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Pastor, congregation journey with man on death row

It was Holy Week 2015. At Grace United Methodist Church, Covington, Georgia, the Rev. George Lanier was preaching about Christ's journey to the cross. Choir member Barbara A. Terrell-Humphreys became very emotional.

Brian Terrell (early 1990s photo). COURTESY BARBARA A. TERRELL-HUMPHREYS

A member later told Lanier that Terrell-Humphreys' son, Brian Terrell, was up for execution for the 1992 murder of his mother's friend. Terrell had been baptized at Grace.

Lanier knew little about the prison system and capital punishment. "I needed to know how to navigate forward for Brian, the Terrell family and Grace Church," he said. Making the right contacts and working with the United Methodist connection was essential. "We have people to help us through this. We just have to know where to find them."

Various leaders in the North Georgia Conference helped Lanier. Among them were the Rev. Dave Allen Grady and his Connectional Ministries Leadership/Advocacy Team, who offered emotional and practical support, and conference communicator Sybil Davidson, who guided him in dealing with the press.

After unraveling red tape for six weeks, Lanier finally got to visit Terrell. "I really wanted to hear his confession," he said. "I wanted to prepare him for what appeared to be the inevitable. During the first visit, we shared. We talked. But no confession."

The two men settled into a weekly routine. "I began the first hour listening to his case and his life [story]," Lanier said. "The second hour I steered him toward his faith and my need to know about his relationship with God. I then began to realize he was making his confession: He didn't do [the crime]." His lawyers had argued that no physical evidence connected Terrell to the killing and claimed that prosecutors used false and misleading testimony to secure the conviction that drew the death penalty.

"Brian then began to assure me that he was right with God," Lanier recalled.

At the same time, another Georgia death row prisoner with United Methodist connections – Kelly Gissendaner – faced execution for orchestrating her husband's 1997 murder.

"Brian was an African-American male," Lanier said. "Kelly was the poster child for model prisoner on death row in Georgia. She was a white female, confessed her crime and asked everyone in her family and her husband's family for forgiveness. If she didn't get clemency, no one would get it." When Gissendaner was executed on Sept. 30, Lanier knew Terrell's execution was inevitable.

The judge offered to commute Terrell to a life sentence if he would admit his guilt. Terrell refused, insisting he was innocent.

The community held a prayer vigil on Gissendaner's execution day. "The church was packed," Lanier said. "Everyone was looking for direction – how to help the family, how to help themselves." A second and final vigil was Dec. 3.

Six days later, Terrell was killed by lethal injection.

Brian's mother still grieves. She contends her son did not get a fair trial. Like Lanier, she adamantly opposes capital punishment.

"Brian was stripped from living his life and being [in our lives] because of the injustice and cover-ups in a broken system," Terrell-Humphreys said. "The state has no right to play God."

She believes she will see him again. "My son is safe now," she said. "Brian is with the Lord."

Lanier will not forget Brian Terrell.

"When I serve Holy Communion, I lift up his name and the names of others who have been executed. We do this in remembrance of the One who was executed."

Barbara Dunlap-Berg is general church content editor for United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tennessee.

The United Methodist Church and the death penalty

"We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings. ... When governments implement the death penalty (capital punishment), then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person's life ends. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. ... For this reason, we oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes." — From Social Principles: The Political Community.

Originally published in Interpreter Magazine, May-June, 2016.