death row

Shane Claiborne 01-25-2017

Photo by JP Keenan/Sojourners

They removed all the black folks from the pool of potential jurors.

In the trial of a black man convicted of killing two white folks.

Not in 1950 ... but in 2002.

Jennifer Butler 03-01-2016

Mark Navarette, on California's death row. Image via REUTERS/Stephen Lam/RNS

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.

Kevin Riggs 08-21-2014
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 08-07-2014
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:

Khartoum International Airport, where Meriam Ibrahim was rearrested on Tuesday. Creative Commons image by Jozef Tóth.

A Sudanese Christian doctor freed from death row on charges of apostasy Monday is not yet free after authorities detained her at a Khartoum airport.

Meriam Yahya Ibrahim, 27, was arrested Tuesday after she attempted to leave Sudan using South Sudan emergency papers, including a U.S. visa, according to reports.

She was apprehended along with her husband, Daniel Bicensio Wani, an American citizen of South Sudanese origin, and their two children — 20-month-old son Martin and a 1-month-old daughter.

Phil Haslanger 05-01-2014
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.

Shane Claiborne 04-26-2014
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 04-14-2014

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.

Gregg Zoroya 03-11-2014

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.

Jim Wallis 11-27-2012

Attitudes toward capital punishment are changing, including among conservatives.

Maurice Possley 10-15-2012
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.

Jeanne Bishop 10-11-2012
Prison photo, luxorphoto / Shutterstock.com

Prison photo, luxorphoto / Shutterstock.com

What struck me as he spoke was the sheer human potential of this my client, wasted. That matters for all of us because of an unflinching Scriptural text about how we can enter the kingdom of God: “for I was hungry and you gave me food; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me….just as you did it to the least of those who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:35-40)

That’s the test. Not beliefs or intentions. Actions. 

Specific actions: Jesus tells us to visit people considered the worst among us, those accused of breaking the law. 

It’s not just innocent prisoners we are to see; it’s prisoners. They are all Jesus. 

Maurice Possley 05-21-2012
A few of the 891 exonerees included in the new Registry. Photo via MauricePossle

A few of the 891 exonerees included in the new Registry. Photo via MauricePossley.com

Nearly a quarter of a century after DNA testing was used to prove that a defendant had been falsely convicted of a crime, the American public has become familiar with the phenomenon and how the script plays out in our courtrooms.

The exonerated defendant stands before a judge and is informed that the conviction is vacated and the charges are dismissed. And then the former inmate —more than 100 have come from Death Row — is joined by family members and lawyers in a celebration on the courthouse steps.

Yes, it is a joyous occasion to step from behind prison bars after years — as many as 30 years in one case —of being locked up for a crime that was not committed.

But, as a report issued Monday by the National Registry of Exonerations makes clear, behind every one of these jubilant moments are tragedies, some of them of enormous proportion.

The report documents nearly 900 individual cases of exoneration. Combined, these (mostly) men and women served more than 10,000 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. In fact, in more than 100 cases, there was no crime at all — accidents were mischaracterized as murders and crimes were just concocted based on a web of lies and falsehoods.

Kimberly Burge 04-01-2012

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

Cathleen Falsani 03-14-2012
An undated photo of Pastor Nadarkhani in prison.

An undated photo of Pastor Nadarkhani in prison.

Last fall on God's Politics, we ran a few posts on the plight of Youcef Nadarkhani, a Muslim convert to Christianity who was arrested, charged with apostasy, tried, convicted and sentenced to death in Iran in 2010. We asked for continued prayer for the pastor and his family, and for people of conscience to speak out on his behalf.

Fast-forward five months...

As I was browsing through Facebook last night, I noticed a post on my news feed with the photo of a blindfolded man standing next to the executioner's noose and a headline that read, "Youcef Nadarkhani Executed."

My heart stopped for a moment. Please, no, I thought. And the guilt began to flood in: How could I have dropped the ball? If we had continued to sound the alarm on his behalf, would he have been hanged? Could we have helped save him if we'd done more?

I quickly went to Google to look for news reports of Nadarkhani's execution, reportedly on March 3. But I couldn't find any. Nothing on CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera, NPR.

After searching for a while, I found a post by the American Center for Law and Justice that confirmed what had become my hope: Reports of Nadarkhani's execution were false.

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.

Joshua Witchger 10-09-2011

naseem_portrait
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."

Maurice Possley 10-09-2011

400px-Unbalanced_scales_circle.svg
By the time someone figured out what happened, the deadline to appeal the denial of his post-conviction appeal had passed. So far, the state of Alabama has successfully argued that despite the mail room debacle, Maples should have been aware -- through his local counsel -- that the clock was ticking and that he just blew it.

Courts have struggled for years over the question of who should bear the penalty for a lawyer's mistakes or incompetence and the Maples case represents an extreme example of the problem of imputing the mistakes of a lawyer to the client.

Tripp Hudgins 09-25-2011
The Gate of Forgiveness, Jerusalem. Photo by Deror Avi.
Cathleen Falsani 09-22-2011

"It ALL began when they come took me from my home
And put me on Death Row,
a crime for which I am totally innocent, you know."

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