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Dr. Lloyd Steffen Testimony Before PA Senate Judiciary Committee re: Bill 952

Tuesday, February 22, 2000

My name is Lloyd Steffen.   I am the University Chaplain and a Professor Religion Studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA.  I am also the author of a book, Executing Justice: The Moral Meaning of the Death Penalty published last year.

I am an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.  This denomination, like all the other mainline Protestant Churches in America, has gone on record as a Church body to oppose the death penalty and work for its abolition.

Of course not all members of the United Church of Christ support the Church's stance on capital punishment, and there is even support for the death penalty in the PennNortheast Conference of the United Church of Christ of which I am a part. This conference is made up of 170 churches and claims 55,000 members.  The Penn Northeast Conference is one of four UCC Conferences in Pennsylvania and covers the easternmost quarter of the Commonwealth.

Every year, our conference brings clergy and lay representatives from our 170 churches to an annual meeting where we conduct the business of the Church.  Two years ago, a Peace and Justice Task Force in the Conference submitted a resolution calling for a moratorium on executions in Pennsylvania, doing so not to reiterate the stand of our denomination, but to appeal to those members of our Conference who support execution, to respond to the disturbing way execution is practiced in America today.  Disturbing:  because there is overwhelming evidence of wrongful convictions in capital cases; disturbing:  because there is overwhelming evidence of discrimination in the application of the death penalty on racial, gender and class lines; disturbing because the death penalty is sought and pursued overwhelmingly in cases where the defendant cannot afford counsel and must rely on overworked and sometimes inadequate court appointed lawyers;  disturbing because of arbitrariness in our criminal justice system.

In 1998 at our Conference Annual Meeting, we were told that our moratorium resolution was not going to pass.  Rather than withdraw our resolution in the face of certain defeat, we agreed on a compromise.  We agreed to postpone a vote on a death penalty moratorium so that our clergy and laity might consider this issue, study it for a year, have classes and conversations, and do some education as well as prayerful reflection.  This education resolution-which is much akin to what you are considering in Senate Bill 952--passed overwhelmingly and for the simple reason that no one at our annual meeting could in conscience vote against education or for ignorance about the execution system, not if innocent lives were at stake, not if there were issues of injustice and unfairness at stake.   The United Church of Christ has historically been committed to working for justice, and we were presenting a claim that injustice had infected  America's application of the death penalty.

After our year of study, the PennNortheast Conference gathered last April in its Annual Meeting and once again considered the moratorium resolution.  The death penalty was a part of our common program. It was the focus of several hours of small group discussion involving the over 500 people in attendance; and our task was to subject the death penalty and what we had learned about it to a process of spiritual discernment.   The resolution was then debated in our business meeting; and it was overwhelmingly passed.  Yes, there was still some opposition, but the time of study we had taken, the reflection we gave to this issue, yielded this result: a vote for the moratorium was not a vote on theory, but on practice.  Even death penalty supporters had become convinced that the execution practice was flawed.  And our moratorium measure was ultimately addressed to them-to death penalty supporters.  Supporters of the death penalty are the ones who bear the moral weight of capital punishment, for they are the ones who must be concerned that mistakes are not made and that no execution falls short of the requirements of justice.  Death penalty opponents ordinarily rest their opposition elsewhere than in concern over questions about the delivery systems of justice and legal tests of fairness.  But not the supporter.  Unfairness in the administration of the death penalty will render an execution unjust-and an unjust killing cannot be justified.  So death penalty supporters, those who believe executions are justified killings, must insist that execution carry no taint of injustice and unfairness.  You cannot support the death penalty and ignore issues of justice.  And morally you ought not to turn away from those who are close up to the criminal justice system and who are telling you that there are problems, there is unfairness, there is injustice.

I am speaking to you today on behalf of the PennNortheast Conference of the United Church of Christ and with the authorization of our interim Conference Minister, Rev. Daniel VanderPloeg.  I wish you to have a copy of the resolution we passed in 1999.  The message I bring to you is that a lot of people in the PennNortheast Conference of the United Church of Christ-55,000 of them in 170 churches-may be at odds over the ultimate validity of the death penalty, but not over the question of justice.  Our people studied this issue.  They reflected on the evidence of injustice.  And they voted to endorse a moratorium.  They voted to inform the Governor and Legislature of this Commonwealth of their decision.  And in that vote were death penalty supporters who realized that even if they continued to support capital punishment in theory, they could not condone injustice in its application.  In the United Church of Christ's General Synod this past summer, the entire denomination voted a similar moratorium resolution, and it too was addressed to death penalty supporters.  My denomination felt a need to vote on the moratorium even in the face of our long-standing opposition to capital punishment.

On behalf of the Penn Northeast Conference of the United Church of Christ, I urge you to vote for Senate Bill 952.  This is not an up or down on the death penalty-that battle is yet to be fought here.  Bill 952, rather, is a vote to take some time out and think about what we are doing-to acquire some information, to assess it, evaluate it, and test it against the standards of justice embedded in the legal detail of the Bill.  Although some individuals might oppose this bill on the grounds that the facts about how the death penalty is practiced in America today are well known and need no further investigation, please do not assume this to be true.  We have death penalty supporters in my church who voted for a moratorium because they first voted to get information.  They voted to learn and educate themselves not about that never ending and sometimes abstract debate over capital punishment, but about how we actually do it-how do we put a person on death row, and who is it who gets there?; and they found out some things that offended their commitment to justice and their sense of decency.  I am hoping  you might make a similar journey: to vote for learning, for listening, for rendering judgement based on information you may not have at the moment.  I support this measure personally because I believe that if you do study this issue, if you do investigate and discover how the death penalty works, if you shift the focus from theory to practice,  you will one day join those of us who find the death penalty a terrible model that teaches our children that we can solve societal problems by resorting to violence, and an injustice so great as to subvert in practice our democratic ideal of justice under law.