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Separately, church and state debate the death penalty

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Another North Carolina death-row inmate is exonerated; a former death-house chaplain speaks out against capital punishment; and a bill brews in the legislature that would address the racial issues in executions: Both church and state are addressing the fairness and morality of the death penalty.

When Greenville attorney Ernest "Buddy" Conner got the news that his client, death-row inmate Levon "Bo" Jones, would be freed from prison after more than 15 years, he went to Duplin County Jail to pray with him. During the prayer, Conner told Jones that prosecutors had opted to not retry Jones for the 1987 murder of a Duplin County man. In 2006, a federal judge took Jones off death row, ruling that Jones' attorneys' sub-par representation violated his constitutional rights, but prosecutors had threatened to retry him. Jones became the 129th inmate nationally—and the third in North Carolina in the last six months—to be exonerated after being sentenced to death.

At a Raleigh press conference May 6, Conner said, "There is no credible evidence that supports his guilt."

Jones, who is African-American, had been convicted on the testimony of a paid informant who later recanted. At trial, the prosecution did not reveal that the informant had been paid.

American Civil Liberties Union lawyer Cassy Stubbs said the state's capital punishment system, which has been under a de facto moratorium since August 2006, should not be reinstated. "If an innocent man can come this close to execution, the system is broken," she said.

Jones was scheduled to die in 1997, when the N.C. Attorney General set an execution date. However, attorneys Ken Rose and Mark Kleinschmidt (now a Chapel Hill town councilman) intervened and were able to have Jones' execution stayed after the prosecution missed a filing deadline.

Brian Stull of the ACLU Capital Punishment Project said race played a role in Jones' conviction and death sentence.

"Bo Jones, poor and African-American, was at a higher risk of joining the group of wrongfully convicted," Stull said. "He is an African-American man sentenced to death for killing a white man. Simply because of his race, Bo Jones, an innocent man, was at a higher risk for the death penalty."

At the press conference, Jones was accompanied by his lawyers and several of his relatives.

"At times it was difficult, but I made it through by staying focused on what I believe and staying focused on my spiritual life and Jesus Christ, whom I serve," Jones said.

Death penalty legislation is among the slate of bills to be considered by the General Assembly, which reconvened for its short session May 13. The Rev. William Barber, president of the state NAACP, is asking citizens to back the Racial Justice Act, House Bill 1291, which would allow a person accused in a capital crime to seek a court review of whether race influenced a prosecutor's decision to seek the death penalty.

Barber recently called executions a "legal lynching" and said the state should stop "trying to play God." He made his comments during Stay Strong, an interfaith service and dinner to support families and friends of North Carolina's death-row inmates. The event was sponsored by Carrboro's People of Faith Against the Death Penalty.

"If it's righteous, it requires struggle," Barber said. "There is no righteous cause that promises you, if you engage it, you won't get kicked in the face sometimes. Many are the afflictions of the righteous. You should not be trying to be God, because only God has the power of life and death, and only he can make those kinds of judgments."

And just one week after Georgia carried out the 1,100th execution in the United States since 1977, the Rev. Carroll Pickett, former death row chaplain at Texas' death house in Huntsville, brought his anti-death penalty message to Raleigh.

Now a retired Presbyterian minister, Pickett visited the General Assembly as part of a national tour to promote At the Death House Door, a documentary chronicling his 16 years employed at the Walls Unit, as it's known, where he accompanied 95 people to the execution chamber.

Pickett said he had to serve both the state and God. "Working at the prison was strictly to do God's will and to work," Pickett said, as part of a panel discussion on the death penalty. "You do anything that you can to help the inmates. You obey the state, but you also have to do it for yourself. I feel like God put me there for that purpose."

The stress of his work at the prison caught up with him. Just months after retiring as chaplain, Pickett underwent triple-bypass heart surgery. Pickett said his doctors told him his heart failed due to "the strain and stress of watching people die, watching people being killed really."

"Look at me now," he said. "I'm healthy. I got away from killing."

At the Death House Door won the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival's Inspiration Award. The film will be shown Wednesday, May 21, at 7 p.m., at Durham's First Presbyterian Church, 305 E. Main St. The film premieres on the Independent Film Channel Thursday, May 29, at 9 p.m.

Hummers, war and polar bears: redefining sin

Sin, a subject often omitted from progressive discourse, has emerged as a topic of discussion among progressive people of faith—and the Vatican. Last year, the Vatican updated the Catholic Church's definition of sin to include issues such as environmental neglect and economic injustice.

In April, Episcopal priest and environmental activist the Rev. Canon Sally G. Bingham spoke in Raleigh about "Interfaith Power & Light," a ministry she founded that confronts global warming and species extinction from a theological perspective. The San Francisco-based group has 27 chapters, including N.C. Interfaith Power & Light (www.ncipl.org), which is part of the N.C. Council of Churches. "If you knowingly drive a Hummer that gets 13 miles on the gallon and you don't care because you're big and important, that's a sin," Bingham said.

As for economic injustices, during "From Hostility to Hospitality: Immigration and People of Faith," the Rev. Maria Palmer of Chapel Hill retold the parable of Lazarus, but substituted for him "Lupita," a poor housekeeper who worked for a rich family residing in the "Southern Part of Heaven."

In death, the family's father goes to hell, and God, using "harsh words," refuses the father's request to tell his relatives to repent.

"We have to face the sin in our lives and our society," Palmer said during a N.C. Council of Churches Critical Issues seminar. "Where is the sin in the Lazarus story? The sin, in theological terms, is one of omission. It's not what he did, but what he failed to do. He failed to see another human being, a child of God, sitting at his doorstep. Like we fail so often to see the suffering of our immigrant families working in grocery stores and the restaurants where we have our banquets. It's the exact opposite of the Good Samaritan, isn't it?"

For some people of faith, sin also encompasses violence and war. While most mainline churches and evangelicals have remained silent or have openly supported the war in Iraq, the Rev. Jack McKinney of Raleigh's Pullen Memorial Baptist Church sent his congregation a different message in a recent essay, "No Other Word for It."

McKinney reflected on his congregation's Good Friday public reading of the names of Americans and Iraqis who have died in the war. "As I stood on the sidewalk in front of our sacred memorial garden, I was thinking only one thing: This war is a sin," McKinney wrote. "I don't use that word much any more. Sin language has so dominated the church's speech that many of us shut down when we hear someone throwing the word around loosely. The word is full of judgment and accusation. It has been unfairly attached to sexual behavior more often than other kinds of actions.

"So I risk sounding self-righteous and spiritually superior when I state without equivocation that I think this war is a sin," he went on. "A terrible sin. But I can't help it. I don't have another word that fits."

Jesus was a man "who loved peace and refused to incite his followers to violence," McKinney wrote. The war "stands in stark contrast to everything Jesus lived and taught. I think it grieves the heart of God."

People of faith should not only oppose the war, but also work toward peace, said the Rev. Spencer Bradford, pastor of the Durham Mennonite Church. Opposition to war must go beyond the "Bring the troops home" message, he noted at a May 7 luncheon commemorating the 26th anniversary of the monthly vigils sponsored by the Committee to Reverse the Arms Races.

"We also need to be talking about what our alternative is," said Bradford. "As much as we need to be speaking out in opposition to war, we also need to be speaking out in support of peace building. Movements in opposition to war have been most successful and most effective when they have alternatives to propose."

Bradford said "substantive policy analysis" could bring about a multilateral peace initiative to end the war in Iraq without abandoning the Iraqi people. He cited a plan, Just Peacemaking, devised by a group of Christian ethicists to abolish war.

Just Peacemaking is an attempt "to bring the war and peace ethics discussion out of the church community and build a bridge to the civic community," Bradford said. The proposal includes three parts: peacemaking initiatives, justice initiatives and community building practices.

Bradford said nonviolent direct action was "an effective tool for social change." He also proposed conflict resolution that leads to acknowledging responsibility for conflict "using repentance and forgiveness," fostering economic development and human rights, and "respect for religious liberties."

The monthly vigil for disarmament happens first Wednesdays from noon to 1 p.m., 300 Fayetteville St., Raleigh, in front of the post office. For more information, contact slaterpat@mindspring.com. Peace vigils are also held in Durham, Saturdays from noon-1 p.m., at Gregson and Main streets; and in Chapel Hill, Fridays from 5-6 p.m. at Elliott Road and Franklin Street.

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