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Church's death penalty stance singles out Texas


The Rev. Julius Trimble presents a petition against the death penalty to delegates of the 2008 United Methodist General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.
A UMNS photo by John C. Goodwin.

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

June 4, 2008

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' stay of execution for a death row inmate on June 3 answered the prayers of many United Methodists keeping a close watch on the case.

 
Derrick Sonnier

 

Derrick Sonnier received his reprieve 90 minutes before he was scheduled to receive a lethal injection at 6 p.m. The convicted killer would have been the 406th person executed by the state and the first executed in Texas after The United Methodist Church called for an end to the death penalty in the state that leads the United States in executions.

The denomination passed its latest resolution against the death penalty on May 2 during the 2008 General Conference, which convened this year in Fort Worth, Texas. The church's top legislative body, which meets once every four years, has passed resolutions opposing the death penalty at every assembly since 1956.

Sonnier's execution date was scheduled after the U.S. Supreme Court in April upheld lethal injection as a proper method of capital punishment.

Lawyers for the Texas Defender Service filed a last-minute appeal in behalf of Sonnier on his scheduled execution day, arguing that the procedure would cause him unconstitutional pain and suffering. The appeal also said Texas' procedure had not been reviewed legally and that officials with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had changed their written execution protocols within the past week without review by the courts.

Sanctioning violence?

General Conference, the only body that can speak in behalf of the entire denomination, stated in its most recently approved resolution that "there can be no assertion that human life can be taken humanely by the state." The assembly said the death penalty "will increase the acceptance of revenge in our society and will give official sanction to a climate of violence."

A new resolution singles out the state of Texas, expressing the church's "deepest appreciation to all those organizations and individuals in … Texas who have valiantly struggled and continue to struggle for a more humane society in which the death penalty is rare or non-existent."

“It is the ultimate Christian belief that no matter what sins a person has committed, no person is beyond redemption.”–The Rev. Bill Martin

Watching General Conference proceedings online from her home in Austin, Texas, Vicki McCuistion cried when the resolution passed. McCuistion is program director for the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and a member of Wimberley United Methodist Church.

"It felt so good for General Conference to pass the resolution; it was so affirming to all involved in the battle in Texas," she said.

A task force from St. John's United Methodist Church, Lubbock, brought the petition before the denomination.

"We felt it was appropriate for a group from Texas to ask General Conference to pass the resolution," said the Rev. Bill Martin, retired pastor and a member of St. John's. "It is the ultimate Christian belief that no matter what sins a person has committed, no person is beyond redemption." 

Why Texas?

The petition almost died in subcommittee, where some delegates argued that the church already has a resolution calling for the abolition of capital punishment "from all criminal codes." The Rev. Mike McKee argued for the petition, noting that General Conference was meeting in Texas, the state that leads the nation in the number of executions.

"I have lived in Texas all my life, and Texas puts to death more people than any other state," said McKee, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Hurst. "There are so many concerns about African Americans and Latinos being unfairly sentenced to death and concerns about innocent people being executed that there should at the very least be a moratorium on all cases. Execution prevents the possibility of redemption and once it is carried out, it is final. If we find we made a mistake and convicted an innocent person, it is too late."

The resolution noted that Texas has executed more than 400 people since 1982, including six who were mentally retarded, 20 who suffered from mental illness and 13 who were juveniles when their crimes were committed.

Notice of the General Conference action was sent to the Texas Legislature, the Texas Pardon and Parole Board, Gov. Rick Perry, the Texas Conference of Churches and the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

The resolution also has been shared with other faith groups and has been helpful in starting conversations about a difficult subject, according to McCuistion.

"If you can't talk about the tough stuff in church, where can you talk about it?" she said. Executions just bring "more pain," said McCuistion.

Sonnier, now 40, was sentenced to die for the 1991 beating and stabbing deaths of Melody Flowers and her toddler in Houston.

"Society can be protected when people are sentenced to life in prison without parole," McCuistion said. "Sitting and thinking about their crime day after day can be beneficial."

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

Video

The Rev. Julius Trimble: "Texas exceeds other states in carrying out the death penalty.”

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Resources

The United Methodist Church on the Death Penalty

United Methodist Board of Church and Society

Death Penalty Information Center

Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty


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