Rev. Dr. Jennifer Copeland delivered the following remarks at a press conference on April 14, 2023, calling on Governor Roy Cooper to commute all death sentences in North Carolina. Click here to view the press conference.
My name is Jennifer Copeland. I’m the Executive Director of the N.C. Council of Churches. I am joined today by our colleagues from the N.C. Coalition for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, and we are honored to stand with faith leaders from several traditions and many locations across North Carolina.
We chose this moment because many of us here today are in the midst of some of the holiest days of our faith traditions. These are the days when our scriptures and traditions remind us who we are and how that should shape what we do. What we have done is write a letter to Governor Cooper asking him to commute the death sentences of the 137 people on North Carolina’s death row to prison terms. Our chorus is joined by over 300 faith leaders who have signed this letter to Governor Cooper. Let me tell you why I am doing this.
When I was in college, I started paying attention to the death penalty. Before that, it was just a thing I knew about in a very simple way. People did very bad things, a fairly short list of things, and were executed. But in an ethics class I took as a college junior, I chose the death penalty as the topic for my term paper. As students are expected to do when writing a term paper, I learned a lot. My head was suddenly full of reasons the death penalty is wrong. Facts like Black people and poor people are disproportionately sentenced to death. Facts like innocent people are sentenced to death and sometimes executed before their innocence is discovered.
After college, I went to seminary to prepare for the ministry. And that’s when my heart became full of reasons the death penalty is wrong. I speak today as a person of faith, a leader of the Christian faith in the Methodist tradition, and the Executive Director of the N.C. Council of Churches, whose membership includes 18 denominations across North Carolina, in every corner of the state; large and small; urban and rural; black, brown, and white. Many of the Council’s denominational leaders and their clergy have signed this letter.
The heart of my faith is the belief that every person is created in the image of God. God grants to each of us the possibility of redemption and reconciliation. The death penalty denies that possibility. My faith teaches that we should work for rehabilitation rather than punishment. We should seek restitution rather than retribution. With both my head and my heart, I believe the death penalty is wrong.
The North Carolina Council of Churches first spoke out against the death penalty in 1970, citing many of the same reasons we mentioned today. We are only the most recent gathering of faith leaders standing in opposition and we will continue to stand together until the death penalty is abolished. In the meantime, we’re asking Gov. Cooper, a person of faith himself, to use his power to commute the 137 death sentences to prison terms. We’re asking Gov. Cooper to lead North Carolina to a new vision of justice that includes possibility and hope.
Julie Taylor says
Grateful that you are giving people of faith a public presence on this issue. We should give voice to this, consistently.
Richard L. Hester says
I am grateful for The Rev. Jennifer Copeland’s leadership toward putting an end to the death penalty in the state of North Carolina. For all the reasons she cites and more I am opposed to the death penalty. I do not see any redeeming value in putting a person to death no matter what crime he or she may have committed. It does not deter people from criminal acts. It does not help the survivors of whatever crime has been committed. I believe it has a legacy that goes back to lynching–a practice to keep black people subjugated to white supremacy. It contradicts my Christian belief in a merciful God who advocates redemption and not the vindictiveness of putting a person to death. I believe with Bryan Stevenson that “each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Moreover, persons are regularly sentenced to death who have had inadequate legal defense in the trial and legal procedings leading up to their sentencing to death. And the majority of those poorly represented persons are black. My thanks again to Jennifer Copeland and all those who have joined her in her request to Governor Cooper to commute all the current death convictions.
Sam Miglarese says
Thank you Jennifer and Council! This exposition does not mean “soft on crime” but it does call for fairness in a system that is loaded against people of color and low income.
Patricia Long says
I wholeheartedly believe that the death penalty should be abolished. I have stood many nights outside Central Prison when someone was being put to death. The cause of death on the death certificate is “homicide.” It makes no sense for the state to kill someone to demonstrate that killing someone is wrong. Governor Cooper is in a unique position to be able to remove this scourge from our state. I pray he will have the courage to do so.
Rev. Dr. Brenda Sewell says
Dr. Jennifer states the case for life for those sentenced to death in such a loving and compassionate way. Governor, commute. Don’t kill!
Rev. Marilyn L. Weiler says
Thank you for your statement about the death penalty and the emphasis on rehabilitation and restitution.
The Rev Jim Curl says
I wholeheartedly support the abolition of the death penalty, for all the practical and theological reasons you outline. As an aside, I am reminded of the conservative evangelical preacher, Tony Campolo, who I have heard comment in a sermon, that when he preaches somewhere and mentions that he is very pro-life, invariably someone will come up afterwards and say that he or she is also pro-life. Campolo says that when that happens, he responds by saying that obviously then the person is opposed to capital punishment. Too often, Tony says that the person denies that, saying Oh no, I’m not opposed to capital punishment Tony said he responds to the person by pointing out that the person is not pro-life, that the person may be anti-abortion, but is not pro-life.
Rev. Dr. Jennifer Copeland, Executive Director says
Indeed, I have heard Tony Campolo tell that story as well. It does seem the contradiction is lost on many people. Thank you for standing with us on this issue.
Para Drake says
So proud of the Council! Thank you for such a clear exposition of the reasons why the death penalty is immoral and wrong!
Floyd Wicker says
Thank you for shining a light on this important issue. I’m encouraged by the Council’s work and witness.