Category: death penalty

Al Mohler, Jesus, and the death penalty debate

beheading of Paul
The beheading of the Apostle Paul

By Alan Bean

Would Jesus support the death penalty?  Mother Theresa posed the question to the Governor of California in 1990.  She was pretty sure he knew the answer.

According to a recent Barna poll:

Only 5 percent of Americans believe that Jesus would support government’s ability to execute the worst criminals. Two percent of Catholics, 8 percent of Protestants, and 10 percent of practicing Christians said their faith’s founder would offer his support.

The Barna poll revealed that 42% of Christian Baby Boomers believe the government should have the right to execute the worst criminals (whatever Jesus might think).

But pose the same question to Christian millennials (roughly those between 18 and 30) and only 32% give an affirmative answer.

Things get really interesting when the death penalty question is posed to Christians who are particularly serious about their faith.  The Barna study

“showed an even sharper difference in support for the death penalty among “practicing Christians,” which Barna defined as those who say faith is very important to their lives and have attended church at least once in the last month. Nearly half of practicing Christian boomers support the government’s right to execute the worst criminals, while only 23 percent of practicing Christian millennials do.”

Did you catch that?

When you ask boomers about the death penalty, religious devotion increases support for the death penalty by ten points (give or take); but devout millennials are ten point less likely to support the death penalty than the nominally religious members of their cohort.

How do we explain the discrepancy? (more…)

If you love prison guards, fight to end the death penalty

My Grandma says hang everybody

By Alan Bean

This cartoon from the pen of Ronald Giles first appeared in the London Daily Express in 1956, but it was reprised in the Edmonton Journal a decade later when the death penalty debate was white hot.  John Diefenbaker, Canadian Prime Minister and leader of the Canadian Conservative Party, introduced the practice of commuting every death sentence in 1962, but the debate raged throughout the 1960s and capital punishment, in theory if not in practice, survived in Canada until 1976.  (Diefenbaker and Tommy Douglas, incidentally, are both Saskatchewan Baptists who made it big in Canadian politics.)

Public opinion on the death penalty, in Canada and elsewhere, can fluctuate wildly over time.  Only 18% of the Canadian population favored capital punishment immediately after WW2, but support for the grisly institution gradually increased from that point on.

The strongest argument in favor of the death penalty was that it could save the lives of police officers and prison guards by providing a deterrent.

Dr. Jay Chapman
Dr. Jay Chapman

But, as this story on NPR’s Morning Edition makes clear, responsibility for carrying out capital sentences falls primarily on the shoulders of prison officials, often with dreadful consequences.  Dr. Jay Chapman, the man who originated the drug cocktail used for executions in most states, explains that his formula was commonly used by veterinarians to put down animals.  But veterinarians know what they are doing and most of the people involved in your typical execution do not.  Trained medical personnel generally refuse to participate in executions for moral reasons so prison staff get stuck with the dirty work.  In most cases, the NPR piece suggests, these good people are radically unprepared, technically and emotionally, for the burden.

“This is not normal behavior for right-minded humans to engage in,” says Steve Martin, who participated in several executions in Texas in the 1980s. His job was to man the phones in case of a reprieve. He says the whole process is emotionally crippling.

The irony is that a barbaric practice designed to protect prison guards has become a source of nightmares and psychic distress for prison personnel. Last weeks botched execution in Oklahoma was more common than is commonly assumed.

Which brings me back to the cartoon at the top of the page.  Ronald Giles is suggesting that support for the death penalty is driven by a crude form of blood lust personified by the Grandma who would love to see everybody hang.

Madame Defarge
Madame Defarge

Madame Defarge, a Dickens creation from A Tale of Two Cities, had good reason to resent the French aristocracy, but her lust for revenge trumped her humanity.  The Daily Express cartoonist was saying the phenomenon might be universal.  If we want to support prison guards, we should end the death penalty immediately. Are you a death penalty supporter?  Then I urge you to listen to this wonderful piece of radio journalism.

The Executioner’s Lament

by Laura Sullivan

In 1977, death row inmate Gary Mark Gilmore chose to be executed by a firing squad. Gilmore was strapped to a chair at the Utah State Prison, and five officers shot him.

The media circus that ensued prompted a group of lawmakers in nearby Oklahoma to wonder if there might be a better way to handle executions. They approached Dr. Jay Chapman, the state medical examiner at the time, who proposed using three drugs, based loosely on anesthesia procedures at the time: one drug to knock out the inmates, one to relax or paralyze them, and a final drug that would stop their hearts. (more…)

The gallows and the Mind of Christ

Roger Olson is Foy Valentine Professor of Christian Theology and Ethics at Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas.  He believes that capital punishment cannot be squared with the mind of Christ.  I agree.  What about you?   AGB

Christians and capital punishment

Every ethicist chooses one particular social issue on which to focus — at least for a time. Unfortunately, too few have focused on capital punishment for a sufficiently sustained time to bring about a sea change in public opinion.

By Roger Olson

To this day, the majority of Americans favor capital punishment for certain crimes, in spite of — or perhaps because of — the almost overwhelming negative judgment about it on the parts of intellectuals and writers.

I believe Christian churches of all kinds ought to do more to oppose capital punishment. It ought to be a matter of status confessionis, as apartheid was declared by the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, helping to lead to its downfall in South Africa. (more…)

How about a federal-only death penalty?

Curtis Flowers at trial

Doug Berman is a law professor, sentencing expert and ardent blogger.  He could be described as a pragmatic progressive who wants to reform the criminal justice system but advocates policy proposals with a real chance of being implemented.  Berman notes that most people have moral problems with the death penalty but still want it available for “the worst of the worst”.  One solution is to restrict the ultimate penalty to the federal system and take it out of the hands of states courts altogether.

Unlike Berman, I am not a death penalty agnostic.  When I think of the death penalty I immediately envision Curtis Flowers, a demonstrably innocent man locked away in solitary confinement in Mississippi’s Parchman prison.  If the conviction in his record-setting sixth trial fails to hold (as is likely) and there is no way to retry Flowers at the state level without punting on the death penalty, District Attorney Doug Evans would have a dilemma on his hands.  The investigation of this case was so flawed, and the “evidence” presented to six juries has been so shamelessly manufactured that it would never withstand federal scrutiny.

Prosecutor Doug Evans’ intimate ties to the proudly racist Council of Conservative Citizens provides a partial explanation for his decision to build a case around the perjured testimony of a lying opportunist who is in federal prison for tax fraud using threats and the false promise of a $30,000 reward.  This case would disintegrate in minutes if it was handed to a competent federal prosecutor and the same could be said for dozens of other weak cases involving black defendants and racially biased prosecutors that have been tried before predominantly white juries in little towns like Winona, Mississippi.

Here’s Berman’s argument:

Does Boston bombing provide still more support for my federal-only death penalty perspective?

As long-time readers know, I like to describe myself a “death-penalty agnostic” concerning the theoretical and empirical arguments that traditionally surround the the criminal punishment of death.  But while I have long been uncertain about the “meta” arguments for and against capital punishment, as a matter of modern US policy and procedures I have a firm and distinctive view: given (1) persistent public/democratic support for death as a possible punishment for the “worst of the worst,” and given (2) persistent evidence that states struggle in lots of ways for lots of reasons with the fair and effective administration of capital punishment, I believe that (1+2=3) as a policy and practical matter we ought to consider and embrace an exclusively federal death penalty.

Regular readers have seen and surely remember various prior post in which I have talked through this idea a bit, and I have linked some of these posts below.  But, as the title of this post is meant to highlight, I think the soundness and wisdom of my distinctive view on the best modern way to administer capital punishment in the United States is now on full display in the wake of the Boston bombings.

Massachusetts, of course, does not have death as an available punishment.  And yet, I have already seen reports of many local and state officials (not to mention Massachusetts citizens) who now say they are open to (if not eager to) have the bombing suspect(s) prosecuted in federal court in part because federal law includes the possibility of the death penalty.  Moreover, there is every reason to view terror bombings like these, whether or not they have direct international connections and implications, as the kinds of crimes that ought to be investigated and prosecuted primarily by national authorities (assisted, of course, by state and local official and agents).

Stated in slightly different terms and with the events in Boston now making these ideas especially salient and timely, I believe that essentially by definition in our modern globally-wired and national-media-saturated American society (1) every potential “worst of the worst” murder is of national (and not just local) concern, and (2) every potential “worst of the worst” murder merits the potential involvement of federal investigators, and (3) federal authorities have constitutional and practical reasons for wanting or needing to be the primary “deciders” concerning the investigation and prosecution of every potential “worst of the worst” murder, and (4) state and local officials typically will welcome being able to “federalize” any potential “worst of the worst” murder, and thus (1+2+3+4=5) we should just make death a punishment only available at the federal level so that the feds know they can and should get involved if (and only when?) federal interests and/or the value of cooperative federalism are implicated by any potential “worst of the worst” murder.

Reader says Bible endorses capital punishment

Dudley Sharp

The ABP’s recent article on the mock trial of Jesus staged at First Baptist Church, Austin has sparked an angry response.  Dudley Sharp insists that the New Testament endorses the death penalty.  Moreover, he appears to argue that we should rejoice and be glad that Jesus was murdered by the Romans because, had he been acquitted, we would all be headed straight for hell.

It should be noted that the mock trial of Jesus does not primarily concern the death penalty.  However, as the ABP article notes, “audiences must vote for or against death for Jesus using their own states’ laws on capital punishment” and, as law professor Mark Osler observes, “that often leads to a conflict between deeply held religious beliefs and support for capital punishment.”

Here’s Mr. Sharp’s letter:

To: Dr. Alan Bean Executive Director, Friends of Justice
        Dr. Roger Paynter, Senior Pastor, First Baptist Church
        Dr. William Underwood, President, Mercer College (more…)

Putting Jesus back on trial

Alan Bean

On Maundy Thursday, Mark Osler and Jeanne Bishop will be staging their 12th re-enactment of the trial of Jesus, this time using Texas law and legal procedure.

If Jesus was tried in a Texas court would he have been sentenced to life in prison, death, or would he have been acquitted?  Holy Week is the perfect time to reflect on this question and this article from the Austin American-Statesman gives Osler and Bishop  an opportunity to explain why they are putting Jesus on trial all over again.

Some might take offense at the very idea of placing Jesus on trial, in Texas or anywhere else; after all, he is the Son of God and all.

But there were good reasons for hauling Jesus in front of Pontius Pilate in the first century.  As Jeanne Bishop puts it: “When you tell people to give to the poor and sell everything you own and follow me, or you’re saying, ‘Turn the other cheek; don’t resist an evildoer,’ those are subversive things.”

Drama asks audience to consider Christ, death penalty

By Juan Castillo

American-Statesman Staff

If Jesus were prosecuted today under Texas law, what would we do?

Would we sentence him to a life behind bars, or would we sentence him to death? (more…)

Virginia executioner becomes death penalty opponent

By Alan Bean

This beautifully crafted story about an executioner turned death penalty abolitionist has the pacing of a crime novel.  Jerry Givens has experienced every aspect of the criminal justice system, including time behind bars.  If anyone has taken the full measure of the American gulag, he’s the guy.  The bit where Givens is asked if he would have executed Jesus if the state gave him the death penalty literally took my breath away. Highly recommended.

Ex-Virginia executioner becomes opponent of death penalty

By Justin Juvenal

Jerry Givens executed 62 people.

His routine and conviction never wavered. He’d shave the person’s head, lay his hand on the bald pate and ask for God’s forgiveness for the condemned. Then, he would strap the person into Virginia’s electric chair.

Givens was the state’s chief executioner for 17 years — at a time when the commonwealth put more people to death than any state besides Texas.

“If you knew going out there that raping and killing someone had the consequence of the death penalty, then why are you going to do it?” Givens asked. “I considered it suicide.” (more…)

DC exoneration raises painful questions

Sentae Tribble

By Alan Bean

Santae Tribble spent 28 years in prison for killing a Washington DC cab driver.   Prosecutors knew they had the right man because FBI forensic experts testified that a hair found in the stocking cap used by the killer matched Tribble’s hair sample “in all microscopic characteristics.”

According to the Washington Post, “In closing arguments, federal prosecutor David Stanley went further, saying ‘There is one chance, perhaps for all we know, in 10 million that it could [be] someone else’s hair.'”

That was long before the feds started running DNA tests in 1996.  When Tribble’s hair was finally tested he was ruled out as the killer.  By that time, he had already served the entirety of his sentence. (more…)

Catching Stones for Jesus, Bryan Stevenson

By Alan Bean

Bryan Stevenson dedicated himself to defending death row inmates after the justice-evangelicalism he imbibed at Eastern College collided with the entitled secularism of Harvard Law School.  The way he sees it, we are either throwing stones or we’re catching them.  Consider this bit from late in the piece:

Stevenson turns frequently to the Bible. He quotes to me from the Gospel of John, where Jesus says of the woman who committed adultery: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” He tells me an elderly black woman once called him a “stone catcher.”

“There is no such thing as being a Christian and not being a stone catcher,” he says. “But that is exhausting. You’re not going to catch them all. And it hurts. If it doesn’t make you sad to have to do that, then you don’t understand what it means to be engaged in an act of faith . . . But if you have the right relationship to it, it is less of a burden, finally, than a blessing. It makes you feel stronger.

Churches must choose, he says.  We can be stone throwers or stone catchers.  Or, after the manner of Saul of Tarsus, we can hold the coats for those who throw the stones in the mistaken belief that this absolves us of responsibility.

Stevenson draws parallels between the slave trade and the current blight of mass incarceration.  He knows people, particularly white people, won’t want to hear it, but he won’t let that deter him.

Chris Hedges, who wrote this piece for the Smithsonian Magazine, is open to Stevenson’s “mass incarceration is the new slavery” argument, but then Hedges is convinced the world is going to hell before the next decade is out.  Likewise, the folks who heard Stevenson’s TED talk were thrilled with his message.  So it isn’t as if all white people are resistant–just the 80% of us who have never been forced to wrestle with the full tragedy of America’s racial history.

I’m not sure a full frontal assault can reach these people, but I’m glad folks like Stevenson and Michelle Alexander are giving it a go.  Somebody needs to speak the full truth even if people can’t hear it.  Stevenson is right, mass incarceration really does define us as a nation, as does our immigration policy.

Why Mass Incarceration Defines Us As a Society

By Chris Hedges

The Smithsonian Magazine

Bryan Stevenson, the winner of the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in social justice, has taken his fight all the way to the Supreme Court

It is late in the afternoon in Montgomery. The banks of the Alabama River are largely deserted. Bryan Stevenson and I walk slowly up the cobblestones from the expanse of the river into the city. We pass through a small, gloomy tunnel beneath some railway tracks, climb a slight incline and stand at the head of Commerce Street, which runs into the heart of Alabama’s capital. The walk was one of the most notorious in the antebellum South.

“This street was the most active slave-trading space in America for almost a decade,” Stevenson says. Four slave depots stood nearby. “They would bring people off the boat. They would parade them up the street in chains. White plantation owners and local slave traders would get on the sidewalks. They’d watch them as they went up the street. Then they would follow behind up to the circle. And that is when they would have their slave auctions.

“Anybody they didn’t sell that day they would keep in these slave depots,” he continues. (more…)