Written by Michelle May
On May 9, after five previously-scheduled execution dates were postponed, Philip Workman was executed by the State of Tennessee. Workman's claims of innocence had long been supported by anti-death penalty advocates in the UCC and beyond.
Workman was sentenced to death in 1982 in a trial that was widely publicized for prosecutorial misconduct, withheld evidence, and ineffective defense counsel, said the Rev. Sala Nolan, the UCC's minister for criminal justice and human rights. "In the original trial, Mr. Workman was accused of shooting Police Lt. Ronald Oliver in the course of an armed robbery. The key witness in the case admitted that he perjured himself at trial by testifying that he saw Mr. Workman shoot the police officer when he did not — a recantation that has been corroborated by another witness and by photographic evidence."
"I guess I'm not innocent enough," Workman was quoted as saying in an October 2000 article in United Church News, "Report casts doubt on death row convictions."
Nolan said an X-ray of the police officer's wound demonstrated that the wound could not have been caused by Philip Workman's gun, but this evidence was withheld from the jury. Ballistics evidence also demonstrated that the bullet that killed Officer Oliver did not come from Workman's gun, Nolan said. "However, this, too, was withheld for four years." Four of the trial jurors have since stated publicly that they would not have reached a capital conviction had this evidence been presented.
Details of the case
Over the last few years, the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries, through the UCC Justice and Peace Action Network, has coordinated several letter-writing campaigns to the Tennessee governor's office supporting clemency for Workman. The Rev. Joe Ingle, a UCC minister in Nashville, Tenn., was Workman's spiritual advisor.
"Surely there is something wrong with the justice system when an innocent man is put to death," Nolan said. "Philip's last request was that his final meal, a vegetarian pizza, be given to someone who was homeless. Even this simple, humane request was denied. Where are the human values in this system?"
In 1999, the UCC's General Synod reaffirmed its longstanding opposition to the death penalty, citing disparities in its application by race and economic resources, and citing frequently inadequate legal representation of people accused of capital offenses as evidence.
Since Workman's conviction, UCC leaders — including General Minister and President John Thomas, JWM Executive Minister Linda Jaramillo, former JWM Executive Minister Bernice Powell Jackson and representatives of the UCC's Council for Racial and Ethnic Ministries — have had the opportunity to meet with Workman.