Death Penalty

Phil Haslanger 5-01-2014
Dead Man Walking play performed in 2002, Photo by creighton_ccas / Flickr.com

Dead Man Walking play performed in 2002, Photo by creighton_ccas / Flickr.com

The botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma on Tuesday has refocused the nation on the inherent contradictions in the death penalty. But here in Wisconsin last week, an opera helped focus the attention of one community on the many human issues woven into the debate over crime and punishment.

In real life at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary in McAlester, a mix of lethal drugs injected into the body of Lockett caused seizures rather than immediate death. On stage in the opera version of Dead Man Walking, the drug machine clicks, hums, and whirrs with efficiency, leaving the fictional character Joe DerRocher dead on the stage.

Dead Man Walking — the book by Sr. Helen Prejean about her work with prisoners on death row and the families of their victims — became an award-winning movie in the mid-1990s starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. It was recreated as an opera in 2000 and since then has played in 40 cities.

What happened in Madison, Wis., last week was more than the presentation of an opera. It was the culmination of six weeks of some 20 events engaging about 1,500 community members in discussion of many facets of the criminal justice system. The two performances of the opera itself drew about 3,000 people. It was a classic example of art engaging life.

Capital punishment itself is not so much of an issue in Wisconsin – the state has banned it since 1853. But Wisconsin does have the highest rate of black male incarceration in the nation. Its prison system tilts far more toward punishment than toward treatment and rehabilitation. It imprisons twice as many people as its neighboring and demographically similar state of Minnesota.

Courtesy of OK.gov

Courtesy of OK.gov

At 6:23 p.m. yesterday, the state of Oklahoma initiated its effort to kill Clayton D. Lockett. Twenty minutes later, after being declared unconscious by a physician, Lockett cried out, "Oh, man," writhing in pain. Addled by this unexpected display of pain, one of the executioners said, "Something’s wrong." Soon after, the window to the observation room was covered and media were escorted out of the room.

A state official later reported that Mr. Lockett died of a heart attack at 7:06pm.

The fact that this unexpected scene was preceded by months of arguments by lawyers about the constitutionality of resuming executions in Oklahoma guarantees that a debate about the death penalty will ensue. Those who have argued that this ultimate form of punishment is "cruel and unusual" will make last nights scene their case in point. The Governor of Oklahoma has already declared that a thorough investigation of what went wrong will take place before any other executions go forward. Privately, in conversations at home and on their computers, many will say, "Did he suffer? Sure. But why shouldn’t he after what he did." Most national polls show that support for vs. opposition to the death penalty is about 50/50. Both sides will have plenty of people to argue.

But I think it would be the greatest of tragedies if we did not notice that what happened in Oklahoma last night reveals perhaps our deepest national self-deception — that, no matter what goes wrong, we will fix it because we are in control.

Courtesy Odyssey Networks

Dialogue on drugs used in lethal injections prompted a resurgence of the capital punishment debate. Courtesy Odyssey Networks

Society has an affinity for death. There is a pervasive fascination with (im)mortality. We appreciate life, but we are seduced at the intricacies and unknowns of death. While there is much enjoyment and celebration over health, personal accomplishments, births, and birthdays, women and men around the world ponder the “what ifs” concerning the end of life. The thought of death grips us with a “thanatopsis” like inquisitiveness — no fear just sheer curiosity.

Look at the ubiquitous commentary on demise and dying. The Walking Dead has become one of the most highly watched shows. Along with True BloodCold Case, and Resurrection television is replete with musings over death and what happens when the “dead” come back to life. Don Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven and the book-turned-film Heaven is for Real challenge us to discard any sense of reason or rationale when it comes to what many of us living have not experienced personally — that is dying. Yes, we have gone to funerals, but dare I say we were not in the casket.

Nonetheless, human nature being what it is, often what we cannot understand, we try to control. Death is no exception.
Shane Claiborne 4-26-2014
Shane Claiborne and Gov. Bill Haslam. Courtesy Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne and Gov. Bill Haslam. Courtesy Shane Claiborne

Last week, the men on Tennessee’s death row, four of whom have scheduled execution dates in the near future, invited Gov. Bill Haslam, the man who signs the death warrants, to join them for prayer

The backdrop for the story is that Tennessee has more executions scheduled in a year than the state has had in the past 50 years. Last week as Christians around the world remembered Good Friday, the day Jesus was executed, legislators in the Bible Belt state passed a bill to reinstate the electric chair (which would make it the only state to require death by electrocution). The only thing that could be more troubling would be if Tennessee decided to start crucifying people again. I even heard one politician defend his position saying, “It is God’s job to judge them, but our job to get them to Him.”

LaVonne Neff 4-14-2014

Moose's Last Photo. Photo provided by LaVonne Neff

Twelve years ago we took our beloved Maltese dog, Moose, to the vet and came home without him. Moose was in the late stages of congestive heart failure, and many times each day he was wheezing and crying out in pain. While my daughter held the little dog, the vet gave him a shot. It was over very quickly.

Why don't we treat death row prisoners at least as well as we treat dogs?

"Secret Drugs, Agonizing Deaths" is the headline on an article in yesterday's New York Times. Back when executioners wielded axes, they tended to wear hoods so people wouldn't recognize them. Nowadays states still conceal executioners' identities — and much more.

Heather Beaudoin 4-04-2014

A growing number of conservative Christians have joined the movement to abolish capital punishment.

Gregg Zoroya 3-11-2014

Two cells on Death Row in Old Idaho State Penitentiary on July 31, 2013 in Boise, Idaho. Photo: Nagel Photography/Shutterstock

Prison guards meet in the desert to hand off chemicals for executions. A corrections boss loaded with cash travels to a pharmacy in another state to buy lethal sedatives. States across the country refuse to identify the drugs they use to put the condemned to death.

This is the curious state of capital punishment in America today.

Manufacturers are cutting off supplies of lethal injection drugs because of opposition to the death penalty, and prison officials are scrambling to make up the deficit — sharing drugs, buying them from under-regulated pharmacies or using drug combinations never employed before in putting someone to death.

At the same time, growing numbers of states are ending capital punishment altogether. Others are delaying executions until they have a better understanding of what chemicals work best. And the media report blow-by-blow details of prisoners gasping, snorting, or crying out during improvised lethal injection, taking seemingly forever to die.

Legal challenges across this new capital punishment landscape are flooding courts, further complicating efforts by states that want to keep putting people to death.

Naveed Ahmad 2-19-2014

Rimsha Masih, a teenage girl who was alleged to have dumped torn and burnt pages of the Quran. Photo by Naveed Ahmad. Via RNS

Mohammad Asghar, a 69-year-old paranoid schizophrenic, faces a death sentence in Pakistan for claiming to be the Prophet Muhammad in letters written to officials and police in 2010.

The retired British national of Pakistani descent is partially paralyzed after a stroke, but Pakistani courts have so far refused to acknowledge his physical and mental limitations.

The charges against Asghar recall the case of Rimsha Masih, a teenage girl who was alleged to have dumped torn and burnt pages of the Quran into a garbage heap nearly two years ago.

Benjamin Corey 2-05-2014
Prison illustration, Nipitphand / Shutterstock.com

Prison illustration, Nipitphand / Shutterstock.com

As I stated yesterday, I believe that America’s justice system is broken and in need of desperate repair. One of those areas is the practice of putting our citizens to death, something I believe that all Jesus People should resoundingly oppose.

When I was a conservative evangelical, I was a huge supporter of capital punishment for all of the standard reasons. I even had a quick response when folks correctly brought up the hypocrisy of being against abortion while simultaneously being pro-death penalty, a position I previously argued you can’t hold and still call yourself “pro-life.”

However, when I decided to follow Jesus instead of simply being a Christian who paid him hollow worship while conveniently ignoring the red words, I was forced to abandon my support of the death penalty (and abandon my support of violence in general) as part of Following Jesus 101.

While America’s broken justice system is a complex issue, perhaps the first area we can fix is by abolishing the death penalty in all 50 states. Here’s why I think Jesus People should be leading the charge on this issue:

Benjamin Corey 1-31-2014
UAlbany National Death Penalty Archives

UAlbany National Death Penalty Archives

The difficulty of restorative justice, is that some things simply can’t be restored.

Certainly, not 14-year-old George Stinney. He’s been dead almost 70 years.

We can however, restore his name — and sometimes, that’s all restorative justice can do. Restorative justice works to make whole what has been unjustly lost and reassemble that which has been unjustly broken, to the greatest degree humanly possible. While we can’t restore 14-year-old George to life, we can both restore his name and work to restore the community responsible for his death.

Often we forget that restorative justice isn’t just about restoring the one who was wronged; the one who committed the wrong is also need of restoration. In this case, the latter is the state of South Carolina.

Graphic courtesy of Barna Group. Via RNS.

One day after the state of Ohio executed a man for murder, a new poll shows younger Christians are not as supportive of the death penalty as older members of their faith.

When asked if they agreed that “the government should have the option to execute the worst criminals,” 42 percent of self-identified Christian boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, said “yes.” Only 32 percent of self-identified Christian millennials, born between 1980 and 2000, said the same thing.

The poll conducted by Barna Group this past summer and released to Religion News Service Friday, surveyed 1,000 American adults and has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.6 percentage points.

It 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.

Jesus on the cross Photo: Lasalus/Shutterstock

Jesus on the cross Photo: Lasalus/Shutterstock

“Lord, when were you in prison?” we’ll ask of you one day;
And when did we go visit you, and listen well, and pray?
And when did we show mercy there (as we need mercy, too)?
As we love those in prison, Lord, we show our love to you!
 

When you taught love of neighbor, had you heard in your time
Of one who lay beside the road, a victim of a crime?
The neighbor that you said was good brought help and wholeness, too;
May we help those who hurt so much from crimes that others do.
  

Tobias Winright 11-05-2013

Where Justice and Mercy Meet: Catholic Opposition to the Death Penalty. Liturgical Press.

Stephen Schneck 8-02-2013

Francis—refreshingly candid and seemingly repelled by the perks of the papacy—offers new hope for the Catholic Church and beyond.

Rick Hampson 5-15-2013

A Philadelphia abortion doctor convicted of first-degree murder in the deaths of three babies will not face the death penalty.

Dr. Kermit Gosnell will serve life in prison without parole. He escaped the possibility of execution by agreeing Tuesday to waive his right to appeal his conviction of first-degree murder in the deaths of three babies. A jury on Monday found they were delivered alive and killed by snipping their spinal cords with surgical scissors.

During his trial, former employees of Gosnell’s rundown west Philadelphia clinic testified that he performed or tried to perform abortions beyond Pennsylvania’s 24-week gestation limit. Some procedures resulted in the birth of babies who appeared to be moving, breathing, and in one case, according to former employee Ashley Baldwin, “screeching.”

Melissa Otterbein 3-06-2013
Girl riding a bike, Michal Durinik / Shutterstock.com

Girl riding a bike, Michal Durinik / Shutterstock.com

“What? What happened?” My co-worker asked, sensing the solemn look on my face.
“Another patient died,” I reported. Grief and thick silence hang in the air as I thought back to the last time I saw this person, hospitalized, unable to speak, but for a brief moment our hands met in an embrace, and although he couldn’t speak, his demeanor and soft touch of the hand said it all.

I brought myself back to the present moment. It was the end of the work day and I strapped on my helmet to bike home, a Lenten commitment I’ve found to be incredibly rejuvenating.

I pedal past the housing projects and turn the corner around the city jail. Activists holding bright colored placards protest peacefully against the death penalty. I smile at them. “Keep up the good work!” I enthuse, giving them a thumbs up from my navy blue mitten and pedal on my way.
A second later, it hits me. Tears rush to my eyes but refuse to come out. The taut muscles in my throat contract; that familiar lump in which no words can come out, just expressions of the heart. Yes, it hit me.The juxtaposition and irony of it all. Life and death. One man died today from four letters that no one should ever have to die from, but globally, some 1.8 million do every year. Another man protested for the life of another to not be cut short before the redemption and healing and forgiveness began.

RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili

Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu on Tuesdayurged Uganda to scrap a controversial draft law. RNS photo by Fredrick Nzwili

NAIROBI, Kenya — Nobel Laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu on Tuesday urged Uganda to scrap a controversial draft law that would send gays and lesbians to jail and, some say, put them at risk of the death penalty.

The Anti-Homosexuality Bill is expected to become law after Parliamentary Speaker Rebecca Kadaga offered it to Ugandans as a "Christmas gift." The bill is believed to exclude the death penalty clause after international pressure forced its removal, but gay rights activists say much of it is still horrendous.

“I am opposed to discrimination, that is unfair discrimination, and would that I could persuade legislators in Uganda to drop their draft legislation, because I think it is totally unjust,” Tutu told reporters here on Tuesday at the All Africa Conference of Churches meeting.

Elaina Ramsey 11-29-2012

People of all stripes are redefining what it means to be “pro-life” by upholding a consistent ethic of life—from womb to tomb. Take conservative luminary Richard Viguerie, for example.

Janelle Tupper 11-28-2012
Roadway in Burundi. Photo by Janelle Tupper / Sojourners

Roadway in Burundi. Photo by Janelle Tupper / Sojourners

The Ugandan Parliament has re-introduced a draconian anti-LGBT bill that has received widespread international criticism. Under this bill, first introduced in 2011 and re-introduced earlier this year, the government would prescribe the death penalty to all LGBT people and those that provide them with housing and resources.

The bill is expected to pass before the end of this year; its champions call it a “Christmas gift to the Ugandan people.”

In the face of this hatred, I am glad to work for Sojourners, which earlier this year signed on to the following statement along with other Christian groups:

Our Christian faith recognizes that all human beings have been created in the image and likeness of God, and Christ teaches that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. All acts of bigotry and hatred betray these foundational truths … Regardless of the diverse theological views of our religious traditions regarding the morality of homosexuality, the criminalization of homosexuality, along with the violence and discrimination against LGBT people that inevitably follows, is incompatible with the teachings of our faith.

The Editors 11-27-2012

Across the political and religious spectrum, Americans are rethinking the death penalty. Here are some reasons why:

Mistakes. In January 2012, Joe D'Ambrosio became the 140th person on death row in the U.S. to be exonerated since 1973. Addressing the issue of biased application, Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan said in 1994 that "the death penalty is imposed not only in a freakish and discriminatory manner, but also in some cases upon defendants who are actually innocent."

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