Sanctity of life

Bishop went to bat for killer

click to enlarge Rev. Thomas Paprocki - PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE
Rev. Thomas Paprocki
Rev. Thomas Paprocki
The Rev. Thomas Paprocki espouses exorcism and opposes gay marriage. He has said that Muslims should be treated differently than others at airport security checkpoints because most terrorists are Islamic.

In short, Paprocki is known as a conservative’s conservative. But there is another side to the leader of the Diocese of Springfield.

Four years ago, the bishop, who is a licensed attorney, quietly took up the cause of Freddell Bryant, a cocaine dealer and gang leader who was facing the death penalty in federal court. Federal prosecutors rarely seek the death penalty, but Bryant’s sins were egregious.

Angered at the theft of $50,000 worth of crack, Bryant and two cohorts put guns to the heads of the three suspected thieves in Danville eight years ago. The man whom Bryant was threatening managed to jump out of a window. Bryant gave chase and shot him dead. Hearing gunfire, Bryant’s sidekicks put bullets through the heads of the two women they stood over. Prosecutors said that Bryant was responsible for all three killings, and they notified the defense that they might seek the death penalty.

In the federal system, the defense before trial has a chance to persuade prosecutors that the death penalty isn’t appropriate. The decision on whether to seek execution is made in consultation with top Department of Justice officials in Washington, D.C. Tasked with arguing that Bryant shouldn’t die, Springfield defense attorney Jon Gray Noll called the bishop. Noll had met Paprocki during a fun run for lawyers in Washington Park shortly after the bishop, who runs marathons, came to Springfield in 2010.

“I just introduced myself to him and asked, ‘Would you be interested in doing a case some time?’” Noll recalls. “He said ‘Absolutely.’ I called him up and said, ‘Here’s the case. It’s going to be high-profile, extremely stressful. If it goes to trial as a death penalty case, I’d like you to be in court.’”

Paprocki didn’t flinch and became part of the defense team. At one point, Noll recalls, the defense and prosecutors discussed whether the bishop would wear a clerical collar at the defense table if the case went to trial with Bryant’s life on the line. It never got that far.

Paprocki, Noll says, proved the perfect person to sit down with Bryant in jail to talk about the killer’s background. Both men came from south Chicago, Noll says, and that proved a point of connection.

“He’s (Paprocki is) a quiet individual, a very pensive individual, and that’s exactly what we needed in that phase of the case,” Noll said. “The bishop established a rapport (with Bryant), drew out a number of very important personal anecdotes, background on the gentleman, and gave us a report on his beliefs on what we should argue. It was, really, very well done.”

The defense presented prosecutors with a report containing five points on why the death penalty wasn’t appropriate, Noll said, and two of those points came as a result of Paprocki’s work.

“He was a big benefit to us,” Noll said.

After receiving the report, prosecutors decided against the death penalty, and Paprocki’s work was done. A jury convicted Bryant in the killings in 2012, and he is now serving three life sentences.

Paprocki didn’t mention Bryant in 2011, when Illinois Times interviewed the bishop for a profile, noted that he had legal malpractice insurance and asked whether he was doing any legal work. Yes, the bishop responded, but he would not say anything more.

But Paprocki spoke about the case during a more recent interview that touched on his legal background. As a parish priest in Chicago during the 1980s, the bishop established a legal clinic for the poor that focused on civil law. The Bryant case, Paprocki said, was his first criminal matter.

“It’s very satisfying professionally, both as a bishop and a lawyer,” Paprocki said.

Paprocki’s only payment was a letter he received from Bryant, a Muslim, thanking the bishop for his work.  

The case touches on Catholic teachings that life is sacred, Paprocki says, but the death penalty isn’t verboten under Catholic doctrine. The fictional Hannibal Lecter, he points out, could not be contained even in a prison. But death via execution is not a not a natural way to die, and so extreme care and discretion must be taken.

“The death penalty should be a last resort, if at all,” the bishop says.

Contact Bruce Rushton at

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