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."
In a letter signed by 49 evangelicals from Texas and around the country, the Christian leaders said officials have a “moral obligation” to stop the execution, which is scheduled for Aug. 24.
I cannot think of a better way to honor the victims of the Charleston massacre, and the Jesus they worship, than by insisting on another form of justice for Roof.
Pope Francis continues his drumbeat for a global moratorium on the death penalty. This is a wake-up call not just for Catholics, but also for all Christian leaders and lawmakers to reflect and take action.The words of the world’s most popular faith leader in fact come at a time when religious communities are questioning the death penalty theologically and biblically. Opposition to the death penalty even among conservative Christians continues to mount, as evident in the National Association of Evangelicals’ thoughtful reconsideration of its strong support of the death penalty.
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.
Two decades after her anti-death penalty work was transformed into an Oscar-winning movie, Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean’s campaign continues with the backing of Pope Francis. Prejean met with the pope on Jan. 21 to deliver a thank-you letter from Richard Glossip, whose execution in the U.S. was halted in September after intervention from the pontiff.
A judge on Nov. 10 issued the death penalty for the white supremacist convicted of shooting to death three people at two Jewish centers in Kansas last year.
Johnson County District Court Judge Thomas Kelly Ryan sentenced Frazier Glenn Cross, 74, to die by lethal injection.
A jury in early September convicted Cross, a former senior member of the Ku Klux Klan, of the murders and recommended that he be put to death. Cross also was convicted of three counts of attempted murder for shooting at three other people.
POPE FRANCIS called our country to honor the sacredness of all human life. He called on Congress to embrace a consistent ethic of life—to abolish the death penalty. The state killed no one while Francis walked among us. But three days after his departure, blood flowed.
Six people in five states were scheduled to be executed in the U.S. within one week of each other in the beginning of October:
Wednesday, Sept. 30. Kelly Gissendaner, convicted for the orchestration of the 1997 murder of her husband, converted to Christianity while on death row in Georgia. Gissendaner, a respected student of theology, was put to death after three failed Supreme Court appeals.
Wednesday, Sept. 30. Richard Glossip, who is widely believed to be innocent of the 1997 murder-for-hire for which he was convicted, was scheduled to be executed in Oklahoma, but Gov. Mary Fallin issued a stay of execution. Fallin offered the stay not because she believed that Glossip was innocent, but rather because of questions over whether the state possessed the legal drug protocol to put him to death.
Thursday, Oct. 1. Alfredo Prieto was executed in Virginia for the rape and murder of a woman and her boyfriend in 1988. Prieto was believed to be a serial murderer with an IQ below 70, according to Amnesty International. Prieto had an appeal pending when the state killed him.
Friday, Oct. 2. Kimber Edwards was convicted of the murder-for-hire of his ex-wife in 2000, but another man recently confessed to having acted alone. Edwards, who has autism, originally confessed to the crime, but at his trial and ever since he has said he was innocent. His death sentence was commuted to life in prison by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.
The National Association of Evangelicals, which represents over 45,000 churches from almost 40 different denominations, published a resolution Oct. 19 that substantially revises their position on the death penalty.
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.
Pope Francis is not a liberal or conservative. He transcends pedestrian labels that drive wedges in American society.
So perhaps it trivializes spirituality and religion to keep political score on the pope's visit. But it also might lend instruction and context to some of our raging debates.
So here's how I score it: In the current American political context, Pope Francis was mostly, but not exclusively, left-leaning in his address to Congress on Thursday.
PROFESSIONAL-GRADE paint brushes are about 10 inches long, with enough heft to balance in one hand, allowing the artist the control necessary to usher an idea into paint-and-canvas reality.
For more than 20 years, Ndume Olatushani used brushes with handles that were mere stubs. Fearing that a full-length brush could be sharpened into a knife, officials at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tenn., cut them to about a third of their original length. To paint, Olatushani wet magazines and rolled them tightly around the broken ends. Once dry, the hardened pages worked almost as well as regular handles. Olatushani would then prop a canvas on his knee—easels weren’t allowed and his cell barely had space for one anyway—and paint.
The guards didn’t want Olatushani to have a weapon, but he did: The magazine-handled brushes kept him alive, bringing to life the world of his mind decades before he was freed from the monochrome world of prison.
“Art was freedom to me,” Olatushani explained. “I was literally walking in the shadow of death, but I was able to escape into the world I wanted, that I was able to create inside my head. Being able to do that made it possible for me to come through the other end.”
A happy medium
In 1985, after a seven-day trial in which prosecutors withheld evidence, a key witness lied, and an alibi was overlooked, Ndume Olatushani, then known as Erskine Johnson, was convicted of a murder that had been committed two years before. It took the all-white jury less than two hours to sentence him to death.
Thanks to the efforts of lawyers who took on his case pro bono in the ’90s, Olatushani’s death sentence was overturned in 1998. And after nearly 27 years imprisoned for a crime he did not commit, he finally walked away from the Shelby County Jail in Memphis on June 1, 2012.
“The man who bludgeoned Van Treese to death, Justin Sneed, testified that Glossip hired him for the murder. But jurors weren't presented with evidence that Sneed gave contradictory accounts to police about what happened, wrote Sister Helen Prejean, who ministers to prisoners on death row.
Prejean also noted the lack of evidence linking Glossip to the crime.
Glossip's scheduled death will also be the first in Oklahoma since a bitterly divided Supreme Court allowed the use of the drug midazolam in June.
I can’t help but think old William Penn would be proud of Gov. Wolf earlier this year as he made his announcement to halt all executions. Penn was a pacifist and a serious skeptic of capital punishment. His Quaker heritage held that every human being carries the essence of God, and that no one should ever take the life of another, not even the state.
As Pope Francis leads worship on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in the heart of Philadelphia, a statue of William Penn will be looking down on him from atop City Hall, and I can’t help but think our Quaker forefather will be smiling — especially as Pope Francis continues to insist that every person carries the image of God in them… and that no one is beyond redemption.
I look forward to the end of the death penalty, and I hope we get one step closer to it as the pope comes to the City of Brotherly Love.
ON A COOL NIGHT in spring 2006, I knelt with a half-dozen friends on the driveway of North Carolina’s maximum-security prison. When officers came to inform us we were trespassing, we asked if they would join us in prayer against the scheduled execution of Willie Brown. Though one officer thanked us for doing what he could not, we were arrested and carried off to the county jail. Willie Brown died early the next morning.
But this isn’t an article about the death penalty.
At the county jail that evening nearly a decade ago, I was fingerprinted, strip-searched, dressed in an orange jumpsuit, and processed into the general population of an overcrowded cell block. When I walked onto the block, I was greeted almost immediately by a 20-something African-American man who asked me, “What the hell are you doing here?” As I summarized the events of the previous evening that had led to my arrest, he decided I was teachable. “You wanna know how I knew you weren’t supposed to be here?” he asked. “’Cause everybody else in here I knew before they got here. We’re all from the same hood.”
“They only kill people like us,” my teacher at the county jail told me that day. “The train that ends at death row starts here.”
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.
“I am pro-life,” he said.