The death penalty’s last gasp?

The death penalty’s last gasp?

(RNS) — On Wednesday (May 19), Quintin Jones is scheduled to be executed in Texas. It is the first state execution of 2021, and the first time a state has executed anyone in nine months.

 

It’s been 40 years since we’ve gone this long without a state execution.

Quintin is not the only person currently scheduled to be executed in Texas this year. So are four other people. Typically, Texas accounts for about half of the executions in the U.S., but this year it could account for all, or almost all, of them. Five of the six executions planned for 2021 are in this one state. Until just this year, Texas has had a law called the “law of parties” that allowed people not directly responsible for a murder to be executed for the crime, sort of guilt by association.

And, even now, Texas considers “future dangerousness” during sentencing, an idea that’s been debunked by most criminologists and experts because it is impossible to predict who someone will become. In some cases, like Duane Buck, court “experts” have even suggested race can be a determinant of future dangerousness … not even subtly suggesting black people are more likely to be violent than white people. Perhaps one of the many reasons African Americans account for a disproportionate number of our executions and of the death row population.

In contrast to other Texas cases like Rodney Reed, where it is quite clear there was a wrongful conviction, Quintin does not claim to be innocent of the crime for which he faces execution. He was 20 years old and addicted to drugs when he killed his great-aunt, Berthena Bryant, with a baseball bat. It is terrible, and he knows it. Early on, he too was convinced he deserved to die, and even attempted to take his own life. But over the past 22 years, Quintin’s story has taken an incredible, grace-filled turn.

His family, and the victim’s sister in particular, have seen the power of forgiveness, redemption and mercy. They are among the most vocal opponents to his execution. Every time they speak you can feel their authentic faith shine through the cracks of their pain. They have seen the changes in Quin’s life, the ways he has embraced his faith, tried to heal the wounds he inflicted, and the steps he’s taken to change his life.

Speaking of his faith, in a viral video produced by The New York Times, Quin quoted a passage from the Bible that says, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Quin went on to say if he is executed, Texas will be executing the child he was, not the man he is now. He and tens of thousands of others are asking for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to stop his execution.

Many of us who are asking for Quin’s life to be spared are Christians. And at the heart of our faith is the belief no one is beyond redemption. We are praying. We are calling the governor. We are hoping this is a moment Abbott can show the best of his faith tradition as a Catholic. Pope Francis has called for a worldwide abolition to the death penalty, and the Catholic catechism teaches that the death penalty has no place in modern society.

And yet one of the tragic realities in America is, up until now, the Bible Belt has been the death belt. In the very part of the country where Christians are most concentrated, and under the leadership of Christian governors like Abbott, the executions continue. Despite our claims to be pro-life, Christians have been the firm base of support for the death penalty. But this too is changing. Recent polls of millennial Christians (born after 1980) show overwhelming support for the abolition of the death penalty.

There are many things we are excited to see return to “normal” in our country as it begins to open back up after the massive death and sickness from COVID-19. Worship services. Going to coffee shops and concerts and on a date to the movies. Playgrounds and swimming pools. But resuming state executions is not something on that list.

State executions are not something most Americans want to see “return to normal” after the pandemic. Many of us would like to see the nine-month halt on state executions be “the new normal.” For the first time in my 45-year life, a majority of Americans are done with the death penalty.

Even though it is partially true that it took a pandemic with a massive death toll to slow down the machinery of death when it comes to capital punishment, there’s more going on. Let’s not forget that the Trump administration set a record number of federal executions during the same period state executions were hitting a record low (there were only seven state executions in 2020, the lowest number we’ve seen since the 1980s). After 17 years without a single federal execution, former President Donald Trump carried out 13 executions in the last seven months of his presidency. He executed people at a rate we haven’t seen since the 1800s, and he did it in the middle of the pandemic. When Trump left, federal executions stopped, and President Joe Biden has pledged not to carry out any more.

Meanwhile, a lot of states are recalibrating, trying to figure out if the death penalty has a future. State by state, the number of executions has been dropping nearly every year. So have new death sentences, which are the lowest they’ve been in a generation. Nearly every year, a new state abolishes the death penalty. Early this year, in March, Virginia made history, becoming the first formerly Confederate state to abolish the death penalty.

There is reason to hope the Supreme Court, even a conservative-leaning court, could deem the death penalty unconstitutional — not only because it is cruel, but because it is “unusual.” Executions are rare and arbitrary, and most of the country is ready to move on, along with the majority of the world, from executing people. A mere 2% of the counties in the U.S. generate the majority of executions. Right now, Texas is on the wrong side of life, and Texas is an outlier.

It is also noteworthy the states that continue to hold onto the death penalty are not only the states in the Bible Belt, but they are also the states of the former Confederacy. The states that held on to slavery the longest are the same states that continue to hold on to the death penalty. Where lynchings were happening 100 years ago is precisely where executions continue to happen today.

A generation from now we will look back on the death penalty like we look back at slavery — with shame and horror, with many of our grandchildren asking how Christians used the Bible to defend such a thing. So this is a time for courage. It does not take courage to say slavery was wrong generations after we abolished it. But it took courage to say slavery was wrong when many people thought it was acceptable, even God-ordained. This is a time for courage.

(Shane Claiborne is an activist, author and co-director of  Red Letter Christians. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

 

Faith groups celebrate Virginia’s death penalty ban

Faith groups celebrate Virginia’s death penalty ban


Video Courtesy of WAVY TV 10


Faith groups are celebrating Virginia’s decision to ban the death penalty, a move considered to be a victory for religious opposition to capital punishment.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam signed the ban — the first of any Southern state and the 23rd overall — into law on Wednesday (March 24), declaring it “the moral thing to do.”

“Over our 400-year history, Virginia has executed more people than any other state,” Northam said. “The death penalty system is fundamentally flawed — it is inequitable, ineffective, and it has no place in this Commonwealth or this country. Virginia has come within days of executing innocent people, and Black defendants have been disproportionately sentenced to death.”

The Rev. LaKeisha Cook, a lead organizer at the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, also spoke at the signing ceremony.

“Today I stand here representing many people of faith all throughout the commonwealth of Virginia,” Cook said. “Virginia Interfaith was very, very happy to join officially in this fight for abolition. Today we turn the page in the history books of this great commonwealth as we celebrate the end of the death penalty.”

Cook pointed to the activism of the state’s “amazing faith community,” such as those who held prayer vigils at sites of lynchings in January to highlight the historical link between early racist killings and the modern death penalty, or the nearly 430 faith leaders who signed on to a letter opposing the death penalty in February.

Cook noted the advocacy of the Virginia Catholic Conference, which also voiced support for the ban on Wednesday. Bishop Michael F. Burbidge of the Diocese of Arlington and Bishop Barry C. Knestout of Richmond released a statement citing Pope Francis, whose 2020 encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” included the line: “The firm rejection of the death penalty shows to what extent it is possible to recognize the inalienable dignity of every human being and to accept that he or she has a place in this universe.”

“Through our Virginia Catholic Conference, we supported this historic legislation as it progressed through the General Assembly because all human life is sacred,” read the statement from Burbidge and Knestout. “We are grateful to those who worked to make this a reality.”

Catholics in the U.S. have long opposed capital punishment, and Francis voiced support for abolishing the practice during his 2015 address to Congress.

But the pontiff made things even more explicit in 2018 when he changed the church’s catechism to declare the death penalty “inadmissible” and insist that the church will work “with determination for its abolition worldwide.”

The Virginia bishops were joined in their celebration by Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

“Virginia will become the twenty-third state to abolish the death penalty, and I urge all other states and the federal government to do the same,” Coakley said in a statement.

He praised the work of advocates such as the Catholic Mobilizing Network before adding: “We are reminded that God created and loves every person, and we can respond to this love with reverence for the dignity of every human life, no matter how broken, unformed, disabled, or desperate that life may seem.”

Opposition to the death penalty has grown over the past few decades and is common in several faith communities. A 2018 Public Religion Research Institute survey found that 55% of Americans preferred life in prison without parole instead of capital punishment for people convicted of murder, compared with 44% who preferred the death penalty. Majorities of Black Protestants (80%), non-Christian religious groups (57%) and white Catholics (54%) also favored life in prison.

Of those polled, only two groups expressed majority preference for the death penalty: white evangelicals (62%) and white mainline Protestants (54%).

Virginia Catholics were echoed by other stalwart faith-rooted opponents of the death penalty this week, such as Christian activist and author Shane Claiborne. He championed the ban when versions of it first passed both chambers of the state legislature in February, and he called on the federal government to do the same.

“President (Joe) Biden is poised to do the same thing Virginia just did: reckon with the mistakes of our past and use that past to help us envision a better future — one without the death penalty,” Claiborne wrote.

Biden, a Catholic, proposed eliminating the federal death penalty in 2019 during his campaign for president, but he has yet to take sweeping action regarding the promise — which would require support from the Supreme Court or Congress — since beginning his term.

Former President Donald Trump was widely criticized by faith leaders for his administration’s 2020 decision to renew the use of the death penalty in federal cases for the first time since 2003. Among various protests, more than 1,000 faith leaders signed a letter that summer demanding Trump and then-Attorney General William Barr end the practice.

Biden has already heard from fellow Catholics on the issue: During the first Mass he attended as president, the priest delivered a homily blasting the Trump administration’s renewed use of the death penalty and referring to the former commander in chief as an “execution president.”

When White House press secretary Jen Psaki was asked during a press briefing on Monday whether Biden would support the Supreme Court if it reinstated the death penalty for Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, she noted that Biden has “grave concerns about whether capital punishment … is consistent with the values that are fundamental to our sense of justice and fairness,” but referred specific questions about the case to the Department of Justice.

Celebrating Dr. King with Service

Celebrating Dr. King with Service

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration that took place at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark Thursday night was not only a celebration of the civil rights leader, but a worship service led by two dynamic gospel music stars and a highly accomplished pastor. Three extraordinary women were also honored for following in King’s footsteps and changing their communities for the better.

Richard Smallwood: ‘Anybody Can Serve’

Richard Smallwood

Gospel Music Hall of Fame artist Richard Smallwood told UrbanFaith that Dr. King was “a prime example” of someone who devoted his life to the service and blessing of others.

Noting King’s statement that “everybody can be great… because anybody can serve,” Smallwood said, “It’s not about your name in lights …or how many houses you have, how many cars you have, but who are you helping, where you are making a difference? That part of him always gets my heart.”

Smallwood grew up with at least one intimate model of selflessness, in the person of his mother. She died in 2005, but encouraged her only child to study classical music and worked overtime so he could attend Howard University.

“She really was my biggest cheerleader. So it was very difficult when she transitioned,” said Smallwood, who didn’t write music for four years after she died.

In 2004, Smallwood completed a Master of Divinity degree at Howard out of a sense of calling from God.

“People said, ‘We know you’re going to preach.’ And I’m like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no! I don’t want to do that.’ It finally got to the point where I knew that that was a part of my calling. It was something I was going to have to do, because it was what I was born to do,” said Smallwood.

“I was nervous because I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve been in music all my life. I’m going to have to do papers, and a lot of reading, and stuff like that. It wasn’t easy, but it was a joy, because I had to do a lot of stuff in hotel rooms when I was traveling, in airports, writing papers and sending them back home to my professors. But it was a great experience,” the ordained Baptist minister explained.

Like King, who said he didn’t want to be remembered for his awards, but for his life of service, Smallwood wants to be remembered for the gifts he has bestowed on others.

“My prayer has always been that my music is what people will remember a long, long, long time after I’m gone … because I’ve seen how God can use gifts and really make a difference in people’s lives.”

Tye Tribbett: ‘Stand Up and Make a Change’

Tye Tribbett

Gospel artist Tye Tribbett grew up in Camden, New Jersey, where he said he led a “very sheltered” life as the son of strict Apostolic Pentecostal pastors. Even so, he couldn’t help but see the rougher side of life in his city.

“Some of the stereotypes that are on Camden, we have to take the blame. We caused a lot of [people] to have that perspective on us. But a lot of us now are also taking the initiative to turn that whole thing around,” said Tribbett.

“I think that’s what Martin Luther King’s birthday is all about: somebody being frustrated enough to stand up and make a change, and voice that we don’t have to stay this way. We don’t have to. I think that’s what Martin Luther King did against all odds. He stood up, not only felt it, not only thought it, but spoke it,” he added.

Six months ago, Tribbett and his wife Shante′ started The Word on the Street, a Bible study that meets at a public school in Camden. Three hundred people gather, Tribbett said, with a vision for turning the city around.

“We’re right in line with the dream that [King] had years ago,” said Tribbett.

“It’s not the normal Bible study,” he explained. “We’re taking a different approach, a fresh approach, because I believe right information creates right believing, and right believing creates right living. Or better, better information, better believing, better living.”

Tribbett knows something about the power of belief. After a particularly challenging time in his marriage that was brought on by his infidelity, he battled suicidal thoughts.

“I felt very guilty and ashamed, so when I started feeling and sensing voices, quote unquote, of suicide, it actually scared me. So I ran to the shelter of mentors,” said Tribbett.

He confessed his suicidal thoughts to them and said there were times when they didn’t leave him alone.

“A lot of young people today who are committing suicide because of bullying and all that kind of crazy stuff, I don’t think they have mentors,” said Tribbett. “I don’t think we have leadership. I don’t think we’re accountable to anybody, so we’re left to our own thoughts, and we’re left to whatever we feel. So I think it’s wise for young people, and older people, just to find somebody to be accountable to, to submit under somebody so they can bring you in when you’re way out there.”

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The Troy Davis Dilemma

The Troy Davis Dilemma

REASONABLE DOUBT: Protesters chanted and prayed near the Jackson, Georgia, prison where death row inmate Troy Davis was put to death on September 21. (David Tulis/Newscom Photo)

The State of Georgia executed Troy Davis yesterday evening at 11:08pm. Twitter activity subsequently mushroomed, yielding three Davis related trends — #RIPTROYDAVIS, #DearGeorgia, and #JusticeSystem. This post from Nightline anchor Terry Moran was frequently re-tweeted:

Questions abound. If we begin with a common political science definition of government as the monopoly of legitimate coercion — and our general acceptance of police, taxes, and the like suggest that we do — we might further ask: Under what circumstances can coercion be legitimately exercised? Is capital punishment a legitimate exercise of force?

If so, did it make sense to apply it in the case of Mr. Davis? The question remains relevant, for as Rashad Robinson of the Color of Changes notes, the movement against a broken criminal justice system continues even after Mr. Davis’ death.

Many of the people who lamented the execution of Mr. Davis had virtually nothing to say regarding the plight of convicted white supremacist Lawrence Brewer, who was also executed last night in Texas for the racially motivated 1998 dragging death of James Byrd. Many no doubt felt the death penalty was appropriate in that clear-cut case. But some wonder whether a truly comprehensive pro-life ethic can sustain such a morally selective approach to justice.

To dig deeper on the political and policy front, I commend two writings to you: one by former FBI director William Sessions; the other by Andrew Cohen, legal analyst for CBS News. But our task here is to take up theological considerations. The parting words of Mr. Davis himself occasion such reflection. Prior to his death, Mr. Davis said the following to prison officials: “For those about to take my life, may God have mercy on your souls. May God bless your souls.” Mr. Davis’ invocation of mercy and blessing raises a deeper question: Does God’s blessing — or more fundamentally, can God’s blessing — reside over the death penalty at all?

One can imagine canonical arguments being made for the death penalty, particularly from Old Testament texts in Deuteronomy. Romans 13, moreover, is frequently cited by Christians who support the death penalty to buttress their view that the State does not bear the sword — or in this case, the tools of lethal injection — in vain. They might further add that the death penalty, rightly administered, contains deterrent value and restrains sin in a fallen world. Finally, the claim could be made — although I have not recently seen anyone explicitly for it — that a rule-of-law society demands that we enforce whatever is in the books, regardless of any private dissent such enforcement might entail. To do otherwise, according to some streams of conservative jurisprudence, would be tantamount to legislating from the bench.

While I don’t find the foregoing points to be persuasive, they are nevertheless a plausible way to construe Scripture given certain conservative commitments about law, punishment, and order. Such arguments, while canonical, are not Christological reasons. Speaking plainly, I cannot envision a Christ-centered argument for the death penalty. Allow me to briefly state my reasons.

At the most basic — and yet subversive level of memory — we recall that Christ himself was unjustly executed on a Roman cross. Neither the glory of the resurrection nor the doctrine of atonement should cause us to airbrush over the atrocity of the crucifixion. To Christians who support the death penalty, I ask: By what exegetical assumptions and theological reasoning does one distinguish the divine injunction against killing — i.e., “thou shalt not kill” — from the public administration of capital punishment, particularly in states like Texas and Georgia?

Secondly, there is the question of moral authority to administer capital punishment. With Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the ever-pithy preacher of Riverside Church, I aver: “Humanity does not possess the moral authority to kill; we only have the means.”

Thirdly, I think Walter Wink rightly argues that Christ’s atoning death on the cross signals the end of the myth of redemptive violence. Wink, in substance, eulogizes the narrative that barbaric means bring about the praiseworthy end of retributive justice.

Ultimately, in every age, Christians proclaim the death of Jesus Christ until he comes. Penultimately, in the age of Obama, we would do well to invoke the unjust death by execution of Troy Davis until democracy comes and our criminal justice system is reformed.

Note: For follow-up on criminal justice reform, visit colorofchange.org and The Innocence Project.

Christians Speak Out on Davis Execution

Christians Speak Out on Davis Execution

Stay of Execution Denied

Efforts to stay the execution of death row inmate Troy Anthony Davis continue today, including a last-minute offer by Davis to take a polygraph test to prove that he is innocent of the 1989 murder of off-duty Savannah, Georgia, police officer Mark MacPhail. MacPhail was killed while attempting to aide a homeless man who was under assault.

Seven of the nine witnesses against Davis have recanted or changed their testimony, but the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles denied Davis clemency Tuesday. The polygraph request was also denied, according to MSNBC. Davis is set to die by lethal injection tonight at 7 p.m. EST.

Christian Coalition Supports It

Jerry Luquire, President of The Georgia Christian Coalition, affirmed Davis’ scheduled execution in a statement to CBS affiliate WRBL3. Luqire said the parole board made “the only decision it could render if we are going to be governed by the rule of law” and “refused to substitute the emotions of those who disagree with the verdict with more than 20 years of legal decisions” upholding Davis’ guilt.

The Party of Death?

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that a headline at Addiction Info read: “The ‘Christian’ Republican Party of Death Kills Another.”

There the self-identified non-Christian, non-Republican Wendy Gittleson wrote, “More than 2/3 of Republicans identify as Protestant. Nearly a quarter identify Catholic, which means that less than 10% of Republicans don’t identify as Christian. You would think that people who call Jesus their savior would live up to the pro-life name they have given themselves.”

Pontius Pilot Redux

In a Jack & Jill Politics post that opened with the full text of John 8:1-7, Deborah Small said that although neither she nor any other member of the public knows the identities of the members of the parole board that refused Davis clemency, she assumes they consider themselves “good, upright Christians doing the Lord’s work.”

“I wonder if they ever consider what Jesus would think and do in their position? More importantly, what if they were making the same mistake Pontius Pilate made when he sentenced Jesus to death? History has not looked kindly on Pilate’s willingness to accept the unsupported claims of Jesus’ detractors that he committed capital crimes against Rome. History will not look kindly on the decision of this Board to execute a man who may in fact be innocent. He is certainly not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” Small wrote.

Barbarism on Display

In a letter to the editor of Cascade Patch, Rev. Robert Wright, rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, wrote: “Capital Punishment is state sanctioned lynching. Capital punishment is the exact opposite of civilization. Capital Punishment is the admission of our immature and barbarous tendencies as a society. While Capital Punishment may be the law in Georgia, it is not justice in Jesus’ eyes. … With the murder of Troy Davis, Georgia has admitted that Jesus’ will and ways are of secondary concern. Shame on Georgia.”

Davis at Peace

Meanwhile, Davis is at peace, Trymaine Lee reported at The Huffington Post.

“We circled around him and we prayed,” Edward DuBose, president of the Georgia State Conference of the N.A.A.C.P told Lee. “I looked in his eyes and I saw peace, I saw a man of faith.”

What do you think?

Are you praying for a last minute reprieve for Davis or are you at peace with a just process?