The Death Penalty (a Methodists perspective)

Posted: January 13, 2017 in Report to UMC EOC
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History of the Death Penalty in the United States

         The first recorded execution in the US was in 1608 when Captain George Kendall was executed for being a spy for Spain. In Virginia, in 1612, the death penalty was punishment for such minor offenses as stealing grapes, killing chickens and trading with Indians.

The abolitionist movement in the US gained a foothold when Tomas Jefferson introduced a bill to revise Virginia’s death penalty laws by proposing the death penalty be abandoned for all crimes but those of murder and treason. This bill was defeated by only one vote. These early arguments for the abolition of the death penalty were based on challenging the belief that it serves as a deterrent to crime and that argument continues today. The abolitionist movement gained strength in the mid 19th century as states reduced the number of capital crimes and built state penitentiaries. In 1834, PA became the first state to move executions away from the public square and carry them out in their penitentiaries. In 1846, MI became the first state to abolish the death penalty for all crimes except treason. On the other hand, other states were expanding crimes punishable by death, especially to include those committed by slaves. After the civil war the means of executions expanded and the first electric chair execution was in 1890.

In the early to mid 20th century the use of the death penalty continued to wax and wane with states abolishing it then reinstating it in the wake of WWI. The first attempt to gas someone to death was in 1924 when the state of Nevada sought a more humane way of executing its inmates. The state tried pumping cyanide gas into an inmates cell while he slept. This didn’t work and the gas chamber was subsequently constructed. Between the 1920’s and 1960’s public support for capital punishment and numbers of actual executions still went up and down with the most executions taking place in the 1930’s and the fewest in the 1960’s.

In 1972, in the case of Furman v. Georgia (408 U.S. 238) the US Supreme Court knocked down Georgia’s death penalty statute which gave the jury complete sentencing discretion, as cruel and unusual due to the fact it was arbitrary in nature. This case effectively voided statues in 40 states and suspended the death penalty around the country.

In 1976, the Supreme Court reviewed the statutes of three states which included sentencing guidelines aimed at removing arbitrary and discretionary sentencing and held that the new statutes, which allowed for the introduction of aggravating and mitigating factors in determining sentencing, were constitutional. In addition to sentencing guidelines, procedural reforms were approved by the court. Those included bifurcated trials where guilt and sentencing phases are separated, automatic appellate review of convictions and sentencing and proportionality review where the state appellate court can compare the sentence in a case being reviewed with other cases within the state.  The death penalty was thereby reinstated in Georgia, Texas and Florida and these cases are collectively referred to as “The Gregg Decision.” More states soon followed with procedural reforms of their own.  In 1977, the 10-year moratorium on executions ended with the execution of Gary Gilmore by firing squad in Utah and in 1982 the first lethal injection was used on Charles Brooks in Texas.

But, starting in 1977 the US began establishing limitations on the use of capital punishment. The first was when the Supreme Court decided that the death penalty is an unconstitutional punishment for the rape of an adult woman when the victim was not killed. Subsequent limitations include: where there is mental illness and/or intellectual disability, when there are patterns of racial disparity in application of the death penalty and when offenders are juveniles.


The Death Penalty in Ohio

        Until 1885, executions were carried out in Ohio by public hangings, which were conducted by individual counties. In 1885, death row and executions were moved to the Ohio Penitentiary in Columbus. The electric chair was first used in Ohio in 1897 and was used to execute 312 men and 3 women. The last execution by electric chair was in 1963.

Ohio’s death penalty statutes have a checkered history. After the trickle down effects of Furman in 1972, Ohio’s death penalty was re-instated in 1974, only to be struck down as unconstitutional again in 1978. The current statute went into effect in 1981, however, Ohio did not resume executions until 1999. And in fact, in 1991, Governor Richard Celeste commuted 8 sentences of inmates on Ohio’s death row citing a “disturbing racial pattern” in sentencing. Nonetheless, Ohio executed 438 people before 1976, and 53 since. There are currently 141 men on death row and 1 woman. There have been 9 innocent people freed from death row and 18 clemencies granted.

Currently, Ohio’s only means of execution is lethal injection and the program has come under fire. Gov. Kasich halted all executions in 2014 when Dennis McGuire was put to death for the murder of a pregnant woman. The 2 drug process took 26 minutes, and witnesses said McGuire seized and gasped for 15 minutes. The injected cocktail was to blame for the delay and the apparent pain. Governor Kasich then delayed all executions until January 2017. Execution by lethal injection is scheduled to resume with a new “3 drug cocktail” in January, however this method is also being reviewed as federal public defenders have filed suit claiming multiple problems remain with the way the state prepares and carries out the executions resulting in cruel and unusual punishment.

Other problems with Ohio’s death penalty program were revealed in a 2016 study which found “vast” inequities grounded in race, gender and geography in the state of Ohio. The data showed that Ohio was 6 times more likely to execute a prisoner convicted of killing a white female victim than if the victim was a black male. Although 43% of Ohio murder victims are white, 65% of Ohio executions involved the murder of white victims. And, while only 27% of Ohio murder victims are female, 52% of all executions involved cases with female victims. In addition, more than half of the state’s executions were concentrated in just 4 counties (Cuyahoga, Lake, Franklin and Hamilton), while more than 3/4 of Ohio counties have not produced any executions. Lake County had an execution rate that was 11 times the statewide average. Although the state’s three most populous counties (Cuyahoga, Franklin, and Hamilton) have similar murder rates, Hamilton’s .60 executions per 100 homicides was more than double the rate in Cuyahoga and nearly 9 times that in Franklin.


Currently, public support for the death penalty is in decline. More than half of the US population prefers alternatives over the death penalty as the best punishment for murder. There are many additional factors contributing to the abhorrence of state sanctioned killing.

The first, written about throughout the history of capital punishment debates is the arbitrary means of conviction and sentencing.  Race bias, inconsistent punishments, political factors and geography all play a role in random outcomes and unrestrained use of authority. In terms of race bias, it is easy to break it down by the numbers. The 10 states that practiced slavery do 80% of the executions. 42% of inmates on death row are black, 43% are white, 13% are Latino. Black people are only 13% of the US population.

From initial charging decisions to plea bargaining to jury sentencing, African-Americans are treated more harshly when they are defendants and their lives are less valued when they are victims. Since 1977, the overwhelming majority of death row defendants (approximately 77%) have been executed for killing white victims, even though African Americans make up about half of all homicide victims.  In addition, all white or virtually all white juries are still commonplace in many localities around the country.

Another problem recognized by those against the death penalty is the fact that the risk of executing someone that is innocent can never be eliminated.  Since 1973, 140 people have been released from death rows throughout the country due to wrongful convictions. There are many factors leading to wrongful convictions. They include:

  • Inadequate legal representation
  • Police and prosecutorial Misconduct
  • Perjured testimony and Mistaken Eyewitness testimony
  • Racial Prejudice
  • Jailhouse snitch testimony
  • Suppression and/or misinterpretation of mitigating evidence
  • Community and Political pressure to solve a case

The problem of wrongful convictions has recently garnered significant press in light of the advancement of DNA technologies. In fact, in 2000, amid massive media coverage, Gov. George Ryan of Illinois enacted a moratorium on executions because of doubts about the justice system when it was determined that 13 men in that state were wrongly condemned. In 2011, Gov. Pat Quinn totally abolished the death penalty after concluding that a system “free of all mistakes, free of all discrimination with respect to race or economic circumstance or geography” was not attainable.

In addition, there is great concern that a significant number of death row inmates are mentally impaired. Although the execution of the insane is unconstitutional, the determination of sanity is left of to each state and there are minimal protections for other forms of mental illness such as schizophrenia. The National Association of Mental Health estimates that 5-10% of those on death row have serious mental illness.

Because all states with the death penalty and the federal government currently use lethal injection as their primary method of execution I will spend quite a bit of time on this topic. Unfortunately, lethal injection has the highest rate of botched executions among all methods. Out of 1,054 total executions, 75 were botched. That is 7.12% of those executions went wrong. Firing squads had the lowest rate of botched executions at 0% and electrocution next lowest with 1.92% botched. As states changed their methods of execution from hanging, to electrocution, to lethal gas, then lethal injection, there was always a promise that the new technology would be safer, more reliable, more effective and more humane. Sadly, the statistics do not seem to bear this out.

Horrifyingly, the cocktail of killing drugs, particularly the paralyzing agent most commonly used is not considered a humane mixture for euthanizing animals. Because of the potential for masking pain, the American Veterinary Medical Association has rejected the use of paralyzing agents like pancuronium bromide in animal euthanasia. In fact, at least 2 states have banned its use on animals yet continues to use it on humans. In the last several years the manufacturers of the drugs used in lethal injections have objected to such use and discontinued sales for execution purposes.  In 2015 Utah passed a law allowing the use of a firing squad if lethal injection drugs aren’t available. Today there is considerable debate as to whether 1, 2 or 3 drug protocols are acceptable means of execution.

Furthermore, doctors are put in precarious positions in some states that require medical personnel to either assist with, or carry out executions. Although all codes of professional ethics which consider the death penalty opposed health professional participation, in many states health professionals are required by law to assist executions and some cases have carried out the killings. In other states, prison personnel insert the IV’s and administer the drugs inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering and increasing the length of the execution.

Contrary to popular belief, the greatest costs associated with the death penalty occur prior to and during trial, not in the appeals process. Almost all death row inmates cannot afford their own attorney at trial and are assigned court appointed attorneys who often lack experience, are overworked and/or underpaid. Bifurcated trials, sentencing reviews and other trial phase procedures and costs are complicated, astronomical and often divert resources from genuine crime control efforts. Even if post-conviction proceedings (appeals) were abolished, the death penalty would still be more expensive than alternative sentences.

One justification often used to support the death penalty is that the severest of punishments acts as a deterrence to violent crime. However, the FBI data shows that the 14 states without capital punishment in 2008 had homicide rates at or below the national rate, putting a hole in that argument.

There are many other issues that demonstrate problems with the death penalty including the execution of Foreign Nationals and juveniles and instances of prosecutorial misconduct that I will not be addressing at this time.


         Today fundamentalists and Pentecostal churches generally support the death penalty on biblical grounds. On the other hand, the Catholic Church and most protestant denominations oppose the death penalty. The Church of Latter Day saints regard the question as a matter to be decided solely by the process of civil law and neither actively promotes nor opposes capital punishment.

 The United Methodist Church

For 60 years, the UMC has stood against the concept of Capital Punishment. As one of the first denominations to speak out against the Death Penalty, the Church, at General Conference in 1956, proclaimed “We stand for the application of the redemptive principle to the treatment of offenders against the law, to reform of penal and correctional methods, and to criminal court procedures. We deplore the use of capital punishment.”


The Social Principles are specific (160 V. The Political Community):

(G) The Death Penalty

We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings. The United Methodist Church is deeply concerned about crime throughout the world and the value of any life taken by a murder or homicide. We believe all human life is sacred and created by God and therefore, we must see all human life as significant and valuable. When governments implement the death penalty (capital punishment), then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person’s life ends. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. This gift of reconciliation is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness. For this reason, we oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.

In short, the United Methodist Church sees the execution of citizens as an overall devaluing of human life. The church does not support the premise that the death penalty has a deterrent effect on crime. And finally, the arbitrariness and discrimination rampant in the administration of capital punishment is also of great concern to the church as it is generally applied unfairly and unequally on minorities.

On this particular point it warrants a look at the next Social Principle:

(H) Criminal Justice and Restorative Justice

… “In the love of Christ, who came to save those who are lost and vulnerable, we urge the creation of a genuinely new system for the care and restoration of victims, offenders, criminal justice officials, and the community as a whole. Restorative justice grows out of biblical authority, which emphasizes a right relationship with God, self, and community. When such relationships are violated or broken through crime, opportunities are created to make things right. Most criminal justice systems around the world are retributive. These retributive justice systems profess to hold the offender accountable to the state and use punishment as the equalizing tool for accountability. In contrast, restorative justice seeks to hold the offender accountable to the victimized person, and to the disrupted community. Through God’s transforming power, restorative justice seeks to repair the damage, right the wrong, and bring healing to all involved, including the victim, the offender, the families, and the community. The Church is transformed when it responds to the claims of discipleship by becoming an agent of healing and systemic change.”

The national Board of Church and Society has called capital punishment an “act of barbarism, which has no room in a civilized society, nor in a country that prides so much on its Christian heritage.”  It also is abhorrent to a criminal justice system based in restorative justice.



Death Penalty Information Center,

A clearinghouse of information used to educate the public and assist the media to shape educated conversations about the death penalty.

Amnesty International,,

United States Census, Quick Facts,

Ohio Ready to Resume Executions With New Drug Combination, October 3, 2016, USA Today,

Andrew Welsh-Huggins, Lawyers: Ohio Execution Plan Like Burning Inmates at Stake, Associated Press, October 27, 2016,

Baumgartner, “The Impact of Race, Gender, and Geography on Ohio Executions,” University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, January 28, 2016

A. Johnson, “Study finds racial, gender bias in Ohio executions,” The Columbus Dispatch, January 28, 2016.

Illinois Abolishes The Death Penalty, NPR Staff & Writers,,  March 9, 2011


Further Reading

The 2% Death Penalty: How a Minority of Counties Produce Most Death Cases at Enormous Costs to All, Death Penalty Information Center, October 1, 2013

Struck by Lightning: The Continuing Arbitrariness of the Death Penalty Thirty-Five Years After its Reinstatement in 1976, Death Penalty Information Center, June 22, 2011

The Death Penalty in Black & White: Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Decides, Death Penalty Information Center, June 4, 1998

Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Bryan Stevenson

“Bryan Stevenson is America’s young Nelson Mandela, a brilliant lawyer fighting with courage and conviction to guarantee justice for all. Just Mercy should be read by people of conscience in every civilized country in the world to discover what happens when revenge and retribution replace justice and mercy. It is as gripping to read as any legal thriller, and what hangs in the balance is nothing less than the soul of a great nation.”—Desmond Tutu, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate

“As deeply moving, poignant and powerful a book as has been, and maybe ever can be, written about the death penalty.”—The Financial Times





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