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.

Death Row Inmates Want Pastoral Care

Death Row Inmates Want Pastoral Care

Should death row inmates have access to one-on-one pastoral visits? This the question a Kentucky judge is being asked to decide in a class action suit filed by death row inmates against the state prison system. The prisoners claim that pastors have been “illegally and arbitrarily restricted from visiting them” since early summer 2010, the Associated Press reported yesterday.

A couple states down in Alabama, a judge overturned the life sentence imposed by a jury in the murder trial of 26-year-old African American Iraq war veteran Courtney Lockhart, and instead sentenced him to death, even though the defense argued that Lockhart, like 12 other members of his platoon who have been arrested for murder or attempted murder, had suffered psychological damage during his 16-month combat tour in Iraq, the Huffington Post reported yesterday.

In his decision, Judge Jacob Walker wrote that Lockhart deserved death based on evidence of other crimes not presented by prosecutors during his trial, the article said, noting a troubling trend in the state.

Since 1976, when the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty after a four-year ban, Alabama judges have held the power to overturn the sentencing recommendations of juries in capital cases. Since then, state judges have overturned 107 jury decisions in capital cases, and in 92 percent of those cases, jury recommendations of life imprisonment were rejected in favor of death sentences, according to a new report by the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit law firm based in Montgomery.

Meanwhile, Rais Bhuiyan, a victim of post 9/11 racism, is arguing for the life of his would-be killer. While working at a Dallas, Texas, gas station in 2001, Bhuiyan was shot in the face at close range by Mark Ströman. The assault left Bhuiyan blind in one eye and in need of extensive plastic surgery. Ströman had murdered a Pakistani immigrant five days earlier and would go on to kill an Indian immigrant a few weeks later. Each of Ströman’s victims worked at Dallas-area convenience stores. Ströman, who claims he was avenging the 9/11 terrorist attacks, is scheduled to be executed July 20.

According to the Death Penalty News website, Bhuiyan found peace during his long and painful recovery by relying on his Muslim faith, which also led him to forgive Ströman. “I decided that his is a human life, like anyone else’s,” Bhuiyan said. “I decided I wanted to do something about this.”

Zechariah 7:9 instructs us to “administer true justice” and “show mercy and compassion to one another.”

What do you think?

Should death row inmates have access to one-on-one pastoral care?

Should they have the right to sue for it?

Is it just for a judge to overturn a jury verdict in favor of death, especially in light of evidence that the murderer was mentally damaged in service to his country?

Does a murderer’s humanity require that society show him the mercy he failed to show his victims?

Where do justice and mercy meet when it comes to the death penalty? What do you think?