Death Penalty

Ugandan Parliament Re-Introduces Gay Death Penalty - What Can Christians Do?

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.

Four Reasons to Rethink the Death Penalty

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."

Bias. In many death-penalty states, defendants are much more likely to be executed if their victim was white. Studies show that black defendants are more likely to receive the death penalty than others. And in death-penalty states, 98 percent of chief district attorneys are white and only 1 percent are African American.

No deterrent. Study after study shows that capital punishment does not deter murder. The murder rate in states without the death penalty has remained consistently lower than the rates in states with capital punishment.

Cost. As Fox News famously reported in 2010, "Every time a killer is sentenced to die, a school closes." Studies in North Carolina show the state could save $11 million a year by substituting life in prison for death sentences. —The Editors

Image: Time to rethink, donskarpo / Shutterstock.com

 

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Gandalf, Gollum, and the Death Penalty

EARLY IN J.R.R. Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf the wizard is talking with the hobbit Frodo Baggins about the dreadful Gollum. The frightened Frodo expresses his regret that his uncle Bilbo had not killed "that vile creature, when he had a chance!"

Because of "all those horrible deeds" that Gollum has done, Frodo adds, "He deserves death." Gandalf replies, "Deserves it! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it."

I do not know where Tolkien stood on the issue of capital punishment, but Gandalf offers theologically relevant points about innocence, guilt, judgment, and hope that Christians should seriously consider as heated debate continues about the morality of this lethal governmental practice.

While a majority of Americans still view capital punishment as morally justified, there is growing opposition to it. Indeed, the number of death sentences dropped to a 35-year low in 2011, and the annual number of executions since 1999, the year in which the most persons were put to death, has with a few exceptions continued to decrease. Seventeen states have abolished capital punishment, including Connecticut, which outlawed the death penalty on April 25, 2012, for any future crimes committed. In 2012, 12 states had active legislation to end it. Why?

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Trials and Errors

Among democratic nations, the United States has the highest death penalty rate in the world. As the only G8 country to regularly use capital punishment, the United States joins China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, North Korea, and Yemen as the world's leaders in executions.

  • Since 1973, 141 people in 26 states have been exonerated from death row with evidence of their innocence.
  • 17 states and the District of Columbia have abolished the death penalty. However, the federal death penalty can still be enforced in every state.
  • The annual cost of California's current death penalty system is $137 million per year . The cost of a system that imposes lifetime incarceration rather than the death penalty would be $11.5 million per year.
  • Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 35 percent of those who have been executed have been African American (African Americans constitute about 14 percent of the U.S. population).

—Compiled by Elaina Ramsey

Sources: Amnesty International; Death Penalty Information Center; California Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice; U.S. Census.

Image: Hands of a prisoner, BortN66 / Shutterstock.com

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Who Would Jesus Execute?

RICHARD VIGUERIE is as responsible as anyone for the success of the conservative movement in this country. A pioneer in political direct mail, Viguerie has been involved from the radical edges of the Right in every Republican campaign from Goldwater to Romney; he's been called the "funding father of the conservative movement." He helped start hundreds of entities from Conservative Digest to Gun Owners of America, from the National Conservative Political Action Committee to the Moral Majority—spanning the political spectrum from Right to Far Right. Just before the 2012 election, he launched MyOwnSuperPAC because of "frustration at how weak and ineffective the Romney campaign's ads have been with its soft approach to Barack Obama—hardly ever mentioning Obama's radical, neo-Marxist vision for America's future," and insisting that "Obama is NOT failing. He's succeeding at doing exactly what he set out to do—and that's destroy capitalism and destroy the America you and I grew up in." So no one is going to mistake Viguerie for a squishy liberal.

And yet Viguerie's Catholic faith has led him to a surprising position on the issues of capital punishment and prison reform. The conservative icon talked with Sojourners editor-in-chief Jim Wallis in September about why he thinks an unexpected Left-Right alliance might turn the tide against the death penalty.

Jim Wallis: As you and I both know, we're often stuck in political straitjackets. There are issues that we could work together on, particularly as people of faith, that would help politicians do better than they sometimes do. I'd like to start with this: You've said that, as a Catholic, you're against the death penalty. Why is your faith as a Catholic central to this, and how has that turned you against the death penalty?

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It's Time to End the Death Penalty

I AM AGAINST the death penalty in principle. The deliberate killing of prisoners does not demonstrate our society's respect for life, which we are trying to teach—especially to those who violate it. We simply should not kill to show we are against killing. It's also easy to make a, yes, fatal mistake, as alarming DNA testing has demonstrated, revealing some death row inmates to be innocent. In addition, the death penalty is clearly biased against poorer people, who cannot afford adequate legal representation, and is outrageously disproportionate along racial lines. The facts are that few white-collar killers sit on death row, and fewer are ever executed. And there is no evidence that capital punishment deters murder; the data just doesn't show that.

At a retreat I attended a couple of years ago, conservative activist Richard Viguerie approached me and said, "Jim, let's do something together to really shake up politics." Viguerie had become a friend, so I asked him what that might be. "I am a Catholic," Viguerie said. "I am against the death penalty, and I think it's time for conservatives and liberals who agree on that to begin to work together." I was fascinated at the thought of unlikely partners helping to accomplish that together. So we have had several dinner meetings over the last two years with both conservative and liberal leaders—mostly people of faith—to discuss the issue.

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Discerning Justice: Yes on 34

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. 

Woman Crusades to Save Sister’s Life, End the Death Penalty

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.

Death Penalty for Jesus

Stained glass window of Jesus scourging, Nancy Bauer / Shutterstock.com
Stained glass window of Jesus scourging, Nancy Bauer / Shutterstock.com

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.

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