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U.S. state efforts advance to abolish death penalty

A UMNS photo illustration.

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

March 28, 2008

In 1985, Kirk Bloodsworth was convicted of rape and murder and sent to Maryland's death row. In 1993, DNA testing proved he was innocent.

He joined the 127 people in the United States who have been released from death rows after being found innocent of the capital crime for which they were convicted.

Beth Reilly

"Because innocent persons are sentenced to death and because there is documented racial and geographical bias, everyone should question the death penalty," said Beth Reilly, a United Methodist working to abolish capital punishment in Maryland.

Reilly's convictions come from Scripture and The United Methodist Church's Social Principles.

"For United Methodists, a death penalty is antithetical to the New Testament message," she said. "As our state seeks to punish perpetrators of heinous crimes and as it works to protect society from those who may do harm, we, as Christians, must consider a higher calling."

In the United Methodist law book, called the Book of Discipline, the denomination states that "the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings." It goes on to state opposition to the death penalty and to "urge its elimination from all criminal codes."

Delegates to the 1956 Methodist General Conference took the historic action of officially opposing the death penalty.

Each Methodist and United Methodist General Conference since that time has reaffirmed that position. Meeting every four years, these assemblies are the only bodies that can speak officially for the denomination. The 2008 General Conference will meet April 23-May 2 in Fort Worth, Texas.

Making strides

Tremendous strides were made in the past year against capital punishment, according to Bill Mefford, director of civil and human rights with the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the church's social advocacy agency.

Members of Nebraskans Against the
Death Penalty pray March 25 outside
the statehouse in Lincoln while
lawmakers consider a bill repealing
the death penalty. A UMNS photo
by Lori Jensen. aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa

"New Jersey became the first state in 42 years to legislatively end the death penalty," he said. Abolitionist legislation also was filed in Colorado, Maryland, Montana, Nebraska and New Mexico.

The number of executions in the United States hit a 13-year low in 2007 with 42 people being executed, due in large part to a challenge from two Kentucky death row inmates. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the challenge in September. The inmates allege lethal injection is cruel and unusual punishment.

Mefford noted three more exonerations: Curtis McCarty of Oklahoma after 21 years on death row; Michael Lee McCormick of Tennessee after 16 years; and Jonathan Hoffman of North Carolina after 10 years.

The United States reinstated the death penalty in 1976 and since that time 1,099 people have been executed. Lethal injection is used in 35 states and by the U.S. military and U.S. government. Nine states use electrocution, five states use the gas chamber, two states executive by hanging and two states use a firing squad. Lethal injection is allowed as an alternative in most states.

California, North Carolina and Tennessee are currently studying their death penalty process, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Indiana is considering legislation that would exempt seriously mentally ill defendants.

Statehouse activity

In December, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine signed legislation passed by state lawmakers to abolish the death penalty in that state. The law was the result of many years of hard work by abolitionists.

Bill Mefford of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society speaks about the denomination's 50-year stance against
the death penalty. A UMNS file photo
by Kathy L. Gilbert.

"I pray their commitment will encourage us to continue in our struggle for complete abolition through the United States and throughout the world," Mefford said. "We continue to pray for the other innocent death row inmates."

Death penalty opponents in Maryland had hoped to follow New Jersey in 2008 but settled on a compromise designed to keep the momentum going. When Maryland lawmakers met in a gridlock in March, the opponents rallied around the push to establish a commission to study the law. A task force study had preceded New Jersey's new law.

"With the 2008 repeal still one vote short of passage in the same committee, this legislation offers a constructive way forward," said Sara Klemm, with the Maryland Citizens Against State Executions.

Added Reilly: "(The study commission) empowers a broadly representative and distinguished state body to conduct the first comprehensive review our state’s death penalty and, as important, to make recommendations about its future."

Another close vote

Nebraska lawmakers rejected an attempt to repeal the death penalty with a vote of 20-28 on March 25. The legislation needed 25 votes to pass.

Mark Weddleton, statewide organizer for Nebraskans Against the Death Penalty, said United Methodist pastors and lay leaders have been the "backbone" of the effort to eliminate the death penalty in that state.

Figures representing Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and a Cold War-era electric
chair are on exhibit at the New York Historical Society Museum. A UMNS
file photo by John C. Goodwin.

"As I was thinking about the different cities where we have been, it was the United Methodist churches where local organizing meetings were held," he said. "It is some retired United Methodist pastors who have been outspoken and really adopted this as a key campaign."

Nebraska is the only state that only authorizes the electric chair as its form of capital punishment. This vote still leaves the state without a legal method of executions because the state Supreme Court declared the electric chair cruel and unusual punishment.

"The governor has declared his intention to push now to establish lethal injection as Nebraska's means of carrying out executions, so that will be our next focus," Weddleton said. "Until the state adopts a new method, it has no way to execute the people who receive death sentences. Based on the number of votes in the legislature (on March 25) we're more optimistic about our chances of being successful in holding that off."

Despite the disappointment of the Nebraska vote, Weddleton believes it is just a matter of time before the death penalty is ended in his state.

"And we can thank the United Methodists for that," he said.

*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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The United Methodist Church on the Death Penalty

United Methodist Board of Church and Society

Death Penalty Information Center

Tolling the Bells

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