General CBF

“What is it like to be told that you are going to be killed for something you did not do?”

By Mary Elizabeth Hill Hanchey 

“What is it like to be told that you are going to be killed for something you did not do?”

This powerful question is one that we must face as citizens of a country where, in many states, the penalty for capital crimes is still death. And it is a question that we must face as we consider what happens to exonerated people when they are released.

“What is it like to be told that you are going to be killed for something you did not do?”

This powerful question was posed at the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America breakfast gathering at College Park Baptist Church this week, held in conjunction with the 2016 CBF General Assembly in Greensboro, N.C.  Those gathered heard Dr. Saundra D. Westervelt, Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, discuss her research about those living as exonerated death row inmates in the United States.  There are presently 156 exonerees from death row in the United States. Their reality is glum.

The burden of having lived under a death sentence is crushing. Those exonerated are unlikely to get compensation for the years of work and worth that have been taken from them.

Many cannot qualify for Section 8 housing and cannot get wealth-creating jobs because exoneration does not bring an automatic expunging of one’s felony record.  Without an attorney to file the paper work, many exonerees are left in limbo. Most have no access to mental health care, and most have no dental or health care available to them.

Though they have gained freedom from the cell, they are cut loose and left to their own devices, bound and tangled in by poverty, desperation, post-traumatic stress, and the same emotional crises faced by war veterans and prisoners of war.

Dr. Westervelt wondered why this injustice is allowed to exist despite overwhelming evidence that it does, concluding that those exonerated from capital offenses are largely considered to be a different class of people.

The Baptist Peace Fellowship holds as its mission:  Witnessing to God’s peace rooted in justice – working together until it comes.  Perhaps you and your church can join those voices naming the specific injustices faced by those exonerated from capital offenses.  Perhaps this will be a gateway to all of the other peace and justice work in which the BPFNA is engaged, or to which your own faith community is called!

To learn more about Witness to Innocence, a group committed to empowering the exonerated to End the Death Penalty, visit

Mary Elizabeth Hanchey is a CBF Leadership Scholar at Duke Divinity School. She is a member of Watts Street Baptist Church. Mary Elizabeth is also an attorney who has spent time on death row in North Carolina in her work with the Center for Death Penalty Litigation. In addition, she is co-founder of Project Pomegranate, a ministry that provides spiritual resources for those who face fertility grief, and for the community that walks beside them. 

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