Houston religious leaders pledge to fight death penalty
By JEANNIE KEVER
Seven of Houston's best-known religious leaders publicly pledged to fight the death penalty Tuesday night, saying it damages the society it seeks to protect.
"When an execution happens, who dies?" asked the Rev. Mike Cole, General Presbyter of the New Covenant Presbytery. "All of us."
Several other speakers called for the abolition of the death penalty in Texas, drawing applause from a packed auditorium at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts.
The discussion was scheduled to coincide with the Houston Grand Opera's production of Dead Man Walking, which opens Saturday. It is based upon Sister Helen Prejean's book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States.
Prejean, who served as moderator, has been a leading opponent of the death penalty since before her book was published in 1994. It became an Oscar-winning movie before it was turned into an opera, but she said getting other religious leaders to speak out has been more difficult.
"The silence has been deafening," she said in an interview before the panel discussion. "It's taken years and years to get them to be active. The idea that someone could be Christian and for the death penalty, it's the very opposite of what Jesus stood for."
Not new to the fight
But many of the leaders said they have long been involved in the fight.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, leader of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, described touring the death chamber in Huntsville after leading an anti-abortion march through the city.
"There was an unmistakeable feeling of coldness, of everything that is opposed to the dignity of the human person, even a guilty person," he said.
Other panelists were Bishop Janice Riggle Huie of the Texas United Methodist Church Conference; Rabbi David Lyon, senior pastor of Congregation Beth Israel; Bishop Mike Rinehart of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, Evangelical Lutheran Church; the Rev. Harvey Clemons Jr., pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church; and the Rev. Daniel Melendez, director of Pastors in Action.
Public attitudes are shifting, too. Eight people were sentenced to death in Texas last year, the lowest number since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court ended its ban on capital punishment.
Much of the drop is attributed to a 2005 law that allowed Texas to sentence people to life without parole, ensuring that they would not get out of prison. Concerns over the rising number of people exonerated after years in prison — occasionally even on death row — play a part, too.
And Prejean said many people also have come to feel that public money could be put to better use than financing the years — sometimes decades — of court appeals that accompany a death sentence.
"If we're using our resources for death, we're not going to be using them for life, for helping victims' families and solving cold cases," she said.
Graves case mentioned
Several speakers talked about the advances in scientific and investigative techniques that have led to the exoneration of people previously found guilty.
Rinehart mentioned the case of Anthony Graves, recently freed after 18 years on death row.
"That should be as offensive to us as the original crime," he said. "The state just gets it wrong too often."
Prejean said she hopes the event will be just the beginning of a renewed focus by religious leaders on the death penalty.
"It's controversial, and it's hard to pick up as a religious leader," she said. "The hope is that those who stand publicly will also give a much more serious effort to educating the people in the pews."