Church's death penalty stance singles out Texas
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals' stay of execution for a death row
inmate on June 3 answered the prayers of many United Methodists keeping a
close watch on the case.
Derrick Sonnier received his reprieve 90 minutes before he was scheduled
to receive a lethal injection at 6 p.m. The convicted killer would have
been the 406th person executed by the state and the first executed in
Texas after The United Methodist Church called for an end to the death
penalty in the state that leads the United States in executions.
The denomination passed its latest resolution against the death penalty on
May 2 during the 2008 General Conference, which convened this year in Fort
Worth, Texas. The church's top legislative body, which meets once every 4
years, has passed resolutions opposing the death penalty at every assembly
Sonnier's execution date was scheduled after the U.S. Supreme Court in
April upheld lethal injection as a proper method of capital punishment.
Lawyers for the Texas Defender Service filed a last-minute appeal in
behalf of Sonnier on his scheduled execution day, arguing that the
procedure would cause him unconstitutional pain and suffering. The appeal
also said Texas' procedure had not been reviewed legally and that
officials with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice had changed their
written execution protocols within the past week without review by the
General Conference, the only body that can speak in behalf of the entire
denomination, stated in its most recently approved resolution that "there
can be no assertion that human life can be taken humanely by the state."
The assembly said the death penalty "will increase the acceptance of
revenge in our society and will give official sanction to a climate of
A new resolution singles out the state of Texas, expressing the church's
"deepest appreciation to all those organizations and individuals in Texas
who have valiantly struggled and continue to struggle for a more humane
society in which the death penalty is rare or non-existent."
"It is the ultimate Christian belief that no matter what sins a person has
committed, no person is beyond redemption."The Rev. Bill MartinWatching
General Conference proceedings online from her home in Austin, Texas,
Vicki McCuistion cried when the resolution passed. McCuistion is program
director for the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and a member
of Wimberley United Methodist Church.
"It felt so good for General Conference to pass the resolution; it was so
affirming to all involved in the battle in Texas," she said.
A task force from St. John's United Methodist Church, Lubbock, brought the
petition before the denomination.
"We felt it was appropriate for a group from Texas to ask General
Conference to pass the resolution," said the Rev. Bill Martin, retired
pastor and a member of St. John's. "It is the ultimate Christian belief
that no matter what sins a person has committed, no person is beyond
The petition almost died in subcommittee, where some delegates argued that
the church already has a resolution calling for the abolition of capital
punishment "from all criminal codes." The Rev. Mike McKee argued for the
petition, noting that General Conference was meeting in Texas, the state
that leads the nation in the number of executions.
"I have lived in Texas all my life, and Texas puts to death more people
than any other state," said McKee, pastor of First United Methodist Church
in Hurst. "There are so many concerns about African Americans and Latinos
being unfairly sentenced to death and concerns about innocent people being
executed that there should at the very least be a moratorium on all cases.
Execution prevents the possibility of redemption and once it is carried
out, it is final. If we find we made a mistake and convicted an innocent
person, it is too late."
The resolution noted that Texas has executed more than 400 people since
1982, including 6 who were mentally retarded, 20 who suffered from mental
illness and 13 who were juveniles when their crimes were committed.
Notice of the General Conference action was sent to the Texas Legislature,
the Texas Pardon and Parole Board, Gov. Rick Perry, the Texas Conference
of Churches and the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
The resolution also has been shared with other faith groups and has been
helpful in starting conversations about a difficult subject, according to
"If you can't talk about the tough stuff in church, where can you talk
about it?" she said. Executions just bring "more pain," said McCuistion,
who has spoken with family members of both Sonnier and the victims in his
Sonnier, now 40, was sentenced to die for the 1991 beating and stabbing
deaths of Melody Flowers and her toddler in Houston.
"Society can be protected when people are sentenced to life in prison
without parole," McCuistion said. "Sitting and thinking about their crime
day after day can be beneficial."
(source: United Methodist Church News)
Court's integrity proposal
The weaknesses of Texas' much-maligned criminal justice system will be
getting an examination from the very court that has endured and deserved
much of the maligning: the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
The court was right last week to announce its own "integrity unit."
Breakdowns in justice have been documented at an embarrassing level in
Texas, highlighted by Dallas County's nation-leading parade of 17 DNA
exonerations. One appeals court judge, Barbara Hervey, was on hand in the
state Capitol last month to hear heart-rending stories from nine former
state prisoners who proved their innocence after years behind bars.
Failures in justice were many, resulting from faulty witness
identification, shoddy or bogus crime forensics, prosecutorial misconduct
and weak legal representation. The list goes on so much so that Judge
Hervey said last week that it's "time to act and move for reform."
Of course it is, and Texans who care about justice should appreciate Judge
Hervey's leadership. The experts she has assembled including Dallas
County District Attorney Craig Watkins are capable of analyzing problems
and suggesting solutions.
Lasting reform, though, requires legislative action, and that's why an
effort by Sen. Rodney Ellis should continue to muster political support.
Mr. Ellis, a Houston Democrat who organized the Capitol conference, wants
to create an innocence commission that could help set criminal justice
standards by re-examining wrongful convictions.
The appeals court, meanwhile, regains some credibility in stopping an
execution last week to examine an appeal of Texas' lethal injection
procedure. The court made a mockery of justice in September when Presiding
Judge Sharon Keller issued her infamous "we close at 5" edict, refusing to
consider a similar appeal from a Houston killer that came in minutes late.
The ensuing execution appeared to flaunt the U.S. Supreme Court's move to
halt capital punishment nationwide because of the injection question.
With states now cleared to start up again, Texas' highest criminal court
has decided that Huntsville's death chamber should not cut short due
process before resuming its lethal work. Nothing less should be expected
from a court that sets the tone for the nation's leading capital
(source: Editorial, Dallas Morning News, June 8)