Death Penalty

Shane Claiborne 3-02-2015
Hands on prison bars. Image courtesy Kaspars Grinvalds/shutterstock.com

Hands on prison bars. Image courtesy Kaspars Grinvalds/shutterstock.com

Georgia clergy just delivered 500 signatures of faith leaders and 40 boxes of names from around the world — calling for a stop to tonight’s execution of Kelly Gissendaner. And there are more than 55,000 folks on the Groundswell petition that launched just yesterday, and more than 1,000 new names are coming in every hour. 

But some suggest it is like speaking into thin air — that there is no chance the governor or the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole will listen. After all, Georgia has already executed two people this year, more than any state other than Texas.

But there’s a Georgia case that would suggest otherwise, that all this may not be in vain — that of Billy Moore.

After 17 years on death row for a murder he openly confessed to doing, Billy Moore’s execution was stopped — by a groundswell of support from faith leaders (including Mother Teresa), people of conscience, and even the victim’s family. And it was the Georgia Board of Pardons and Parole that stopped his imminent execution. In fact, they eventually decided his rehabilitation was so complete and compelling that he was eligible for parole a year later.

So thousands of Georgia citizens and folks around the world are hopeful. Tonight there is an opportunity — not to be “soft on crime” or to ignore wrongdoing, but to bear witness that redemption is possible. Tonight Georgia leaders have a chance to recognize that people can be healed, rehabilitated, restored — and that they do not have to be forever held hostage and defined by the worst decision they made. 

A woman in prison. Image courtesy littlesam/shutterstock.com

A woman in prison. Image courtesy littlesam/shutterstock.com

It is a great and terrible irony that our country’s correctional system does not often allow for or take much pride in perpetrators’ self-correction.

Yet to the degree that transformation within the system is possible, such appears to have happened for Kelly Gissendaner. The 46-year-old woman was sentenced to death for the 1998 murder of her then-husband, Doug. It is well-documented that her accomplice and then-boyfriend committed the act — he is sentenced to life, with a chance at parol.

Gissendaner faces excecution tonight at 7 p.m. EST.

If carried through, it will be the first time since 1976 that the state of Georgia will execute an individual who was not the person physically using violence in the crime.

Gissendaner’s case — that of a person guilty of murder whose profound internal transformation while in prison has led to a contemplative life of studying theology, mentoring at-risk youth, offering pastoral care to fellow inmates, and expressing full and sincere remorse for her actions — calls into stark question whether our criminal justice system, and specifically the state's use of the death penalty, honestly allows for the possibility for redemption.

Shane Claiborne 2-27-2015
Judgment illustration, Evlakhov Valeriy / Shutterstock.com

Judgment illustration, Evlakhov Valeriy / Shutterstock.com

Only 15 women have been executed in the U.S. since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. For two death penalty cases involving women to make the news in the same week is unprecedented – but it’s happening.

One is Jodi Arias, convicted of killing her ex-boyfriend in 2008, whose sentencing trial was this week. She could face the death penalty in Arizona.

The other is a lesser-known case in Georgia — Kelly Gissendaner, convicted in a 1997 Atlanta murder plot that targeted her husband. Though sentenced to death, it is clear that with a little better legal coaching, Ms. Gissendaner could have plea-bargained for her life. That’s exactly what her husband’s killer, Gregory Owens, did. And now he’s behind bars as she counts down the hours to her death. It just doesn’t feel like your life should depend on how well you play the legal cards, but it sure seems to.

Kelly Gissendaner was supposed to die Wednesday night — but there was an interruption.

Shane Claiborne 2-04-2015
Photo via sakhorn / Shutterstock.com

Photo via sakhorn / Shutterstock.com

It looks like the death penalty may be on life support.

January was set to be the deadliest month for U.S. executions in 2015, but nine of the 15 executions were stopped. In an unprecedented wave, three of the deadliest states stopped executions planned for last month — Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. February has just begun, but nine of its 12 scheduled executions have been halted.

Last year was not a good year for the death penalty, either, as death sentences hit a 40-year low and executions were at a 20-year low.

There were botched executions such as that of Clayton Lockett, who writhed in pain for 43 minutes before dying of a heart attack, with the Oklahoma prison warden calling it “a bloody mess.”

Then there were the exonerations, such as that of Ricky Jackson in Ohio, who spent 39 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, convicted solely on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy who recanted.

Shanell T. Smith 2-02-2015
Photo via View Apart / Shutterstock.com

Photo via View Apart / Shutterstock.com

“But it was an accident! … He said it was a black-skinned boy who sort of looked like my son.”

“It’s all based on circumstantial evidence. It’s not fair!”

“We didn’t have money for a defense attorney!””

All of these assertions are regularly heard in court rooms across the country as the fate of yet another person’s life is determined in a death penalty case. “Gatekeepers of Redemption” – that is what I call them – the decision makers in capital punishment. Yet as I think about the death penalty movement and the shift that seems to be occurring within it, I am beginning to see an inkling of hope.

Years ago, it would not have been far-fetched to state that the main supporters of capital punishment were political conservatives and evangelical Christians. These groups, generally stereotyped as white men and women of the middle to upper class, are more often than not, the same persons with decision-making power with regard to capital punishment, and thus also less likely to fall victim to it.

Nevertheless, times seem to be a-changing and generalizations may soon no longer apply.

1-02-2015
Perpetrators of crime must be punished for their actions. No one should be the victim of a violent crime. The death penalty, however, does not bring us closer to justice or wholeness.
12-11-2014
A new coalition has been formed to bring about the end of the death penalty in the United States.
12-10-2014
The National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty announced on Tuesday the launch of a new coalition to pressure state governments to end capital punishment.
Richard Wolf 12-03-2014
A view of the Supreme Court on Oct. 7, 2014. Photo via Lauren Markoe / RNS.

A view of the Supreme Court on Oct. 7, 2014. Photo via Lauren Markoe / RNS.

The Supreme Court — the last stop for condemned prisoners such as Scott Panetti, a Texan who is mentally ill — and whose case was just stayed by an appellate court —  appears increasingly wary of the death penalty.

In May, the justices blocked the execution of a Missouri murderer because his medical condition made it likely that he would suffer from a controversial lethal injection.

Later that month, the court ruled 5-4 that Florida must apply a margin of error to IQ tests, thereby making it harder for states to execute those with borderline intellectual disabilities.

In September, a tipping point on lethal injections was nearly reached when four of the nine justices sought to halt a Missouri prisoner’s execution because of the state’s use of a drug that had resulted in botched executions elsewhere.

And in October, the court stopped the execution of yet another Missouri man over concerns that his lawyers were ineffective and had missed a deadline for an appeal. The justices are deciding whether to hear that case in full.

Shane Claiborne 11-05-2014

Could this conference push evangelicals to further action? Photo courtesy of Center for Applied Christian Ethics

On Nov. 6, Wheaton, “the Harvard of Christian colleges,” is hosting a forum on the death penalty. But it’s not just any forum. It has potential to reshape the way evangelicals in America think about the topic.

In addition to Wheaton’s own ethicist Vincent Bacote and Mercer University scholar David Gushee, the panelists include Kirk Bloodsworth, who spent eight years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Also on the panel is Frank Thompson, former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary who witnessed executions. And finally, there is Gabriel Salguero, who heads up the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and is also a member of the National Association of Evangelicals, a Christian powerhouse representing 45,000 congregations from over 40 denominations.

This is big.

I’ll admit, part of me wished this monumental death penalty event was happening at my alma mater, Eastern University. After all, Eastern is well-known for its social justice edge, its progressive faculty — folks like Tony Campolo and Ron Sider. One Eastern alum, death penalty lawyer Bryan Stevenson, was recently called “America’s young Nelson Mandela” by Desmond Tutu and interviewed in Time magazine and The New York Times.

After I pouted a little while, I realized the significance of this forum.

Alcatraz cells on March 1, 2014. Photo via RNS.

Pope Francis said Oct. 23 that keeping inmates isolated in maximum security prisons is “a form of torture,” and called life sentences “a hidden death penalty” that should be abolished along with capital punishment.

“All Christians and people of good will are called today to struggle not only for abolition of the death penalty, whether legal or illegal, and in all its forms, but also to improve prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their liberty,” the pope told delegates from the International Association of Penal Law.

“And this I connect with life imprisonment,” he continued. “Life imprisonment is a hidden death penalty.”

The pope noted that the Vatican recently eliminated life imprisonment from its own penal code, though that move was largely symbolic.

In the wide-ranging address, Francis denounced practices that are widespread in many regions of the world, such as extrajudicial executions and detentions without trial, which he said account for more than half of all detentions in some countries.

Francis also denounced corruption in penal systems, calling it “an evil greater than sin.”

Kevin Riggs 8-21-2014
altanaka / Shutterstock.com

altanaka / Shutterstock.com

“We cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly…We, deeming that to see a man put to death is as much the same as killing him” (Athenagoras of Athens, a Christian philosopher writing a defense of Christianity, speaking against state-sponsored killings and abortions, around 177 A.D.)

I am not sure where it originated, but somewhere someone started a rumor that if you are against the death penalty then you are soft on crime and care more about the guilty than the victim. Nothing could be farther from the truth!

Through marriage, a close relative of mine was murdered. I officiated the funeral. I attempted to comfort my family. I know the pain and evil of murder. I also know the pain and evil of a justice system that freed the killer after a few short years behind bars.

As a minister, and more importantly as a follower of Jesus, I take his words about visiting prisoners seriously (Matthew 25:36). I believe in forgiveness and grace and mercy. I believe in the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:34-40). I also realize you don’t get placed on death row for being a boy scout. People do need to pay for their crimes. The more serious the crime, the more serious the penalty. But ultimately, as a follower of Jesus, I believe in reconciliation. I believe in redemption. I believe no one is outside the realm of God’s mercy and grace.

Kevin Riggs 8-07-2014
Man behind bars, ANURAK PONGPATIMET / Shutterstock.com

Man behind bars, ANURAK PONGPATIMET / Shutterstock.com

“Capital punishment is against the best judgment of modern criminology and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God” (Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.)

I despise labels, but I guess you can’t get away from them. For example, I am called an American (a label). I would prefer to be called a United States Citizen because the term “American” is ethnocentristicThe term should mean I am part of the American continents, but it is never used that way. “American” is almost always used to refer to a person who lives in the United States. However, Canadians and Mexicans are also Americans; and so are Hondurans and Brazilians.

I wish I could simply be called “Christian.” But that label necessitates the need for additional labels. Am I Protestant or Catholic? Am I orthodox or neo-orthodox? Am I a fundamentalist, an evangelical, or main-line? Am I emergent, traditional, liberal, progressive, or contemporary? To which denomination do I belong, or am I non-denominational? Maybe I am inter-denominational? Am I charismatic or cessastionist?

It’s maddening!

My preference would be to be called a follower of Jesus. But what does that mean?

Then there are political labels … and they are the worst!

Am I conservative or liberal? Am I a Republican or Democrat or Independent or Libertarian or something else? Am I pro-life or pro-choice? Am I a patriot or and antagonizer? Am I a capitalist, socialist, or communist? Where do I stand on gun rights? What about human rights, or same-sex marriage, or LBGT issues, or immigration, or Obamacare, etc., etc., etc … blah, blah, blah …

Why can’t I just be me?

It’s a lost cause. No matter how hard I try not to be boxed in, people label me. So, let me give you my best shot at who I am based on labels. (Of course, if your definition of the labels is not the same as my definition, then we will have a hard time communicating.) Here goes:

QR Blog Editor 7-16-2014

A U.S. District Court judge declared the death penalty "unconstitutionall" in the State of California.

In the ruling that was released today, U.S. District Court Judge Cormac Carney wrote that, an "inordinate and unpredictable delay has resulted in a death penalty system in which very few of the hundreds of individuals sentenced to death have been, or even will be, executed by the State."

NBC Bay Area first reported the ruling:

In his 29-page ruling on the Jones vs. Chappell case, Carney wrote that when an individual is condemned to death in California, the sentence carries with it the promise that it will actually be carried out.

That promise is made to citizens, jurors, victims and their loved ones and to the hundreds of individuals on death row, he wrote.

However, Carney argues, “for too long now, the promise has been an empty one.”

Read the full story here.

Kirsten Powers 6-27-2014

Kirsten Powers portrait by Len Spoden Photography, courtesy of Kristen Powers.

Ralph Reed’s recent Road to Majority conservative confab in the nation’s capital had an unlikely exhibitor in the conference hall: opponents of the death penalty.

The activists were in the right place because their opposition stems from conservative principles. Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty believe that the faithful who gathered at the annual event hosted by Reed’s Faith and Freedom Coalition are ripe for embracing their critical view of capital punishment.

They have their work cut out for them. Yes, support for death penalties has been dropping in a Pew survey — from 78 percent in 1996 to 55 percent last year. But this barbaric practice still enjoys strong preference among conservatives, with 69 percent expressing support in a June ABC News/Washington Post poll. Only 49 percent of liberals agreed. Among Republicans, support is even higher — at 81 percent.

So what kind of reception did the activists receive? The group’s advocacy coordinator, Marc Hyden, told me the response was very positive.

Gregg Zoroya 6-17-2014

The Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison houses the state’s execution chamber. Creative Commons image by NeilATL.

After an unusual six-week lapse in executions in the nation since a botched effort in Oklahoma on April 29, two men could face lethal-injection deaths in Georgia and Missouri Tuesday night or early Wednesday.

Should the execution of Marcus Wellons go forward at 7 p.m. ET Tuesday in Georgia, it would be that state’s first lethal injection using a drug not federally approved. That’s the result of a scramble by Georgia and other states in recent months to obtain drugs necessary for executions.

Wellons, 59, was sentenced to death for the 1989 rape and murder of 15-year-old India Roberts, whom he abducted as she was on her way to a school bus.

At 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, Missouri is preparing to execute John Winfield, who blinded the mother of his two children and killed two other women in a 1996 shooting spree. A judge on Thursday issued a stay of execution, but prosecutors are seeking to have it lifted in time for Winfield’s execution to proceed.

A third inmate, in Florida, is slated to be put to death Wednesday evening.

Shane Claiborne 6-17-2014
Rev. Jeff Hood begins his pilgrimage. twitter.com/revjeffhood

Rev. Jeff Hood begins his pilgrimage. twitter.com/revjeffhood

It’s 93 degrees in Texas today. And Rev. Jeff Hood is walking 200 miles across the state. What would compel somebody to do that? He wants to end the death penalty … and he is not alone.

Rev. Jeff Hood is a Southern Baptist pastor, deeply troubled by his denomination’s stance on capital punishment. And he is troubled because he lives in the most lethal state in the U.S. Texas has had 515 executions since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976 – the next state in line is Oklahoma with 111. That means Texas is responsible for 37 percent of the executions in the U.S. Jeff has been a longtime organizer and board member for the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, a movement that is gaining some serious momentum these days.

A growing number of Texans — and Americans in general — are questioning the death penalty. A recent ABC poll shows we are over the tipping point, with more than half of Americans being against the death penalty and in favor of life in prison, putting death penalty support at a new low. For some it is the racial bias – in Texas it is not uncommon for an African American to be found guilty by an all-white jury. In fact, in considering “future dangerousness,” a criteria necessary for execution in Texas, state “experts” have argued that race is a contributing factor, essentially that someone is more likely to be violent because they are black – prompting articles like the headline story in the New York Times about Duane Buck: “Condemned to Die Because He is Black.”

Shane Claiborne 5-12-2014
enterlinedesign / Shutterstock.com

enterlinedesign / Shutterstock.com

Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler wrote a piece last week defending the death penalty. In his 1,200-word argument for why Christians should support the death penalty, he does not mention Jesus a single time.

Digging deeper, as you read the official pro-death penalty statement of the Southern Baptists, there is not a single reference to Jesus or the Gospels.

There are plenty of other problems with the scriptural maneuvering used to justify the contemporary practice of the death penalty with a few verses from the Bible, in the same way that a few verses were misused to justify slavery. For starters the biblical death penalty was required not just for murderers, but also for folks that committed adultery, disrespected their parents, collected too much interest, had premarital sex, and disobeyed the Sabbath. But I want to stick with the nagging problem of Jesus, the greatest obstacle for pro-death penalty Christians.

In a recent Barna Poll, fewer than 5 percent of Americans think Jesus would support capital punishment, and fewer than a quarter of young Christians support it. Nonetheless some Christians find ways to sidestep Jesus, the lens through which all of us who claim to be Christians should interpret the Bible and the world around us.

Book of Genesis, Janaka Dharmasena / Shutterstock.com

Book of Genesis, Janaka Dharmasena / Shutterstock.com

After this week’s botched execution in Oklahoma, Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argued why Christians should support the death penalty at CNN.com. Grounding his argument in Genesis 9:6, where Noah is told that anyone guilty of intentional murder should be put to death, Mohler says, “The one who intentionally takes life by murder forfeits the right to his own life.”

In my experience, most Christian pro-death penalty advocates make similar arguments, rooting themselves in Old Testament teaching. On occasion, they bolster their thinking with a somewhat cryptic reference to the government’s ability to “bear the sword” to “bring punishment on the wrongdoer” by the Apostle Paul. Rarely, will anyone cite Jesus’ teachings.

Mohler is a capable theologian and a thinker I respect. And I have many intelligent friends who support the death penalty. Yet, I think it is problematic for Christians to root their support of capital punishment in the Jewish Scriptures.

Stacy Rector 5-01-2014
Anti-death penalty rally, Robert J. Daveant / Shutterstock.com

Anti-death penalty rally, Robert J. Daveant / Shutterstock.com

In 2009, I accompanied my friend Steve Henley on his journey to execution in Tennessee. As his spiritual advisor, I was able to be with him for a few hours before he was removed from his deathwatch cell and strapped to a gurney. I was there with his family as the blinds were raised and as he tried to make them smile. I was there when he spoke his last words, when the poison entered his veins, when he began to turn blue, and when he finally was declared dead. This image of my friend, who I visited for 10 of his 23 years on death row, will stay with me forever. Steve’s execution lasted about 12 minutes.

Clayton Lockett’s execution lasted 43 minutes. All of those present at his execution — correctional staff, attorneys, media, the victim’s family, clergy, and others — will now live with the image of what happened in Oklahoma on Tuesday. The horror they witnessed will be with them forever, regardless of their opinion of Clayton Lockett. Though Oklahoma officials had all sorts of reasons to suspect that there might be problems with this execution — using an untested mixture of lethal injection drugs whose source was kept secret — they proceeded for the sake of expediency, leading to the inevitable cruelty that followed.

By all accounts, Clayton Lockett did a terrible thing. He shot and killed 19-year-old Stephanie Nieman in 1999, taking away her life and all its possibilities. Some might even say that Clayton Lockett got what he deserved for his crime. But was what the state of Oklahoma did on Monday really about Clayton Lockett?

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