The State of Ohio is considering legislation to abolish the death penalty. (SB 270) Rev. Sala Nolan Gonzales, UCC Minister for Criminal Justice and Human Rights (JWM), testified before the Ohio Senate Judiciary Committee on February 14 in support of this legislation. Her testimony is below.
SB 270 To Abolish the Death Penalty (Brown)
Testimony of Rev. Sala W.J. Nolan Gonzales
Minister for Criminal Justice and Human Rights, the United Church of Christ
February 14, 2012
Chairman Mark Wagoner and members of the Judiciary Committee, I thank you for the opportunity to speak before you.
I am here on behalf of the United Church of Christ, a mainline Protestant denomination well over 5,000 churches in the United States. Our denomination has its national headquarters in Cleveland, Ohio. After long and careful thought, the United Church of Christ has taken the position to oppose the death penalty. We first formalized this position in 1969, and we have reaffirmed it many times in the years since. We urge you to abolish execution in Ohio.
In 2005, our General Synod passed a resolution calling for the common good as a foundational ideal in the United States. We believe that a just and good society balances individualism with the needs of the community, and that over the past quarter century, our country has lost this ethical balance. We believe that our Christian faith speaks directly to public morality and the ways a nation should bring justice and compassion into its civic life. We believe that God’s unconditional love connects us to our responsibility as citizens outside the church. We are called to do justice as a public expression of our love for God and for all those God has created. We believe that the God of love is also the God of justice.
The United States is a nation that proclaims ideals of liberty and justice for all. We recognize that our public institutions have not always manifested these ideals. But while we have often challenged historical injustice in our nation’s institutions, our church has never compromised our commitment to the public good and the role of government in protecting the public welfare. We recognize that our nation’s founding ideas require ongoing attention, so that all people can thrive.
With that said, our denomination stands firmly against the death penalty. We simply believe that murder is wrong. It violates the commandment not to kill. If the murder is committed by the state or by an individual, it does not change this truth.
In this belief, we join the governments of nearly all countries in the world, the National Council of Churches and virtually all established religious traditions, and all national and nternational organizations established to protect human rights.
We all believe that capital punishment is wrong.
We do not believe that people who murder should be set free. There are many ways to protect the public, and to impose harsh penalties that do not involve the commission of yet another murder. We uphold these alternatives, and support laws that protect our citizens and ensure the common good.
Through a democratic and formal process, our denomination has raised these specific issues regarding capital punishment:
First, people who are poor or people of color are overrepresented on death row. Those who study capital punishment tell us that people are more likely to receive death sentences if they are poor, and if they are Black, Hispanic, or Native American.
Furthermore, people of color who commit crimes against white people are far more likely to be executed than people of any color who commit crimes against Black people. The application of capital punishment is discriminatory. It discriminates based on skin color and economic condition.
Second, death penalty sentences are often wrongly applied. In 2000, Columbia University researchers found that 68% of more than 5,000 death penalty convictions imposed since 1976 were overturned for serious errors. These errors usually involved
incompetent counsel, police misconduct, prosecutorial misconduct, or judicial error. A significant number of people are sentenced to death based on failures or misconduct within the justice system.
Third, several hundreds of cases have been commuted based on DNA evidence indicating that the person convicted did not commit the crime. Among the people we execute, some are innocent. We know that this is true.
Fourth, the death penalty is not a deterrent to crime. This has been found in virtually every study examining deterrence and capital punishment, for decades.
Fifth, and very materially, death penalty cases are extraordinarily expensive in dollars and time and effort for everyone involved.
Sixth, there are clear alternatives, including life in prison without the possibility of parole.
So in very practical, common-sense terms, we think it is reasonable to oppose the death penalty. It is not fair, it is misapplied, it is fallible, it does not deter, excessive costs are borne by everyone, and there are reasonable alternatives.
But that is not why we oppose the death penalty. We believe it is wrong.
We believe that to support the common good, we must act from our highest ethical and moral capacity. Execution violates this standard.
As a minister, I am in prisons at least once each week. I talk with prisoners regularly about their circumstances, their guilt, their shame, their hopes. I have yet to meet one person who would wish to be incarcerated. All of them suffer. In my experience, they are clear that they have committed crimes and must pay for what they have done.
I am a spiritual director to many people on death row throughout the country. I have helped to prepare five for execution. I have been present at the times of their deaths. I know that they suffered. I also know that the families and loved ones of their victims suffered. Their own children suffered. The prison guards suffered. Those administering drugs suffered. The cost of execution weighs heavily, simply because it is the taking of a human life. It is a tremendous burden on all of us who are left behind.
I support the testimony of Terry Collins, who worked in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) for 33 years, and who provided thoughtful and insightful leadership in his capacity as Director. I have seen the results of his efforts, and have a profound respect for his work. I commend him for what he has done for everyone involved – prisoners, guards, administrators, victims of crime. I agree with him that the death penalty should be abolished in Ohio, for the most basic reasons of fairness, decency in administration, and humane care for those in our charge.
We know that this issue calls forward strong emotions, especially among those who have lost loved ones to crime. I want to acknowledge the deeply personal nature of capital punishment, and the need for people on all sides of this issue to be heard.
I affirm my personal commitment and the commitment of my denomination to address the needs of victims of crime, and the suffering of people left behind. We hear them and we embrace them. We do not believe that execution brings closure or satisfaction any more than it can bring back those who were murdered. Knowing this, we remain deeply convinced of our responsibility to bring healing to this pain.
Thank you for bringing this subject forward, and for listening. It is an important thing to do, and we respect your effort.