On Thursday, June 21, Rodney Earl Sanders pleaded guilty to murdering Sister Paula Merrill, SCN, and Sister Margaret Held, SSSF, during an August 2016 home burglary in Durant. Holmes County Circuit Judge Jannie Lewis sentenced Sanders to two life sentences without the possibility for parole for the murders, a 25-year sentence for burglary and a 5-year sentence for stealing the Sisters’ car. What is significant about the sentence is that the Sisters’ families and religious communities have asked, from the very first days of this case, that the state forgo the death penalty.
Bishop Joseph R. Kopcaz of the Diocese of Jackson offered the following reaction to the sentencing:
“Sr. Paula Merrill and Sr. Margaret Held deserve to be honored for their lives of service. The action of the court — in accepting this plea and sentencing Rodney Sanders to life without parole — does just that. In solidarity with Sr. Margaret, Sr. Paula, their families and the teachings of the Catholic Church, we continue to oppose the death penalty.
I would like to applaud the investigators, prosecutors and the judge who helped bring this tragic case to a just conclusion, taking into account the wishes of the families and, indeed, the victims themselves who would have opposed the death penalty. While we continue to mourn the loss of Sister Paula Merrill and Sister Margaret Held, we must also uphold the dignity of all people, including their murderer. We honor the memory of these two amazing women by continuing to call for a restorative justice without violence or revenge. Our continued prayer is for peace and healing for Sr. Paula and Sr. Margaret’s families as well as for Rodney Sanders and his family.”