Protesters oppose death penalty before Florida's 1st execution in 19 months

Statewide Catholic parishioners call for end to capital punishment

By Ashley Harding - Reporter , Francesca Amiker - Reporter , Erik Avanier - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - As time ran out Thursday for death row inmate Mark Asay, a dozen protesters gathered in front of the Duval County Courthouse and more arrived by bus at Florida State Prison to voice their opposition to the death penalty.

Asay was executed at 6:22 p.m. at the state prison in Raiford for the 1987 murders of two Jacksonville men.

During the execution, a crowd of protesters across the street from the prison voiced their concerns against the death penalty. 

"It's not a deterrent. It doesn't change the human behavior," protester Mike Ledbetter said.

Asay was the state's first inmate to be put to death in more than 19 months and the first execution under a lethal injection procedure never used before in Florida or any other state.

"You don't kill people to show that killing is wrong," said protester Marsha Lyons.

A jury found Asay guilty of shooting and killing Robert McDowell and Robert Booker. Several of Booker's family members told News4Jax that the execution helped bring relief and closure.

"Only thing we have to say is justice has finally been served. That was a big burden that was lifted from our hearts and our brother can finally rest in peace like he deserves," said Booker's siblings, Gloria Booker and Frank Booker, after Asay's execution.

As the hours counted down, members of the Catholic Church called for a stay of execution and spoke out against capital punishment. The U.S. Supreme Court denied Asay's request for a stay.

Members of the Catholic Church from across the state held a prayer service in front of the courthouse for Asay, the two men he killed and their families. The parishioners said they strongly believed that Asay's death sentence should have been commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Many of them also feel capital punishment should be a thing of the past. Kathleen Bagg with the Diocese of St. Augustine said that is a sentiment felt by many.

"The death penalty is not a deterrent -- studies have shown that,” Bagg said. “We feel the death penalty today is more of an act of vengeance on behalf of the state."

Earlier this week, the Florida Conference of Catholic Bishops sent a letter urging Gov. Rick Scott to commute Asay's sentence to life in prison. The letter points to Scott's pro-life stance on abortion, reading in part:

"We seek a state that is unequivocally and consistently pro-life, protecting human life in all stages and in all circumstances."

Bagg referenced the hundreds of death row inmates who've been exonerated through DNA testing. She believes an eye for an eye shouldn't be the answer.

"I think we need to look at life as being sacred, no matter what the person does," Bagg said.

Bagg told News4Jax that prayer services would be held across the state, including in Jacksonville, calling for an end to capital punishment.

"We're not only praying for Mr. Asay, we're praying for the victims of his crime. We're praying for all those that are involved in the execution process, and our society," Bagg said.

For more information on the services held across the state Thursday night, click here.

Copyright 2017 by WJXT News4Jax. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.