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.)