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Board urged to tackle justice issues; seeks change in death sentences

10/4/1999 News media contact: Linda Green · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn

NOTE: This report may be used with UMNS story #507.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS) - The United Methodist Church must become more engaged in ministering not only to victims of crime but also their families and the criminals themselves, a restorative justice advocate told directors of the denomination's Board of Discipleship.

"The United Methodist Church needs to be more involved in restorative justice," said Harmon Wray, executive director of Restorative Justice Ministries of the United Methodist Church, Nashville, Tenn.

"It fits the biblical witness of caring engagement with victims and offenders, and it fits our Wesleyan tradition of concern for victims and prisoners," he told the board Oct. 1. "It is an absolute imperative of the gospel of repentance and reconciliation in which we say we believe. And it has the potential to heal much of the greed, violence and vengefulness which seems to be tearing us apart and devouring us, both in this country and throughout the world."

Shortly after hearing Wray, the governing members of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship voted to ask Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist to commute the sentences of two death row inmates. The 58-member board overwhelmingly approved Nashville Area Bishop Kenneth Carder's motion requesting that the governor change the sentences of Robert Glen Coe and Philip Workman to life in prison or another alternative to the death penalty.

Coe, 48, was convicted in 1981 of murdering 8-year-old Cary Ann Medlin of Greenfield, Tenn., in September 1979. If he is executed as scheduled on Oct. 19, he will be the first convicted felon put to death in Tennessee in 40 years. Workman has been sentenced to death for the 1981 killing of a Memphis police officer. No execution date has been set.

The board's action was to be taken to an Oct. 4 meeting of Nashville religious leaders, who were to discuss the religious community's response to the upcoming execution and capital punishment.

The vote is in line with the denomination's stance against capital punishment.

Wray's presentation was an incentive for the board's vote. His program was started under a mandate from the 1996 General Conference, the top lawmaking body of the United Methodist Church. The restorative movement seeks to help people better understand the realities of crime and punishment.

Paragraph 68F of the denomination's Book of Discipline urges the creation of genuinely new systems for the care and support of victims of crime and for rehabilitation that will restore, preserve and nurture the humanity of the imprisoned. "For the same reason, we oppose capital punishment and urge its elimination from all criminal codes."

Wray said the current justice system assumes a win-lose outcome and ignores the social, economic and moral context of the crime and the appropriate response to it. He said the system is based on a commitment to retribution by the state against the offender, not on the principle of restitution of the victim by the offender.

Restorative justice reverses this perspective because "the real victim, the offender and the local community are seen as the principle stakeholders and are involved in deciding what it will take to 'make it right,'" he said.

Restorative justice involves accountability, the offender taking responsibility for what has been done, repenting of it, trying to make it right and not doing it again, he said.

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