BOOKS: Jesus on Death Row

Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor and present faculty member at a conservative Christian law school in Texas, has writtenJesus on Death Row: The Trial of Jesus and American Capital Punishment.

The book offers a comparison between the trial and execution of Jesus and a capital case conducted in the U.S. justice system. The use of paid informants, conflicting testimony of witnesses, and the denial of clemency in both Jesus’ case and in recent cases in the U.S. are cited as examples of existing parallels.

The book is scheduled for release in February 2009 and can be pre-ordered here.


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NEW RESOURCES: Why Some Countries Have the Death Penalty and Others Do Not

A new study has been released that explores the correlations between countries’ legal, political, and religious systems and their use of the death penalty. Professors David Greenberg from New York University and Valerie West of John Jay College examined data from 193 nations to test why some countries regularly use capital punishment while others have abandoned it altogether. They found, “In part, a country’s death penalty status is linked to its general punitiveness towards criminals. Countries that imprison more convicted criminals are also more likely to kill them.” Interestingly, the data showed that “a country’s population has no significant direct or indirect effect on its death penalty status. Nor does its homicide rate. Countries with fewer political rights are more likely to have the death penalty.” The link between political rights and abolition of the death penalty was illustrated by the fact that countries with higher literacy rates and developed economies were least likely to have the death penalty. Catholicism also showed a strong influence over the use of capital punishment in the study, showing a reduction of the death penalty where there was a large presence of Catholics. Greenberg and West point out, "There are exceptions to these generalizations. Retentionist societies are not all cut from the same cloth, nor are all abolitionist societies."

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United Methodists Call for Abolition of the Death Penalty in Texas

May 5, 2008

The Worldwide United Methodist Church sent a message to Texas during the General Conference held in Ft. Worth, TX. The General Conference passed a resolution calling for the specific abolition of the death penalty in Texas. The United Methodist Church has had a position against the use of the death penalty for more than 50 years and reaffirmed that specific position in separate resolutions for the whole church as well.

The Texas specific resolution originated from St. John’s United Methodist Church in Lubbock, TX. Rev. Bill Martin, retired clergy and member of St. John’s stated upon the passage of the resolution, “We in Texas who oppose capital punishment deeply appreciate this prophetic witness from The United Methodist Church. It represents a direct application of the Church's affirmation that we ‘cannot accept retribution or social vengeance as a reason for taking human life’ and our belief that the death penalty ‘violates our deepest belief in God as the Creator and the Redeemer of humankind.’"

This resolution was developed in part due to the intensity of which Texas uses the death penalty without regard to the many problems within the death penalty system: problems of wrongful conviction, poor representation, the arbitrary nature in which it is imposed, and the great expense it represents to the state of Texas. The Rev. Julius Trimble of the East Ohio Conference and committee chair presenting the Resolution to the General Conference delegates, also pointed out that in Texas the Governor cannot commute a sentence without the vote of the Board of Pardons and Parole; and the specific event of Governor Perry, after a vote from the Board on commuting the death sentence of a mentally ill inmate, denying that vote and proceeding with the execution.

Vicki McCuistion, program director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and member of Wimberley United Methodist Church hailed the decision of the General Conference, “The passage of this resolution sends a strong message to Texas and our state officials that our excessive execution policy is recognized as extreme and in need of great reform by the delegates of the United Methodist Church from the United States and around the world and must be reevaluated sooner rather than later.”

The General Conference of the United Methodist Church is held every 4 years with delegates from the US and around the world to determine the business and direction of the United Methodist Church.

The text of the resolution follows:
Texas Death Penalty (81149-C1-R9999)

To Be Added to The Book of Resolutions:

Whereas, The United Methodist Church strongly opposes capital punishment, and

Whereas, in the state of Texas over 400 persons have been put to death since the state resumed executions in 1982;

• among the persons executed since 1982 at least six were mentally retarded, at least twenty suffered from mental illness, and thirteen were juveniles when their crimes were committed;
• among those executed eighty-three African Americans were put to death for crimes against white victims, and only one white person was executed for crimes against African Americans;
• eight persons sentenced to die have later been proven innocent and removed from death row;
• capital trials have at times been characterized by "unreliable witnesses, lack of evidence, incorrect experts, official misconduct, and inadequate defense attorneys";
• the Innocence Project of Texas has pointed to the likelihood that one or more innocent persons have been executed; and

Whereas, over 250 organizations of all kinds, including religious, civic, political, legal, and humanitarian groups, have officially called either for a moratorium on executions or for the abolition of the death penalty in Texas, and

Whereas, at least ten major newspapers in Texas have endorsed either a moratorium on executions or the abolition of capital punishment in the state,

Therefore, be it resolved, that the 2008 General Conference of The United Methodist Church, meeting in Fort Worth, Texas,

Express its deepest appreciation to all those organizations and individuals in the state of Texas who have valiantly struggled and continue to struggle for a more humane society in which the death penalty is rare or non-existent.

Call upon the Texas Legislature either to abolish the death penalty completely or to stop executions in the state until such time as all capital cases can be tried in a completely equitable way,

Call upon the Texas Pardon and Parole Board and the Governor to commute the sentences of persons currently on death row to life in prison without parole or to life in prison.

Instruct the Secretary of the General Conference to have copies of this resolution sent immediately to all members of the Texas Legislature, to each member of the Pardon and Parole Board, to the Governor of Texas, to the Texas Conference of Churches, and to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

Source: By Texas Abolition Blog

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Death Penalty / Consistent Life Ethic Book Consistently Opposing Killing: From Abortion to Assisted Suicide, the Death Penalty, and War edited by Rachel M. MacNair and Stephen Zunes published by Praeger / Greenwood  

Consistently Opposing Killing is the most complete compilation to date of writings by leading scholars and activists for peace and justice who embrace the consistent life ethic. Recognizing that just as the various manifestations of violence are inter-connected, so must be the means to address them, more than a dozen contributors explore how violence consistently fails as a solution to society’s problems, and how violence and injustice can only be effectively challenged through nonviolent means.  
Endorsement From Sister Helen Prejean,
Author of Dead Man Walking:
“The societal wounds of racism, poverty, and a penchant for using violence to address problems are intimately connected to the death penalty, to war, to the killing of the old and demented, and to the killing of children, unborn and born. If more people were familiar with the consistent life ethic, as expounded in this book, then the voice of all unseen vulnerable people would be better heard.”

Endorsement From Dr. Alveda King, Director of African American Outreach for Gospel of Life; and niece of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“The authors consistently and rationally support the position of opposition to murder in a society where wrong may seem right, to the detriment of life, liberty and justice for all. This is a recommended read for serious thinkers and for all seeking truth.”   For more information, table of contents and ordering information:
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Exploring the complexities of death penalty, redemption By Karen Campbell
Boston Globe
April 3, 2008

Book Review: Change of Heart
By Jodi Picoult
Atria, 447 pp., $26.95

Novels by the prolific Jodi Picoult often have a provocative "ripped from the headlines" intensity, from the euthanasia issue of "Mercy" to the mass school killings in last year's "Nineteen Minutes." But with her latest novel, "Change of Heart," Picoult creates her own sensational controversy that sits uneasily on the fault line of religion in America, which she believes has become one of the country's most divisive. "Change of Heart" unflinchingly explores the complexities and emotions of the death penalty.

The story takes place primarily on death row, where a poor, uneducated young handyman awaits execution for the murder of a policeman and his daughter. As he contemplates his past and his fate, Shay Bourne, who has been marginalized for most of his life, comes to believe that the only way he can redeem his troubled existence is to donate his heart after his execution. However, there are two major stumbling blocks. The first is that the state of New Hampshire's legal form of execution is lethal injection, which renders the heart unusable for transplant. The second is that Shay has picked a special recipient for his heart - the sister of the girl he is accused of killing - and the desperately ill 11-year-old Claire wants nothing to do with it.

Into this complicated setup arrive Maggie, Shay's lawyer, and Michael, one of the jurors who reluctantly voted to convict Shay 11 years earlier. Now a somewhat conflicted priest, Father Michael finds himself in the role of the condemned man's spiritual adviser. "Ever since I had taken my vows and asked God to help me offset what I had done to one man with what I might yet be able to do for others - I knew this would happen one day. I knew I'd wind up face-to-face with Shay Bourne." However, Shay doesn't recognize Michael, who keeps silent not to protect himself from Shay's anger but to facilitate the man's redemption.

Like "Nineteen Minutes," "Change of Heart" unfolds through the first-person narratives of those involved, offering a variety of perspectives. In addition to Shay's allies, there are Lucius, the artist with AIDS convicted of killing his lover in a fit of passion, and June Nealon, the still-grieving widow and mother of Claire. This gives the narrative richness and texture, but it can also feel a little formulaic after a while. The one person whose inner world we never plumb is Shay himself; except for moments of recounted dialogue, his story is told through other voices.

While "Change of Heart" is a compelling page-turner, it is more than just a suspenseful countdown to an execution. The disturbing, thought-provoking questions Picoult poses about capital punishment, the ethics of organ donation, and the moral dilemma of telling the truth at all costs go well beyond the issue of whether Shay will be allowed to die in a way that preserves his heart and whether Claire will accept it as her own.

Picoult also plants seeds of mysticism and miracles, as Shay begins to quote obscure gospels and those in his cell block experience unexplained instances of healing. This begins to attract fervent attention from people on the outside, who wonder if Shay is the Messiah. Is he a sinner or a saint? While intriguing, the overlay is a bit distracting, and this plot element, as well as an improbably facile romance between the self-denigrating Maggie and Claire's doctor, lends "Change of Heart" the kind of leavening that says "commercial appeal." But thankfully, its literary heart beats strong; Picoult is a skilled wordsmith, and she beautifully creates situations that not only provoke the mind but touch the flawed souls in all of us.

Karen Campbell is a freelance writer based in Brookline.
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Death and the Chaplain

By Kiko Martinez
San Antonio Current
April 30, 2008

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 7-2 ruling, upheld the use of lethal injections and lifted a seven-month de-facto moratorium on the death-penalty procedure. The case was prompted by two death-row inmates in Kentucky, Ralph Baze and Clyde Bowling Jr., who charge that when the three-drug cocktail used in lethal injections is not administered properly, the pain experienced by the convict constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Reverend Carroll Pickett, 74, agrees with the men. As a death-house chaplain at the Walls Unit in Huntsville, Texas, from 1982-95, Pickett presided over the executions of 95 inmates. Each inmate, he remembers, affected him significantly during the 16 hours he spent with them before they took their last breath.

After his retirement, Pickett, a capital-punishment supporter his entire life, became an anti-death-penalty advocate and began working with the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. The documentary, At the Death House Door, which follows Pickett’s emotional career in the prison system, made its world premiere at the South by Southwest film festival in March.

The year after you retired, rules were changed at the prison to allow close friends and family of the victim to witness the execution. What were your thoughts on this new policy?

Before they started legally, there were many times when I had the family of the inmate that was going to be executed in one place and the family of the victim in another place. We would have to sneak one family in one way and the other family another. I think if they’re looking for closure, they’re not going to get it. Watching somebody get killed isn’t pleasant.

What other types of procedural changes were made after you left?

Before I retired, I trained Reverend Jim Brazil. When I was there they brought [the inmate] in early and I spent all day with them — 16 hours. When I left, they started bringing [the inmate] in at 4 p.m. and executing them at 6 p.m. Jim didn’t get a chance to know [the inmates], and the inmates didn’t have a chance to have faith in the chaplain.

Is the procedure more efficient today or when you were there?

Well, one of the things that I learned was that once you get them inside the death house, you get them away from all the noise of death row. So, many of them would say to me, “This is the most peaceful it’s been in 16 years.” Many of them took naps. We gave them as much time as we could to get used to the fact that right over there was a door that they were going to have to go through. For the benefit of the inmate as a human being — forget about the crime — it’s much better in a peaceful situation.

There have been more than 300 executions carried out by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice since you retired. Is the TCADP making a difference by opposing these executions or are their protests falling on deaf ears?

I think they’re doing the best they can do. The changes that are going to be made are going to have to be made through the legislature. The [TCADP] is getting a lot more support. People have to realize that second drug [pancuronium bromide] is painful. The American Veterinarian Association says the drug was painful when they used it on dogs and cats. That’s why it was banned. Texas is still using it and that’s ridiculous.

In the film you talk about some of the rapport between you and the men during the hours before they are executed. Other than showing emotion and asking for forgiveness, were there any who reacted differently?

Oh, yes. One of the men wanted to sing the whole time. I had to go back to my office to grab the hymn book because I couldn’t remember the second verse to one of the songs. Another one wanted to play chess, so I had to get one of the guards to play because I didn’t know how. We would talk about football, basketball, baseball. There was one who didn’t say a word all day. Not one single word.

One of the stories I found incredible was the inmate who helped find a vein that could be used for his own lethal injection.

This guy had been a real bad drug addict and said, “Do you want me to help you?” The warden looked at me and said, “You’ve been with him all day long, can we trust him?” I said, “Sure you can trust him.” The guy wasn’t stupid. He knew they were going to get him one way or another. Actually, in his mind, he won, because he was able to find for them in a short time what these other men couldn’t find in 45 minutes.

With all the death that you’ve seen in your life, do you fear your own?

I faced death last year. I had surgery and went code blue. They rushed me to another hospital and two days later I went code blue again. I can remember going to heaven twice. I’ve seen it. It was painless. It was beautiful. I’m ready to go.
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Commentary: Death penalty law follows spirit of ’56

A UMNS Commentary
By John C. Goodwin*

March 28, 2008

"You have women clergy in The United Methodist Church?" The question was posed to me several years ago by Sister Dorothy Briggs, a new friend in the movement to abolish the death penalty.

Acknowledging that she knew very little about the Protestant church, she was delighted to learn that most Protestant churches ordain women. She was especially pleased to learn that The United Methodist Church has female bishops.

I went on to tell her about the spirit of '56.

In 1956, the Methodist Church gave women full clergy rights. The 1956 General Conference also added opposition to the death penalty to the church's Book of Discipline. There had been church editorials against capital punishment going back at least to the trial and executions of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in the 1920s, but it wasn’t until 1956 that opposition to the death penalty became church policy. Movement in New Jersey

On Dec. 17, 2007, New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine signed a bill abolishing the death penalty, making New Jersey the first state to abolish the practice since capital punishment was reinstated in 1976 after a U.S. Supreme Court-ordered hiatus. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 36 states now allow capital punishment, while 14 others, plus the District of Columbia, do not.

Why New Jersey? Corzine had stated that he has been against capital punishment for his entire political life. But governors can’t change state laws without the support of a majority of the state’s legislators. Legislators need to know the views of their constituents. An important role for the church is to educate people on moral issues and to encourage them to express their views, and the position of the church, to their legislators.

Many church members are unaware that The United Methodist Church opposes capital punishment, and certainly there are United Methodists on both sides of this issue.

In 1998, the New Jersey Council of Churches called together 10 Protestant leaders to discuss the death penalty and possible responses. Out of that meeting came a pastoral letter in which the denominational leaders explained that in their view the death penalty was incompatible with Christian teachings, and they pledged to educate their members.

Former United Methodist Bishop Alfred Johnson, a signer of the pastoral letter, established the New Jersey area Task Force to Abolish the Death Penalty. I became the co-convener of the task force, working first with the Rev. Bryan Bass-Riley and then with the Rev. William Greene. Coordinating closely with the conference board of church and society, we developed educational and worship materials, sponsored a public event with guest speakers, led workshops in churches and wrote resolutions which, after passage at each annual conference, were mailed by the conference secretary to all 120 state legislators and the governor.

The task force also aligned itself with a newly formed secular organization––New Jerseyans for a Death Penalty Moratorium––which later became New Jerseyans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. I joined their executive committee as did the Rev. Karl Kraft, a United Methodist pastor, and our bishops have served on the advisory committee. 

Laying the groundwork

Without this organization—and the faith and secular groups they enlisted in the cause of abolition—New Jersey would not have made death penalty history.

They visited legislators, organized public meetings and letter-writing campaigns, often in churches, and developed a database of more than 10,000 sympathetic individuals. They brought in innocent exonerated Death Row inmates to speak and to testify before governmental committees. Several surviving family members of violent crimes actively proved that survivors don’t always demand executions to bring about "closure."

Sister Briggs, who died in 2006 at the age of 83, organized a program that encourages people to ring their church bells or put up banners on those days when someone, anywhere in the country, is executed. My church displays such a banner, which is often seen by our pro-death penalty state senator.

I am convinced that the United States will join Western Europe and most of the democracies of the world in giving up the death penalty. But here, for a time at least, the work must be done on a state-by-state basis. This is how The United Methodist Church can help to make a difference.

*Goodwin, a photojournalist, is a member of the United Methodist Church at Demarest, N.J.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or [email protected].

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ARKANSAS: Convention backs death penalty abolition; bishop offers new vision for diocese

February 28, 2008

[Episcopal News Service] The Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas, meeting February 22-23 for its 136th Diocesan Convention hosted by the state's Northeast Convocation and St. Mark's Church, Jonesboro, heard Bishop Larry R. Benfield offer a new vision for the diocese.

In his convention address, Benfield told approximately 250 delegates, who came together despite inclement weather, that the Episcopal Church in Arkansas shares "the transforming power of Christ's resurrection in worship and relationship" and acknowledged that as the focus the diocese will use as a new generation is welcomed into the church.

Benfield unveiled a new website, which is currently in development, and committed the diocese to continuing to explore new media and ideas for evangelism and outreach.

The business of convention included the approval of a change to the constitution, dependant upon a second reading, for the apportionment of convention delegates from congregations. A resolution was passed in support of the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and the convention urged members of congregations to back the initiative.

In keeping with the convention's theme of glorifying God through music, workshops in liturgical music were offered by the Rev. Canon Victoria Sirota of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, New York City, and Scott Weidler, associate for music of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

The Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas comprises some 14,000 Episcopalians worshipping in 56 congregations throughout the state. Read about their Death Penalty Moratorium Campaign.

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