In 2009, after moving to Southern California, a neighbor, Tom Rotert, who is an attorney, asked about my reporting on wrongful convictions and wrongful executions while I was at the Chicago Tribune.
I explained that along with my fellow reporter Steve Mills, we had documented numerous wrongful convictions in Illinois and the executions of two innocent men in Texas — Carlos DeLuna and Cameron Todd Willingham.
“You know who the ultimate wrongful execution is, don’t you?” Rotert asked. “It was Jesus Christ. They killed the son of God.”
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ doesn’t come up very often in discussions about wrongful convictions in America, but as California voters prepare to go to the polls to vote on Proposition 34 which would ban the death penalty in this state, two lawyers — one from Chicago and one from Minneapolis — are doing exactly that.
Next week, Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor and current law professor at the University of St. Thomas School Law in Minneapolis, and Jeanne Bishop, an assistant Cook County public defender in Chicago will be presenting mock trials of the death penalty trial of Jesus. One performance will be at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena and the other will be at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa.
The presentations are unique and thought-provoking.
Osler, a former federal prosecutor who taught law at Baylor Law School in Waco, Texas before joining St. Thomas, came up with the idea. His Christian faith compels him to oppose the death penalty and you can read about that in his book, Jesus on Death Row.
While working in Waco, the heart of death penalty country, he had an idea — why not give conservative Christians an opportunity to rethink their support for the death penalty by putting Jesus on trial for his life under actual Texas
death penalty law?
The result was a mock trial staged at a large Baptist church in Waco. The congregants acted as jurors and included two people who had been foremen of Texas juries which had imposed death sentences. The experience was a success.
Since then, the performance has been reprised numerous times in other death penalty states — most recently at Pat Robertson’s Regent University in Virginia.
“No one has ever said to me that the trial didn’t affect them” Osler says. “Most often, I would describe their reactions as troubled. They look like they need to think things through some more.”
Osler takes on the role of Caiaphas, the Jewish high priest in the trial. His legal counterpart is Bishop, although Jesus did not have defense counsel. Witnesses include Jesus’ disciple, Simon Peter; the rich young ruler who Jesus told to sell everything he owned, and the Centurion, whose slave Jesus healed.
Jesus was indigent — as are many defendants in death and non-death penalty trials and today’s defendant’s, like Jesus, have no money, virtually no resources and little rank in society.
Coming from Illinois, which abolished the death penalty in 2011 (the 16th state to do so), Bishop is particularly aware of the frailty of the death penalty system. According to the National Registry of Exonerations , the largest collection of exonerations ever assembled in the United States, 104 defendants sentenced to death have been exonerated since 1989. With 18 such exonerations, Illinois is far and away the leader over Texas, which has 10 death row exonerations, according to the Registry.
Bishop experienced the sadness and tragedy of murder first hand. Her sister, Nancy Bishop Langert, Langert’s husband and their unborn baby were murdered in 1990 in Winnetka, a Chicago suburb. The deaths played a significant role in Bishop becoming a defense attorney and an opponent of the death penalty.
Her role as Jesus’ lawyer has changed the way she looks at the story of Jesus in the Gospels, she says.
“I have been looking at them like a lawyer, like an investigator, looking for things to help my case. In that process, I have encountered stories I never noticed before, figured out things I'd never seen before.
“This has deepened and strengthened my faith, made me see so many things differently, including how I view my clients as a public defender,” Bishop says. “They are all Jesus to me now."
For Osler, being the prosecutor of Jesus is daunting.
“It has changed me profoundly and challenged my faith,” he said.”Playing the prosecutor puts me in a very dark place; it pits the prosecutor in me against the follower of Christ. My faith emerges each time, though, with perhaps more nuance and depth. There have been scars.”
Bishop notes, “People who engage in the deliberations after the trial all say they are surprised how intensely engaged people are, how they dig deep and think about their faith and the law in a way they never had before.
“No one has said, ‘You haven't changed my mind,’” Bishop adds. “What they say is: ‘You made me think.’ That's exactly what we are aiming for.”
California has the largest death row in America, currently holding 727 inmates sentenced to die. The state has executed just 13 death row inmates since capital punishment was reinstated in 1977 and none since 2006. Those who were executed waited as much 25 years between imposition of sentence and death by lethal injection. The cost of operating a death penalty system in California has been estimated to be more than $130 million a year.
A Los Angeles Times poll conducted in September showed that when voters were asked about banning “the death penalty,” 51 percent opposed the idea and 34 percent supported it. But when voters were read a summary of Proposition 34 and asked how they would vote, the result was a statistical tie, with 12 percent of the voters undecided on the measure. The measure sets aside $100 million for law enforcement to solve murders and rapes.
“What I hope will happen in California is that people who are about to make a momentous decision — whether to end the State’s death penalty or not — will bring their faith and deepest beliefs and principles to bear on that question,” Bishop says. “Christians don’t leave that behind when we enter the voting booth; we bring it, and apply what we know about this Jesus, who was arrested and tried and executed.”
Osler concurs. “We have started them on a journey that may or may not end with them changing their minds. That's exactly what we want to achieve in California.”
The presentations will be held: on October 17 at Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, beginning at 7 p.m. in Room 101 of Payton Hall and on October 18 at Azusa Pacific University, in Azusa, beginning at 6:30 p.m. in the Hall of Champions/Felix Event Center.