Death Penalty

Anti-death penalty campaigner Alan Toy. MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

Anti-death penalty campaigner Alan Toy. MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images

October was Interfaith Month for Prop 34, a time set aside for leaders of faith traditions to address the question of California’s death penalty and advocate for its replacement. Hundreds of faith community’s have endorsed Proposition 34 because we believe the best way to do justice in California is to replace the death penalty with life in prison with no possibility of parole. 

The will to see justice done is deep within the human spirit. We may not always agree on what “justice” looks like, but the belief in a just and fair society — and the desire to bring it about — are at the heart of how we live together and form a community. In religious traditions like Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and countless others, doing justice is a calling to enact God’s will.

The next question is, of course, what does that mean? Discerning justice can be even harder than doing justice. 

Tracy Simmons 10-29-2012
Victoria Ann Thorpe protests against the death penalty outside of a Spokane mall

Victoria Ann Thorpe protests against the death penalty outside of a Spokane mall.

SPOKANE, Wash. -- They stood in front of a shopping mall, shackled together, heads down, nameplates dangling around their necks, bearing the names of men and women who have died on America’s death row.

Cal Brown.

Teresa Lewis.

Cameron Todd Willingham.

Behind them, stood Victoria Ann Thorpe, dark makeup painted on her cheeks and a sign painted to look like blood stains waving above her head: “Their blood is on our hands.”

Somehow, despite Thorpe’s gory exterior, she’s approachable.

“Would you like information on the death penalty?” she asks shoppers as they exit the mall, unable to avert their eyes from the scene in front of them. She hands them a clipboard and one by one, they fill out postcards showing their support to abolish the death penalty in Washington. The cards will later be sent to state lawmakers. The group has also protested at Gonzaga University and so far has collected more than 200 signatures.

Thorpe, along with the Safe and Just Alternatives organization and The Inland Northwest Death Penalty Abolition Group, is seeking to pass a state law to replace the death penalty in Washington state with life without parole.

Maurice Possley 10-15-2012
Stained glass window of Jesus scourging, Nancy Bauer /

Stained glass window of Jesus scourging, Nancy Bauer /

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.

Eric DeBode 09-01-2012

A California measure would fight crime—and deficits—by repealing capital punishment.

Shane Claiborne 07-24-2012
Stop the violence illustration, background Eky Studio /

Stop the violence illustration, background Eky Studio /

I had a veteran friend once tell me, “The biggest lie I have ever been told is that violence is evil, except in war.”  He went on, “My government told me that.  My Church told me that.  My family told me that. … I came back from war and told them the truth—‘Violence is not evil, except in war… Violence is evil – period.’” 

Every day it seems like we are bombarded with news stories of violence—a shooting in Colorado, a bus bombing in Bulgaria, drones gone bad and the threat of a nuclear Iran, a civil war in Syria, explosions in Afghanistan and Iraq.  

The recent cover story of Time magazine was "One a Day," showing that soldier suicides are up to one per day, surpassing the number of soldiers who die in combat. The U.S. military budget is still rising—more than $20,000 a second, more than $1 million a minute, spent on war even as the country goes bankrupt.  

Our world is filled with violence—like a plague, an infection, a pandemic of people killing people, and people killing themselves. In my city of brotherly love, Philadelphia, we have nearly one homicide a day—and in this land of the free we have more than 10,000 homicides per year.  

This week President Barack Obama called the shooting in Colorado “evil.” And he is right.  

But perhaps it is also time that we declare that violence is evil, everywhere—period.  It’s obvious that killing folks in a movie theater is sick and deranged, but the question arises: is violence ever okay?

Sandi Villarreal 07-18-2012
Warren Hill. Image via the Georgia Department of Corrections.

Warren Hill. Image via the Georgia Department of Corrections.

Despite protests not only from jurors who conivicted him but also from his victim’s family, Warren Hill, a 52-year-old mentally disabled man convicted of murder, is scheduled to be executed by lethal injection on July 23 in Jackson, Ga.

In 1991, a jury found Hill guilty in the bludgeoning to death a fellow inmate, Joseph Handspike, and sentenced him to death. Hill had been serving a life sentence for the 1986 killing of his girlfriend at the time of Handspike's death.

Hill has an I.Q. of about 70, leading a state judge to find him "mentally retarded" by a “preponderance of the evidence.”

While Georgia — as the rest of the United States — has banned the execution of mentally retarded inmates, the state has a stricter standard that requires proving mental retardation “beyond a reasonable doubt.” By that standard, the Georgia Supreme Court overruled the judge's finding of mental retardation, reversed the decision, and reinstated Hill’s death sentence, which originally had been set for today.

Protesters at a Anti-Death Penalty Rally, Robert J. Daveant /

Protesters at a Anti-Death Penalty Rally, Robert J. Daveant /

The campaign to abolish the death penalty has been freshly invigorated this month in a series of actions that supporters say represents increasing evidence that America may be losing its taste for capital punishment.

As early as this week, Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, is poised to sign a bill repealing the death penalty in Connecticut. A separate proposal has qualified for the November ballot in California that would shut down the largest death row in the country and convert inmates' sentences to life without parole.

Academics, too, have recently taken indirect aim: The National Research Council concluded last week that there have been no reliable studies to show that capital punishment is a deterrent to homicide.

Lauren F. Winner 04-20-2012
Shawn Rocco/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images

Marcus Robinson awaiting the judge's ruling. Shawn Rocco/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images

North Carolina's Racial Justice Act was just a piece of legislation until this morning, when Judge Gregory Weeks set aside a death penalty sentence that had been meted out to Marcus Robinson in 1994.

At issue this morning was not whether Robinson was guilty of first-degree murder. At issue was whether “racial bias” had prevented the “fair and reliable imposition of the death penalty in North Carolina.” 

Judge Weeks found that racism was indeed at work in Robinson’s sentencing. There is, Weeks said, “considerable evidence of the continuing effects of racial prejudice in the application of the death penalty.” Specifically, Weeks found that racism guided the selection of Robinson’s jury, thus compromising Robinson’s right to trial by impartial jury. In accordance with the Racial Justice Act, Robinson will now serve a term of life imprisonment without parole.

In the more than three decades since the national moratorium on the death penalty was lifted, there is no reliable research to determine whether capital punishment has served as a deterrent, according to a review by the National Research Council.

The review, partially funded by the Justice Department's National Institute of Justice, found that one of the major shortcomings in all previous studies has included "incomplete or implausible" measures of how potential murderers perceive the risk of execution as a possible consequence of their actions.

Another flaw, according to the review, is that previous research never considered the impact of lesser punishments, such as life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Sandi Villarreal 04-11-2012
Photo via Wiki Commons (

Bryan Stevenson delivering a TED talk in California last month. Photo via Wiki Commons (


The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world with 23 million behind bars. Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, speaking from the Q Conference on Wedensday, said this high rate is inextricably tied to poverty, age, mental illness and race.

“In this country, the opposite of poverty is not wealth. The opposite of poverty is justice,” said Stevenson, a law professor at the New York University school of Law. “If we’re going to be concerned about ending poverty, we must be concerned about justice.”

Kimberly Burge 04-01-2012

There are many reasons to abolish the death penalty. Innocents on death row may be the most compelling.

Duane Shank 02-08-2012
Man holding Bible speaks during anti-homosexuality rally in Kamapala, Uganda

Man holding Bible speaks during anti-homosexuality rally in Kamapala, Uganda 2/14/10. Photo by AFP/Getty Images.

CORRECTION: After our original post ran yesterday, we learned that there has been some confusion over the language of the current proposed language of the Ugandan anti-gay bill. In fact, the death penalty has not yet been dropped from the text of the bill.

According to news reports, a Ugandan Member of Parliament has introduced a revised bill that is expected to be acted on within a few days.

Jack Palmer 12-15-2011

Census Shows 1 In 2 People Are Poor Or Low-Income; Evangelical Group Links Climate Change And Poverty; Rick Perry Stresses Values On Iowa Bus Tour Kick-Off; Occupy 2.0? Church Leaders Join Movement; The Looming Death Of The Death Penalty; Christ and Consumerism: 'Priceless' At What Price? (OPINION)

Jack Palmer 12-05-2011

Democrats See Opening To Attract Religious Voters In 2012 Election; Does Inequality Matter?; From Occupy To Progressive Renewal: Demanding The Just Society; Occupy Movement A Reminder Of What We Value; The Annual 'War On Christmas' Shows How A Faith That Once United America Now Divides It; Religious Leaders Target Repeal Of N.C. Death Penalty Law; Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church: Kentucky Congregation Overturns Ban On Interracial Couples.

Rose Marie Berger 12-01-2011

No one could stop Troy Davis' execution -- despite his apparent innocence.

Joshua Witchger 11-23-2011

Yesterday Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber announced a moratorium on all executions in the state, declaring capital punishment to be a “perversion of justice.”

Oregon has carried out two executions in the last 47 years, both during Kitzhaber's tenure as governor.

With convicted murderer Gary Haugen facing the death penalty on Dec. 6 — coupled with the governor's growing frustration with the death penalty — Kitzhaber had had enough and halted Haugen's execution as well as any in the foreseeable future.

"I refuse to be a part of this compromised and inequitable system any longer and I will not allow further executions while I am governor," Kitzhaber said in The Oregonian.

Sparing Haugen’s life is not only a powerful victory for his family and loved ones, but also for anti-death penalty activists such as Naseem Rakha, who has devoted much of her career to writing about capital punishment as a journalist and novelist.

Maurice Possley 11-09-2011
Scott Dekraai's mug shot after his arrest in the Seal Beach salon slayings.

Scott Dekraai's mug shot after his arrest in the Seal Beach salon slayings.

Tony Rackauckas, Orange County District Attorney, held a press conference to announce his intent to seek the death penalty for Scott Dekraai, who killed his ex-wife and seven others at Salon Meritage in Seal Beach on Oct. 12.
“There are some cases that are so depraved, so callous, so malignant that there is only one punishment that might have any chance of fitting the crime," said Rackauckas. “When a person, in a case like this, goes on a rampage and kills innocent people in an indiscriminate bloody massacre, I will of course seek the death penalty.”

He added, “This is the only way our society can get anything approaching justice for the victims, their families, the town of Seal Beach, and the larger community.”

If justice means putting Dekraai on a gurney and executing him, the victims, their families and everyone else hoping for that outcome should face the cold hard fact that they are in for a long wait.

the Web Editors 10-19-2011

The high cost of anti-immigration laws. Why candidates' faith matters. ABC News' exclusive interview with President Obama. U.S. Hispanics choosing churches outside Catholicism. Three U.S. Congressmen tour the Canadian tar sands. Who are the death penalty's most ardent supporters? Investors worth a collective $20 trillion (with a T!) call for urgent action on climate change. And God's economy.

Jack Palmer 10-12-2011

yusuf-300x225The news cycle often moves so quickly that very often big news stories are forgotten within a day, sometimes even more quickly.

I prayerfully hope that this is not and will not be the case with the story of Pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, the Iranian Christian leader who has been sentenced to death for refusing to recant his religious beliefs and convert to Islam.

Arrested in 2009 on a charge of apostasy, he has spent two years in jail, with his wife also being jailed on similar charges last year.

The world's media was watching then.

Joshua Witchger 10-09-2011

Naseem Rakha, author of the 2009 novel The Crying Tree sees justice differently. Rakha, an award-winning journalist whose work has been featured on National Public Radio and elsewhere, has covered two death penalty cases in Oregon -- the only two in that state's history -- and has spent considerable time exploring the deeper story behind capital punishment, retributive justice and forgiveness.

"What I learned from talking to these victims is that there is a place, not called closure, not called moving on, but there is a place of empowerment," Rakha said in a recent interview with God's Politics. "Crime strips people of power, and there's nothing that the justice system or really even churches can give to you to replace that power. It is an act of wanting to sit down and meet with the person who strips that power from you that has transformed people's lives and gotten them to a point where they can forgive the act, because they see the perpetrator no longer as a monster, but as a human that has made a terrible mistake."