News Archives

Longtime death penalty opponent optimistic about change

4/1/2003 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

NOTE: This report is a sidebar to UMNS story #189.

A UMNS Report By Tom McAnally* By Tom McAnally*

Harmon Wray, a longtime advocate for eliminating capital punishment in the United States, is more hopeful than he has been for many years.

He gives several reasons for his optimism:

· The moratorium movement and a growing realization among citizens that the system is not infallible.
· The work and influence of Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote the book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, on which the 1995 movie "Dead Man Walking" was based.
· Additional sentencing options for jurors, including life without parole statutes.
· Growing recognition that a disproportionate number of death row inmates are poor, non-white, mentally ill or brain damaged, and charged with killing white people.
· A growing number of family members of victims who are speaking out against the death penalty.

While Catholics are visibly working to stamp out capital punishment, Wray says other church groups are not as aggressive. "Positive resolutions have been passed by the United Methodist Church and other denominations, but that doesn't mean much without action, " Wray said. "Church leaders are afraid to confront the powers."

Until last year, Wray was director of a United Methodist Office of Restorative Justice, based at Scarritt-Bennett Center in Nashville, Tenn. The office was closed in a cost-cutting move by the church's Board of Global Ministries. He is the author of Restorative Justice: Moving Beyond Punishment, a popular study book produced for the 2002 annual United Methodist Women mission studies.

The 1995 Oklahoma City bombing was one of many events, along with the terrorist attacks of 2001, that have prompted many to jump on the death penalty bandwagon, Wray said. "I understand the feelings of family members of victims and the concern for public safety, but (bomber) Timothy McVeigh was possessed with a spirit of revenge, just as are the people who put him to death."

The reason many people support capital punishment is simple, Wray said. "They want revenge. People with this view are not evil people. They are concerned about the victims of crime and public safety." He expressed concern that many people, particularly jurors, support capital punishment out of a sense of loyalty to the victim. "There is a false sense that some capital punishment brings closure."

Wray also seeks to discount the idea that if criminals don't get the death penalty they'll get out of prison in three or four years. "A recent study of jurors showed that they think that if they hadn't given the death penalty, the individual would have gotten out in five or six years, even when the state law guaranteed life in prison without parole. People convicted of first-degree murder aren't getting out early anymore."

He is heartened by public opinion surveys that show support for the death penalty has dipped slightly in recent years. He said one reason may be that other options are available.

"If given more than one option, people change their opinion," he explained. "If asked only if they are for or against, the majority would say yes. Asked if they would execute juveniles, many would not say yes. More would likely be against executing mentally retarded individuals.

"Asked about alternative sentencing, such as requiring a convicted murderer to serve 25 years before a parole hearing, many would change their minds," he continued. "Even more would be against the death penalty if the convicted person was required to work and provide money to the families of victims."

# # #

* McAnally, retired director of United Methodist News Service, resides in Nashville, Tenn.

Back : News Archives 2003 Main

Contact Us

This will not reach a local church, district or conference office. InfoServ* staff will answer your question, or direct it to someone who can provide information and/or resources.


*InfoServ ( about ) is a ministry of United Methodist Communications located in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. 1-800-251-8140

Not receiving a reply?
Your Spam Blocker might not recognize our email address. Add to your list of approved senders.