foundation of this crucial issue.”



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