Remembering death row prisoners
Written by Sala Nolan
November 2000

The Thanksgiving season is upon us, calling us to be mindful of the community of Spirit, and to be generous with all that we have.

Last year, General Synod 22 reaffirmed its long-standing opposition to the death penalty, citing racial and socioeconomic inequities in the application of the death penalty and inadequate legal representation for people standing trial for capital crimes. Evidence for the wisdom of this action continues to mount. In September, the U.S. Department of Justice reported that racial and regional disparities indeed exist in administering the federal death penalty. A growing number of convictions of women, men and youth are being overturned based on DNA and other evidence. Governor Ryan of Illinois declared a moratorium on executions in his state following the release of 13 persons convicted and later found to be innocent based on such evidence. In Los Angeles, as in other cities, the entire police department has come under intense scrutiny as officer after officer is arrested for lying under oath.

And what does this have to do with Thanksgiving?

In the United States today, 3,629 men and 53 women are living on death row, some of them convicted while they were still children. It is the time of Thanksgiving for community. Those of us who enjoy our freedom are reminded that these men, women and children are members of our Community of Spirit. They are our brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. In these turbulent times, how are we to know how many of them are innocent? How are we to know whether witnesses were coerced, or testimony perjured, or evidence suppressed? How many have been sentenced to die for their poverty? Just as relatives must grieve and worry for their plight, so must we as a faith community hold them in our concern, because they are our sisters and brothers in Spirit.

Capital punishment is carried out in this country in the name of its citizens. Since l973, a total of 668 people have been executed: 147 by electrocution, two by firing squad, 11 by gas chamber, three by hanging, and 505 by lethal injection. The United Nations Convention on the Child (Article 37a) proclaims that neither capital punishment nor life sentence without possibility of release shall be imposed for offenses committed by persons below l8 years of age, and yet we in the United States have imposed the death sentence on 196 juvenile offenders, 17 of whom have been executed in recent years. We are the only country in the world that publicly convicts and executes minors.

As a member of the Christian community, as a citizen, as a person of conscience—do you condone what is being done?

What does a faith community do with such issues?

Educate yourself. Some good reading choices are "Legal Lynching: Racism, Injustice, and the Death Penalty by the Rev. Jesse Jackson," "Dead Man Walking" by Sr. Helen Prejean, and "Executing Justice: The Moral Meaning of the Death Penalty" by a UCC minister, the Rev. Lloyd Steffen.

Contact your legislators and governor and ask them to support a moratorium on the death penalty. Ask them not to kill anyone in your name.

Participate in a forum on the death penalty, or better yet, organize one.

Correspond with a death row inmate.

Pray for wisdom.

May we act in good faith with open hearts, and let justice roll on like a river.

Sala Nolan is Minister for Criminal Justice and Human Rights in Justice and Witness Ministries in the UCC's national setting. Contact her at 700 Prospect Avenue, Cleveland, OH 44115-1100; phone 216-736-3716; e-mail nolans@ucc.org.

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