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Government, Politics & Issues

Bill calling for moratorium on capital punishment finds growing support among religious leaders

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 18, 2009 - Wednesday afternoon Joshua Kezer, in prison for 14 years on a murder conviction, walked free, after a Cole County judge Tuesday affirmed his innocence. Kezer's appeals lawyer Charles Weiss of the Bryan Cave law firm drove to Jefferson City to welcome him to liberty. Weiss said the state has no evidence to tie Kezer to the murder.

While Kezer was not on Missouri's death row, many religious conservatives shy away from anything to do with the criminal justice system, especially the death penalty, because they see the issue tinged with politics, said the Rev. James Hill, 32, associate pastor at Southside Baptist Church in South St. Louis.

But, he added, issues about protecting the innocent should not be avoided for political reasons. To the contrary, Hill thinks criminal justice issues are well worth discussing.

Recently, when Hill read about a new Missouri House bill proposing adeeken 10-member blue-ribbon commission to examine the administration of the death penalty in Missouri, he paid attention. The bill also would put a moratorium on executions in Missouri for three years.

Missouri House Bill 484, sponsored by state Rep. Bill Deeken R-Jefferson City, can be a catalyst for discussion in small Bible groups at Southwest Baptist, Hill said. He hopes to organize some in the fall sessions. With a bill under consideration, his members would see that change is possible.

Before he moved to St. Louis, Hill served Pleasant Hill Baptist Church near Jefferson City. Baptist ministers in his Cole County peer group and Baptist churchgoers in general were more aware of issues related to Missouri prisons and justice reform than he has found in his St. Louis congregation.

"I am actually against the death penalty; I know a lot of Baptists who are," Hill said. Baptist leaders and lay people who attend its annual Southern Baptist Convention defend the death penalty. "It's a generalization, but more moderate Baptists tend to be against the death penalty while more conservative Baptists support it."

Wherever Missourians stand on the death penalty, they need to be sure those convicted are actually guilty, Hill said.

A study by the law school at Columbia University in New York showed that one-third of Missouri's death sentences eventually were reversed. Hill and others worry that some innocent people may have been executed.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and a network called the National Association of Evangelicals have issued national statements upholding the death penalty. Orthodox Jewish leaders support the death penalty but have called for a moratorium and studies to ensure that justice is applied equally, regardless of a defendant's economic status.

But many U.S. faith bodies oppose capital punishment. National leaders of Catholic and many mainline Protestant denominations -- including Episcopalians, United Methodists, American (so-called Northern) Baptists, the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the United Church of Christ -- strongly oppose the death penalty. Reform and Conservative Jewish national leaders oppose the death penalty.

In more than 20 interviews with St. Louis area religious leaders, all but two said it was time to study how Missouri death row inmates were sentenced and to approve a moratorium on executions during the study. The two exceptions were non-committal. Only Southwest Baptist's Hill had known about the House bill. 

Baptists and Catholics are the largest faith denominations in the state, nearly tied in numbers. Lutherans are the third largest body.{C}

A view from a Lutheran minister -- and former cop

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The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the nation's second-largest Lutheran denomination, with its world headquarters in Kirkwood, has long supported the right of the state to execute. Its "Large Catechism" supports capital punishment as does the Lutheran Confessions.

"The church cannot operate in a vacuum," said the Rev. John A. Fale, the associate executive director of the denomination's World Relief and Human Care arm, also based in Kirkwood. "While the church does not legislate or mandate punishment, in general the church would have something to say any time that (punishment) is being done in a way that is unjust or unfair.

"The standards that we use to demonstrate guilt or innocence change as our technology and science changes, and certainly that process should reflect the very best developed technology and science."

Fale says he cringes when he reads about individuals convicted of horrendous crimes, including murder and rape, who "years down the road after being imprisoned had DNA testing that showed that they were not guilty."

Studies showing that people of color and poor people are more likely to be sentenced to death than those with means and the ability to pay for a first-class defense are distressing to anyone who cares about justice, he said.

"Those studies have to prick the conscience of every citizen, not just the church," Fale said. "We want to ensure that in every case of capital punishment we are acting fairly."

Before he enrolled at a Lutheran seminary at the age of 26, Fale served seven years as a police officer in Wisconsin. He says that some people on death row may be so intellectually challenged that they cannot understand the results of their violent behavior.

As a young police officer, he never worked on a capital case, but even in routine arrests, he saw people not fully cognizant of their criminal actions.

"Sometimes we'd arrest someone, and within five or 10 minutes it was obvious that they didn't have the mental capacity to function," he said. "Yet they broke the law. We had to arrest them. Then, it was up to the discretion of the judge how punishment should be imposed. Special consideration should be shown."

Momentum toward a moratorium

The terrible toll that terrorists wrought on 9/11 may have slowed the efforts of many people of faith working to eliminate the death penalty, faith leaders said. Ending the death penalty was on resolutions in many churches' national meetings in 2000 and the summer of 2001.

The Rev. Jim Blue, pastor of SunRise United Methodist Church in O'Fallon, Mo., thinks that 9/11 may have "tempered the thoughts" of those considering eliminating the death penalty. As Blue sees things, television, movies and video games echo our violent society -- and so does execution.

Of the 600 adults and 100 youth who worship at SunRise each Sunday, many are raising young children; 81 percent of the members are under the age of 47, he said. Many in his St. Charles County church are disheartened by society's culture of violence

"Absolutely, this is an issue of justice that we need to be aware of," he said. The House bill is just the catalyst he needs to get his members to focus on the idea when he preaches on it.

In his work with ex-offenders, the Rev. Nathaniel Johnson has known Missourians falsely imprisoned on various charges, including murder. Since 2000 when Illinois put a moratorium on executions, Johnson has told people that Missouri should follow. He worries that innocent persons may be killed.

"The way the death penalty is applied, the process (of the sentence) is based on discretionary decisions that in the end mean those on death row are mostly people who are poor and (have) court-appointed lawyers," he said.

Johnson, 38, ministers a drug and alcohol abuse program at My Abundant Life Fellowship Church, in Black Jack. He has been in ministry for two decades helping ex-offenders get job training, housing, jobs and -- the key to it all -- learning how to keep a job.

For a decade he ran the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod-sponsored Lutheran Ministries Association ex-offender program. Now he leads a weekly program for ex-offenders at Trinity Lutheran Church in Soulard.

He opposes the death penalty on moral grounds but also for practical reasons. Many studies show it does not deter crime. "In states with the death penalty, the murder rates continues the same," he said. "Killing a person does not stop killing."

The Rev. Mark Cline, pastor of the Dorsett Village Baptist Church in Maryland Heights, had not heard about the Missouri bill but was eager to read it.

"Justice is absolutely important, we should be doing what is right. That is always worthy of discussion whether it comes across in the Bible or not," he said. "Any moral folk should think it is worth looking into."

When Elder Allan Turner hears news reports that after years of incarceration some American on death row is let go because of DNA testing or because a witness changes his mind, he is never surprised. He serves at Kossuth Church of Christ in north St. Louis' Water Tower neighborhood but spends three nights a week ministering to inmates in the City Jail and City Workhouse. Many times he finds that prisoners were wrongfully identified by witnesses or not given much time with court-appointed lawyers. Turner has promoted a moratorium for years.

Rabbi Mark L. Shook, senior rabbi of Congregation Temple Israel in Ladue, embraces a Missouri moratorium on the death penalty and called it long overdue. He's called for one since 2000,  when Illinois stopped all its executions.

"Society can not find a way to ensure with 100 percent certainty, then we should not have a death penalty," he said. "That is the reason Illinois has a moratorium."

Any Missouri commission interested in justice should also examine cases that might have resulted in a capital sentence where the defendant pled guilty to avoid execution, he said.

"The decision to go for the death penalty is sometimes used as leverage to get the defendant to take a plea deal," he said, "When I look at people who are wrongly accused and not guilty -- before the fact I would have wanted to know how many plead guilty to avoid the death sentence."

At Temple Israel there is scant discussion of the death penalty, but not because people don't care. They do, the rabbi said. Many agree with the Reform Jewish movement's national leadership who have publicly opposed the death penalty, he said.

Priorities beyond criminal justice

Others faith leaders find that criminal justice issues are not high on their congregation's lists of concerns.

At the Vedanta Society, a Hindu group whose house of worship faces Forest Park, a leader said that the members "never" discuss any public policy issue. Nationally, Hindu leaders have come down on both side of the death penalty.

Members of the fast-growing, 100-year-old St. John's Episcopal Church on Arsenal Boulevard near Grand Boulevard in South St. Louis are concerned about many justice issues, especially economic justice, said its senior pastor, the Rev. Teresa Mithen, 31. Her parish is youthful. In the four years, she has led the church it has grown from 12 members to over 200, she said. Most members are her age or younger, and she is unsure how they stand on the death penalty itself. The topic does not come up, and she has no plans to preach on the proposed moratorium.

Since the 1958 General Convention, U.S. Episcopal bishops have opposed the death penalty. Their regional spiritual leader Bishop Wayne Smith of the Episcopal Missouri Diocese strongly opposes the death penalty.

A 10-year journey

Deeken, the chief sponsor of the Missouri bill, is a Catholic. Ten years ago in St. Louis, he stood a few feet from Pope John Paul II when the pope entered the Dome. As the pope looked out over the 104,000 assembled for the Mass, he challenged them to end the death penalty.

Deeken's voice expresses his excitement when he talks about seeing the pope. However, John Paul did not change Deeken's belief in a death penalty, he said.

"Some murders are so gruesome that the murderers can't be rehabilitated, that's logic," Deeken said.

From a faith and ethical standpoint, Deeken focuses on the possibility that one person on Missouri's death row may be innocent. He knows that can happen. A Jefferson City acquaintance, Kevin Green, was on California's death row for 16 years for murdering his wife. Green was freed after a serial killer confessed.

For several years, Deeken, 69, has been talking to his colleagues about Missouri's death row sentencing. Last year he lined up 58 members to sign on as co-sponsors of his bill -- 14 from his own Republican party and 44 Democrats.

"I do what I see is right, I don't let politics get in the way of that," he said. Still his 2008 bill died in committee. He has hope for serious discussion this session.

Patricia Rice, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has written about religion for many years.

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