Art and Religion Tackle Capital Punishment

Date Posted: 1/12/2011

The author of the novel, Dead Man Walking, will moderate a conversation of religious leaders whose business is life.


Bishop Janice Riggle will join Cardinal Daniel Dinardo of the Roman Catholic Church; Bishop Mike Rinehart of the Evangelical Lutheran Church; Rabbi David Lyon of Congregation Beth Israel and other leaders for the “Religious Leaders Dialogue on the Death Penalty” at the Hobby Center’s Zilkha Hall on January 18 at 7:30 p.m.


Moderated by Sr. Helen Prejean, author of the book Dead Man Walking, and Vicki Schieber of Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, the evening brings together seven of Houston’s religious leaders to explore perspectives on the death penalty in the city with the highest death penalty rate in the nation.


The unprecedented event will also include an aria accompanied by Dead Man Walking Opera composer Jake Heggie. Admission is free with an RSVP to 512-441-1808 or 


According to the Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, “We hope that this is a seminal event for discussions surrounding the death penalty. It is a topic that should be discussed in the context of our lives of faith in order for healing and reconciliation to take root.”


While the courts are speaking – by sentencing scores of people to death – it’s important for the church to speak in a faithful and spirit-led manner. This is among the reasons Rev. Diane McGehee, director of the Texas Annual Conference Center for Missional Excellence, is encouraging area United Methodists to attend the dialogue.


“As a community of faith, we must acknowledge the reality that all human beings are made in the image of God and that Jesus Christ came that all might be saved, even the most hardened of criminals,” McGehee said. “The death penalty cuts off all possibility, in this life, of change and redemption for those condemned to death.  The sacredness of all human life, no matter how lost, compels us to faithfully speak for every possibility of redemption.”


Different Faiths, Same Belief

The seven panelists are issuing an interfaith call for the end of the death penalty, with the hope of encouraging others to lift their voices.


A portion of the joint statement reads: “While stating our opposition to the death penalty we also wish to express our concern over violence in our communities and our heartfelt sympathy with those who suffer from crime. Further, we pray for and minister to victims of violence and their families. We know the fear, the heartache and suffering that results from crime. We believe emphatically that those who commit violent crimes should be punished, but in a manner that is both humane and restorative.”


Texas leads the nation in the application of the death penalty, accounting for more than one third of the executions nationwide since 1976. But so often it is not the crime itself that is the leading factor in determining the application of the death penalty. “Rather, issues of race, geography, economics, the defendant’s mental capacity or lack of access to adequate counsel contribute to the disproportionate use of capital punishment against the poor and minorities,” the ministers wrote.


During the past three decades, improved scientific and investigative procedures have exposed the flaws and failures of the judicial system in its employment of the death penalty, resulting in the exoneration of at least 138 death row inmates, including 12 in Texas. This figure does not include the numerous cases of execution where the guilt of the accused or fairness of the conviction was in serious doubt. 


Huie and other leaders advocate for increased investments in victim support services, effective law enforcement, drug treatment programs, child and family services, and mental healthcare –measures that hold potential for preventing future acts of violence. We should do all we can to make sure our state’s resources are directed towards the improvement of life, not its destruction.


“Our various faith traditions represented all emphasize and uphold the sacredness of life and the human capacity for redemption,” the ministers wrote. “It is in this spirit that we join our voices in the common cause of calling for repeal of the death penalty in the state of Texas… we pray for the time when our state is led away from this unnecessary and arbitrary form of punishment.”