Death Row visit evokes the presence of God
Written by Ron Buford
April 2001

 

 Philip Workman was scheduled to be executed March 30. Jefferson Dorsey photo.  

On Monday, March 19, just 11 days before Philip Workman's scheduled execution date, two UCC Collegium Officers and two Conference Ministers visited this man, whom many believe to be innocent, on Tennessee's death row in Nashville.

The visit took place in a small room with steel doors on opposite ends—one for prisoners, the other for visitors. Sporting a baseball cap with Job 13:15 emblazoned on its front, Workman graciously welcomed the Rev. John H. Thomas, General Minister and President; Bernice Powell Jackson, Executive Minister of Justice and Witness Ministries; and two Conference Ministers, the Revs. Jane Fisler Hoffman (Illinois) and Timothy Downs (Southeast).

Two at a time, each pair got to spend more than an hour with Workman. They listened, laughed, cried, shared scriptures and prayed with the brown-eyed and soft-spoken man, remarking on his engaging smile and calming presence.

"Workman is still in disbelief that the state is so determined to execute him for a crime he did not commit," said Thomas. "He remains confident of God's presence whether his sentence is commuted to life in prison or not."

"He talks calmly and with resolve about the power of prayer and the 11 days he has left," said Jackson.

Workman committed a robbery in Memphis on Aug. 5, 1981. In the process of apprehending him, the police bludgeoned Workman with a flashlight. Workman broke free and ran. Shots rang out. A police officer was slain. Workman does not remember firing at an officer.

Irregularities in Workman's case include the fact that the state's key witness, who testified that Workman shot the officer "calmly and deliberately," has since confessed to not being at the crime scene at all and to perjuring himself at trial. Another irregularity is that two medical examiners report that the fatal wound to the officer is inconsistent with one Workman's weapon would have made.

Workman's attorneys have made numerous appeals, including a Sept., 5, 2000, appeal to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. That Court rendered a split 7-7 decision that effectively denied Workman an evidentiary hearing. Workman's future now lies in the hands of Tennessee's Governor Don Sundquist.

In the meantime, Workman's attorneys have filed an 11th hour brief that suggests intent by the government to suppress and misrepresent evidence that would have proved Workman's innocence.

The visit was arranged by the Rev. Sala Nolan, Minister for Criminal Justice and Human Rights in the UCC's national setting.

"Workman's story parallels the story of the falsely accused Jesus before a Roman Governor who also ignored the legal irregularities and washed his hands of the whole affair," she said afterwards.

"If we do not speak against this travesty," added Downs, "we bring judgment on ourselves."

The Rev. Jane Fisler Hoffman, whose husband is a former policeman, recalled the faith journey that Workman shared with them.

"He talked about having no use for Christianity until he had a dream that he had fallen down into a deep hole," she said. "A rope came down to him. Certain that like most other things in his life, the rope would pull away from him, he gave it a try anyway. The rope did not move away and he climbed up to his jail cell floor. He felt that God had reached down and pulled him out of his despair. From then on he began to read, pray and study the Bible."

"I experienced the presence of God in that little room," says Fisler Hoffman. "I won't forget holding his hand as we prayed."

For information on Workman's appeal, visit the UCC website and click on News.

Ron Buford, UCC Marketing and Public Relations Manager, accompanied the Death Row delegation.

Want to learn more?

The UCC's national Minister for Criminal Justice and Human Rights is the Rev. Sala Nolan. Contact her about the death penalty at 700 Prospect Ave., Cleveland, OH 44115- 1100; 216/736-3716; nolans@ucc.org.

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