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Society

Death Penalty Mulled for Nuns Killer

August 30, 2016

DURANT, Miss. — A Mississippi prosecutor said she hasn’t decided whether to seek the death penalty for a man charged with killing two nuns who dedicated their lives to helping people in one of the poorest counties in the nation.

Relatives and colleagues of Sisters Margaret Held and Paula Merrill have publicly expressed their opposition to execution.

A judge denied bond Aug. 29 to Rodney Earl Sanders, 46, of Kosciusko, Mississippi, who is charged with two counts of capital murder, one count of burglary and one count of grand larceny.

Capital murder under Mississippi law is a killing committed along with another felony. It is punishable by execution by lethal injection or by life in prison.

Held and Merrill, both 68, were found stabbed to death in their home in Durant after they failed to show up to work last Aug. 25 at a medical clinic in nearby Lexington, where they were nurse practitioners.

“We are going to consider the heinous nature of the crime and their wishes,” District Attorney Akillie Malone-Oliver said, referring to the death penalty opposition by families of the sisters and their religious orders.

Sanders has been held in an undisclosed jail since his arrest late Aug. 26. Accompanied by at least seven law-enforcement officers, he made a brief court appearance Aug. 29 before Durant City Judge Jim Arnold, who denied bond and said the state will appoint an attorney after Sanders indicated he could not afford one.

Sanders — who had been living about 15 miles east of the sisters’ Durant home — confessed to the killings but gave no reason, said Holmes County Sheriff Willie March, who was briefed by Durant police and Mississippi Bureau of Investigation officials who took part in Sanders’ interrogation.

Warren Strain, spokesman for the Department of Public Safety, which includes the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, said the organization would neither confirm nor deny that Sanders confessed.

Sanders’ wife attended the hearing and broke down afterward when addressing the family and friends of the nuns.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say to y’all. I’m so sorry. … I’m so sorry. I can’t take this. Oh, my God,” Marie Sanders said, sobbing.

At Lexington Medical Clinic, about 10 miles west of Durant, Held and Merrill often treated poor and uninsured patients with diabetes and other chronic conditions. The clinic and the nuns’ home in Durant are in Holmes County, population 18,000.

With 44 percent of its residents living in poverty, Holmes is the seventh-poorest county in America, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Hours before Sanders’ court appearance, Bishop Joseph Kopacz and more than 20 priests from the Diocese of Jackson celebrated a memorial Mass at the small but ornate Cathedral of St. Peter in downtown Jackson, about an hour’s drive south of Durant.

Hundreds of people attended, and the front pews were filled by family members and sisters from Held’s and Merrill’s religious orders, the Kentucky-based Sisters of Charity of Nazareth and the School Sisters of St. Francis of Milwaukee.

The Rev. Greg Plata, who ministers at the church in Lexington, Mississippi, where Held and Merrill led Bible study, praised them for their lives of service. Plata also noted the joint statement against the death penalty released Aug. 28 by the sisters’ orders.

“Justice for a heinous crime demands punishment, but it does not demand revenge,” Plata said.

Records from the Iowa Department of Corrections show Sanders was in prison from June 2004 to February 2011 on a conviction of second-degree robbery.

Records show he also was in prison in Iowa from August 1999 to August 2002 on a conviction of theft, and from April to October 1996 for two counts of third-offense drunken driving.

Sanders was on probation after a prison term for a felony drunken-driving conviction in Mississippi last year, said Grace Simmons Fisher, a spokeswoman for the Mississippi Department of Corrections.

He was also convicted of armed robbery in Holmes County, sentenced in 1986 and served six years.

(EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS)

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