The Rev. Sharon Risher supported the death penalty for most of her life — until it became a possibility that the man who murdered her mother would be executed.
The traumatic event forced Risher, a United Church of Christ minister in Charlotte, N.C., to think deeply about her perspective on capital punishment and whether the shooter, Dylann Roof, should be executed.
Roof, a 21-year-old white supremacist, opened fire during a prayer service at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., in 2015 and killed Risher’s mother, two cousins and six others.
“People would say, ‘Well, he does deserve the death penalty,’” Risher said, “Then, I had to go back and really think about this and read the Bible and the Ten Commandments.”
She added it was the Fifth Commandment that helped her change her mind. “‘Thou shalt not kill’ was really what convinced me in my heart,” she said.
The family members of homicide victims often list faith as the main reason for opposing the death penalty, and some of those individuals took part in “Journey of Hope … From Violence to Healing,” a weeklong tour that visited Ohio this month for a second year. As part of the event, speakers toured the state to tell people why they don’t support the death penalty.
This year is especially important for death-penalty opponents, because it is the first time supporters believe they have an opportunity to change the state’s laws on capital punishment, said Abe Bonowitz, co-director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Action, which helped organize the Ohio tour.
“There hasn’t been an execution (since July 2018), and it may be the time to have a conversation about what’s best for murder victim families,” he said during an Oct. 11 news conference at the Ohio Statehouse that kicked off the tour, which spanned the state and included several stops before returning to Columbus for its last event Sunday.
The Pew Research Center reported last year that its survey showed that public support for the death penalty — which reached a four-decade low in 2016 — had increased. In 2018, 54% of Americans favored the death penalty for people convicted of murder, while 39% were opposed. A 2018 Gallup Poll had similar findings, with 56% in favor and 41% opposed.
Ohio has 24 inmates waiting on death row with dates scheduled for execution, but Gov. Mike DeWine has delayed all executions since becoming governor early this year while state leaders look for an execution method that doesn’t use intravenous drugs and can’t be deemed by the courts as cruel and unusual punishment. Even Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder, a conservative Republican, has said that his support of the death penalty is wavering, as the state continues to struggle to secure a legal means of execution.
These developments give hope to those who oppose the death penalty, including some families of homicide victims.
“Ohio is ripe for change,” said Sister Helen Prejean, a religious sister based in New Orleans, La., best known for her 1993 memoir, “Dead Man Walking.” The memoir about her role as a spiritual adviser to a convicted killer on death row to the 1995 movie of the same name in which actress Susan Sarandon portrayed her.
As for why Prejean believes there is hope, Prejean said during the Oct. 11 news conference: “It’s the people; it’s the citizens,” and “your governor doesn’t seem so hell bent on carrying out these executions quickly.”
Attitudes have shifted in recent years, she added. “A conscience begins to develop in us,” Prejean said. “People want to be decent people.”
She called the death penalty “the practice of torture.”
“Guilty or not, people are worth more than the worst act of their life,” she said. “You can’t attribute evil to a person.”
Chris Brown, an Alabama-based author whose father was on death row for 17 years of Brown’s childhood, also was part of the Journey of Hope events.
Brown watched his father being helped by a prison ministry and saved before his execution in 2003 when Brown was 22.
“Nobody, no matter what they’ve done, is beyond the reach of God’s grace,” he said. “(The death penalty) is something that creates more victims and doesn’t help victims.”
The Rev. Jack Sullivan Jr., director of the Ohio Council of Churches, said vengeance by execution isn’t the answer. Instead, he said, family members of murder victims need resources like counseling, funds to bury their loved ones, housing, education and other support to rebuild their lives.
He should know. His sister, Jennifer, was killed in her Cleveland home in 1997. Her killer remains unknown.
“All executions do is continue the matrix of death,” Sullivan said. “Every time I hear someone say executions are required in order for a victim’s family members to heal, my body just shivers as I wonder how anyone who has not experienced this kind of loss can know what we need to heal.”