Other states, along with the federal government, should follow the lead of outgoing Illinois Gov. George Ryan in commuting the sentences of death row inmates, according to the chief executive of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.
Ryan, a United Methodist, had halted state executions three years ago while examining the fairness of the Illinois justice system. On Jan. 10, three days before leaving office, he announced he was pardoning four prisoners awaiting execution because he was convinced of their innocence. The next day, he commuted the death sentences of 167 other inmates, and most of them will serve life without parole instead.
"Gov. Ryan's decision is consistent with the United Methodist Social Principles, which state that 'we oppose capital punishment and urge its elimination from all criminal codes,'" said Jim Winkler in a statement released Jan. 16 by the Board of Church and Society.
"Gov. Ryan's action corrected an injustice in the Illinois death penalty system," he added. "It is time now for other states and the federal government to follow Gov. Ryan's lead."
Winkler expressed regret that Congress has expanded the number of federal crimes covered by the death penalty.
"Innocent people are being sent to death row and executed all over the country," he said. "Our church has a long history of concern for the poor and for minorities who have been executed without the opportunity to prove their innocence or who have been denied the right to competent legal counsel. Our prayer is that Gov. Ryan's decision will be seen as a watershed moment in the movement to end the death penalty."
A revised resolution on capital punishment adopted by the 2000 United Methodist General Conference, the denomination's top legislative body, said the church "cannot accept retribution or social vengeance as a reason for taking human life. It violates our deepest belief in God as the creator and redeemer of humankind. In this respect, there can be no assertion that human life can be taken by the state. Indeed, in the long run, the use of the death penalty by the state will increase the acceptance of revenge in our society and will give official sanction to a climate of violence."
By Albert H. Lee