Since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976, Texas has had 537 executions — that’s over 400 more than any other state. But it has been more than five months since Texas has had an execution — 161 days to be exact. And that’s a record worthy of news. There’s only one other time in the past two decades that the death chamber has been that quiet in Texas.
But what’s happening in Texas reveals something deeper that’s happening all over the country. The death penalty is dying.
The human faces of the poor in Mississippi called to Paula and Margaret to love and serve. They responded and found the Divine. While they remained faithful to their Roman Catholic traditions and religious congregations, they needed the “other.” As Emmanuel Levinas, the French philosopher, has taught, “The Divine can only be accessed through the human other to whom the self is infinitely responsible.” With their advanced degrees, years of exceptional service and dedication, they could have gone anywhere. But they needed the people of Mississippi. And the people of Mississippi needed them. “The dimension of the divine opens forth from the human face."
After his Sunday Angelus prayer, Pope Francis turned his attention to capital punishment — and the overall treatment of prisoners in general — calling on all Christians to work toward abolishing the death penalty. He also asked for government leaders worldwide, and those of Catholic faith, specifically, to halt any executions during this Holy Year of Mercy.
The resolution casts serious doubt on the fairness of the U.S. criminal justice system, citing, among other things, the use of DNA evidence in the exonerations of 258 people in the first decade of the 21st century. While levelling a substantial critique of criminal justice in the U.S., the resolution does not call for an end to the death penalty, but instead acknowledges both sides as legitimate positions.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Tuesday that the pope, back in Rome after a six-day visit to the United States, sent a letter through a representative, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano.
“While not wishing to minimize the gravity of the crime for which Ms. Gissendander has been convicted, and while sympathizing with the victims, I nonetheless implore you, in consideration of the reasons that have been expressed to your board, to commute the sentence to one that would better express both justice and mercy,” Vigano wrote.
“In reaching its decision, the Board thoroughly reviewed all information and documents pertaining to the case, including the latest information presented by Gissendaner’s representatives,” a release sent from board chairman Terry Barnard said. No other explanation of the decision was given.
I formerly served as a corrections officer at a maximum security facility. I also used to be a reserve police officer. I have sped through city streets in a squad car, sirens blaring, on my way to shootings. I have booked and interviewed (interrogated) alleged murderers. I have seen victims’ families cry. I have had inmates hit me. I even used force when I wore a badge. And yet, as a Catholic Christian, over the years I have come to oppose capital punishment for a number of reasons.
I agree with Pope Francis’ remarks about the death penalty. During his speech before Congress, Democrats and Republicans applauded when he emphasized: “Let us remember the Golden Rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you’” (Mt 7:12). The pope added: “This Rule points us in a clear direction. Let us treat others with the same passion and compassion with which we want to be treated. Let us seek for others the same possibilities which we seek for ourselves. Let us help others to grow, as we would like to be helped ourselves. In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.”
THE NATIONAL LATINO Evangelical Coalition announced in March that it would no longer support the death penalty, making it the first U.S. evangelical association to take this stand. Coalition president Gabriel Salguero announced the change at a press conference in Orlando, Fla., and urged NaLEC’s 3,000 member congregations to work toward ending capital punishment nationwide.
“As Christ-followers, we are called to work toward justice for all. And as Latinos, we know too well that justice is not always even-handed,” said Salguero.
This groundbreaking move by Latino evangelicals puts them at odds with the pro-death penalty stance of the National Association of Evangelicals, although “sources within the NAE say that leadership is considering a change in the months ahead,” according to Religion News Service.
NaLEC did not come to this new position lightly. It came after two years of prayer and reflection accompanied by intensive dialogue between NaLEC’s leadership and Equal Justice USA and the Constitution Project, two leading anti-death penalty organizations. In addition, coalition members met with a number of wrongly convicted former prisoners such as Fernando Bermudez, who spent 18 years in prison in New York for a murder he did not commit.
According to Salguero, selecting Florida for the announcement was intentional. Florida was the first state to reintroduce capital punishment after the Supreme Court struck down the 1972 moratorium. Since executions were resumed, 25 people on Florida’s death row have been exonerated. This record of mistaken convictions is the highest of any state. It is particularly disturbing that Florida has on its books the so-called Timely Justice Act that mandates a swift execution process. With 394 people currently on Florida’s death row and the prevalence of mishandled cases and inadequate defense, especially for minorities, this law exacerbates existing problems in a system plagued by errors.
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Three times in the past month, the Nebraska Legislature voted for a bill to repeal capital punishment and replace it with life without parole. The governor has promised to veto the legislation, and an override vote is looming. Many of the Christian lawmakers made it clear they cast their votes against the death penalty, in part, to promote a whole life ethic.
The leader of the group is Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, a Catholic who put his personal reasons for opposing capital punishment into one easily understood phrase.