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Bishop brings 'freedom' to death row inmate



Bishop Beverly J. Shamana visited death row inmate Andre Burton at San Quentin (Calif.) State Prison. Burton has been on death row for 25 years. A UMNS photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

May 4, 2007 | WASHINGTON (UMNS)

Andre Burton, 44, has spent all of his adult life in a small steel cell. He has been on death row since he was 19.

But when United Methodist Bishop Beverly J. Shamana went to visit him in San Quentin State Prison in California, Burton told her she brought freedom.

Shamana, president of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society and episcopal leader of the San Francisco area, shared her experience at the opening plenary of the board's spring meeting, April 26-29.

"He seemed genuinely pleased and thankful, grateful that I was there," she said. "I just kept asking myself over and over again - what do you say to yourself day after day, week after week, when this is your life?"


Bishop Beverly J. Shamana

The United Methodist Church marked 50 years of opposition to capital punishment in 2006, and the Council of Bishops asked each active bishop to visit an inmate on death row. It took a year to gain permission to visit death row, but Shamana fulfilled that goal when she saw Burton in March.

Her role, she said, was to bring him the unconditional love of God, "and to be able say that I come from a church that does not believe you should get capital punishment ... no matter what you did."

Burton was convicted and sentenced to death for fatally shooting Gulshakar Khwaja of Long Beach, Calif., as she ran to help her son, whom police said was shot in the eye by Burton during a 1983 robbery in front of his mother's house. Burton has maintained his innocence and denied that he confessed to police.

In 1997, the California Supreme Court heard his case, including an order challenging the attorney general's office to show cause why his murder conviction and death sentence should not be overturned. The grounds for the order were that he "was denied the right to present a defense at the guilt phase of the trial."

"Andre and his lawyers await the court's decision," she said. "Two of the five justices agreed with his appeal. Andre has not lost hope."

Powerful experience

"I'm still processing what happened," Shamana said of her prison visit.

When she returned to the car, her husband asked her how it went. "I couldn't even speak, I could not speak, I had no words to describe," she recalled. "I could not form a thought that I could say. It was just such a powerful experience at such a deep level."

"It made it so much more real to me when you talk about restorative justice …" -Bishop Beverly J. ShamanaThe bishop said visiting Burton made the United Methodist Social Principles come alive for her. "It made it so much more real to me when you talk about restorative justice because death row prisoners cannot take part in any of the education or seminars or anything that are offered to others," she said.

Shamana realized early in the visit that Burton needed conversation and to connect with another person.

"I didn't feel like a bishop when I was in there," she said. "I don't know how I was supposed to feel or expected to feel. I felt like a person who loves God, who knows Jesus, talking to another person."

Shamana expects to visit Burton again and plans to send him the church's position on capital punishment found in paragraph 164G of the 2004 Book of Discipline.

At the close of their visit, Burton asked Shamana for the church's prayers.

"I bring you his request," she told the board.

*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.

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