by Laurie Oswald Robinson
Kansas congregations in Western District Conference (WDC) will soon add their voices to the gathering chorus of opposition to the state’s death penalty. That’s because WDC’s End Death Penalty Task Force by the end of this year is inviting each church to appoint a representative to stage a letter-writing campaign and to aid in congregational education.
This invitation is dovetailing with the strong likelihood that in their 2014 session, Kansas state legislators and senators will vote on whether or not to replace the state’s death penalty with a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. After a long hiatus, the death penalty was re-instated in 1994 after the U.S. Supreme Court declared that each state must determine the matter on its own.
The possibility of a vote is cheering on the efforts of WDC, including task force members and Steven Becker, State Representative, 104th District, and a lifetime member of Buhler Mennonite Church. He recently met with the task force to help galvanize their efforts along with Kristin Bollig, Topeka area coordinator of the Kansas Coalition Against the Death Penalty (KCADP).
“In American jurisprudence, there is no such thing as absolute certainty,” said Becker, a retired district court judge. “How can we impose the irreversible absolute certainty of death when we do not require the absolute certainty of guilt? There continues to be exonerations of death row inmates. As long as there exists even the possibility of execution of an innocent there must be no executions.”
Becker said his engagement with an imperfect criminal justice system and his Anabaptist formation fuel his passion for changing the law. He is introducing House Bill 2397 (a similar bill is being introduced in the Senate) that calls for a change in the law. Becker’s bill also calls for the establishment of a fund managed by the attorney general for the benefit of victims’ families.
Peter Goerzen, task force chair and pastor of Grace Hill Mennonite Church in Whitewater, Kan., is hopeful that the law can be replaced. “We know that there is support in both chambers through Steven in the House and Carolyn McGinnin the Senate,” Goerzen said. “We also know that opposition to the death penalty cuts across ideological and theological lines and reflects some universally-held values. … For me personally, opposition to the death penalty gives me an opportunity to witness for peace and reconciliation and to be a light that shines in the darkness.”