Death Penalty

Church leaders praise Supreme Court ban of juvenile executions

By Marta W. Aldrich*

Welcoming new opportunities for justice that seek restoration over vengeance, United Methodist leaders lauded the U.S. Supreme Court for outlawing the execution of juvenile criminals.

The March 1 ruling, they said, reflects a shift in both public and judicial sentiment about the fairness of capital punishment in general. Noting the United Methodist Church strongly opposes the death penalty in all circumstances, they called on the court to ban all executions in the United States.

“I thank God that the Supreme Court … has at long last ruled against the execution of persons under the age of 18,” said the Rev. R. Randy Day, the top mission executive of the United Methodist Church.

“(We encourage) … guidance that will lead young people away from violence and crime, but we do not turn our backs on those who commit criminal acts, including murder,” said Day, who leads the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, which prioritizes ministries to children and young people worldwide. “The Bible and the church teach love, forgiveness and the opportunity for restoration even in cases of the worst offenders.”

The high court’s 5-4 decision overturns a 1989 ruling and throws out the death sentences of 72 murderers who committed their crimes as juveniles. Nineteen states had allowed juvenile executions but only three – Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia – had carried them out in the past decade.

The Supreme Court ruling is the second in recent years to narrow the scope of the death penalty in the United States. A 2002 decision blocked the execution of mentally retarded persons found guilty of capital crimes.

“The pendulum has definitely begun to swing against the death penalty,” said Jim Winkler, chief executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, the denomination’s social advocacy agency.

Winkler cited growing concerns that innocent people are on death row, fueled by accounts of condemned inmates who were later exonerated. He noted studies that indicate the punishment has been applied in a racist or elitist manner.

“The death penalty is too flawed,” he said. “People are feeling a real uneasiness about it.”

Writing on behalf of the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited new scientific research suggesting that teenage offenders cannot be held as responsible as adults for their crimes. He noted the United States was among only a handful of nations that continued to sanction juvenile executions.

“It is proper that we acknowledge the overwhelming weight of international opinion against the juvenile death penalty, resting in large part on the understanding that the instability and emotional imbalance of young people may often be a factor in a crime,” Kennedy wrote.

Since 1990, the United States has accounted for almost half of the world’s 39 known executions of child offenders.

“It’s just savagery, really,” Winkler told United Methodist News Service.

Prominent leaders in the international human rights movement concurred.

William F. Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said in a statement that the court’s ruling “repudiated the misguided idea that the United States can pledge to leave no child behind while simultaneously exiling children to the death chamber.”

Former President Jimmy Carter, who filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case in 2004, said in a statement the ruling “acknowledges the profound inconsistency in prohibiting those under 18 years of age from voting, serving in the military or buying cigarettes, while allowing them to be sentenced to the ultimate punishment.”

In its Book of Discipline, the United Methodist Church opposes the death penalty in all circumstances and declares that “all human life is sacred and created by God.”

“We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings,” it says.

Harmon Wray, who once headed the denomination’s restorative justice office, welcomed the ruling as an opportunity to better explore alternative forms of punishment – such as restorative justice – which he says are more consistent with the ministry of Jesus Christ and the teachings of the Gospel.

Restorative justice brings together the victim, offender and local community to determine an appropriate response to the crime. “It’s when crime is understood as a violation of another human being, not just breaking the law,” said Wray, who has worked on criminal justice concerns for 32 years.

“It defines accountability not as passively taking punishment but actively taking responsibility and trying to make amends,” he said. “It amounts to a focus on repairing the harm rather than seeking vengeance and a punitive response.”

*Aldrich is a freelance writer in Franklin, Tenn.

This report was originally posted on March 2, 2005.


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