RICHMOND, VA. Religious leaders in the South and around the nation are speaking out against capital punishment more loudly than ever, emboldened by a shift in public opinion and cases of innocence on death row.
"We may be finding the courage we didn't have before, given the climate," said the Rev. Joe Vought, a Lutheran minister based in Harrisonburg who has served as chaplain to seven executed inmates.
The leadership of many Protestant churches, the Roman Catholic Church and Reform and Conservative Judaism have been on record opposing the death penalty for decades, but many in their congregations didn't share their views.
"People in the pews had fairly strong views for the death penalty, so a lot of (clergy) just didn't want to push the issue for fear of alienating their parishioners," said Davidson Douglas, a professor of law at the College of William & Mary who has studied the history of religious attitudes toward the death penalty.
"I think the religious groups, frankly, didn't make this a high priority. There weren't many sermons about it."
But improved DNA testing has proven some capital convictions were mistakes, shifting public opinion and increasing churches' activism.
A Harris poll in July found 64 percent of people supported the death penalty, down from 75 percent in 1997. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in July found that only 42 percent of the public believed the death penalty is applied fairly; another 42 percent said it isn't. The rest were undecided or said it depends.
A rallying cry
Last month in Virginia, which has the second-highest rate of executions after Texas, 33 Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and Muslim leaders released a statement calling on the General Assembly to abolish capital punishment. The statement came as the investigative arm of the General Assembly is examining how the death penalty is applied in the state.
The Diocese of Richmond asked a Norfolk Circuit Court judge to order release of evidence in the murder case of Derek Rocco Barnabei so that DNA could be tested in an effort to prove his innocence. The judge denied the request Feb. 14. Barnabei, 33, was executed Sept. 14 for the 1993 rape and murder of a 17-year-old girl.
In North Carolina, the People of Faith Against the Death Penalty launched a statewide campaign last year to get the state to put capital punishment on hold, and a legislative commission is studying the administration of the death penalty.
In Mississippi last month, religious leaders testified before a legislative committee, asking lawmakers to put the death penalty on hold.
And last April, even conservative religious broadcaster Pat Robertson endorsed a short moratorium on the death penalty nationwide, saying it is not always applied fairly.
Moratorium 2000, a Louisiana-based nonprofit group lobbying to stop capital punishment, is distributing literature to help the clergy tackle the difficult subject with their congregations.
"For a long time the church wasn't saying anything, and people assumed (the death penalty) was right and, more importantly, that it was applied correctly," said Robert Jones, a spokesman for Moratorium 2000.
Besides the release of wrongly convicted prisoners following DNA testing, Jones cited other factors eroding support for the death penalty: reports of racial and economic inequities in how capital punishment is applied, and lack of proof that the death penalty deters crime.
George Ryan, the tough-on-crime, Republican governor of Illinois, caused a stir in January 2000 when he halted all executions in Illinois, saying he couldn't be sure the system could keep innocent people from being put to death.
Illinois has executed 12 people since 1977 but released 13 others from death row after they were exonerated or found to have gotten unfair trials.
According to Amnesty International, between 1973 and 2000, 87 people have been released from death rows across the United States after they were found to have been wrongfully convicted.
In Virginia, the legislature's willingness to examine the issue this year can be largely attributed to the case of Earl Washington Jr., pardoned in October and released from prison Feb. 12 after DNA evidence exonerated him of the 1982 rape and murder of a Virginia woman.
"People are being bombarded from all directions, and the church is a natural place to go to get action on these issues," Jones said.
There are, of course, those who have been active for years in fighting the death penalty.
The Rev. J. Fletcher Lowe, executive director of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, remembers the first time he spoke out publicly against the death penalty when he was living in Seneca, S.C., in the 1960s.
"On Good Friday, South Carolina executed two men, which struck me as rather ironic," said Lowe, an Episcopal minister.
Bishop Walter F. Sullivan of the Catholic Diocese of Richmond has been testifying against the death penalty in the Virginia General Assembly since it was reinstated in 1976.
"Where before 80 percent of Catholics favored the death penalty ... I think there's a growing awareness that we shouldn't be doing this," Sullivan said.
Pope John Paul II, a longtime opponent, issued a 1995 encyclical that included strong statements against the death penalty.
Still, said Jones, "The message the pope has been trying to convey is just seeping down through the ranks."
Sullivan doubts the death penalty will be done away with any time soon in Virginia, which has executed 81 people since capital punishment was reinstituted in 1976.
Jones said there's a chance a moratorium might be approved this year by the General Assembly in Maryland.
There also is strong support for putting the death penalty on hold in North Carolina, where 10 city councils, including the one in Charlotte, have endorsed a moratorium.
Vought, the Lutheran pastor from Harrisonburg, said he plans to propose a resolution opposing the death penalty to the Virginia Synod Lutherans, 10 years after the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America passed a similar one.
"After all, we worship an executed savior," Vought said. "A man who cried out, 'Father, forgive them. They know not what they do.'"