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The Death Penalty

Death penalty - News updates and research resources on Capital Punishment

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Among Christians there is a range of opinions regarding the death penalty. Some Christians support the death penalty because it was instituted in the Old Testament. They claim that Romans 13:1-5 demonstrates modern governments can still apply the death penalty. However, most concede it is not now used for all situations in which the Old Testament prescribes it (including, for example, adultery, and consistenly disobedient children  ) Remember, the New Testament says that whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.   Thus those who wish to hold on to Old Testament laws should be consistent and keep the entire law (a mistake addressed by Paul in his letter to the Galatians ).

So-called Christian Reconstructionists, advocate instituting Old Testament Israeli law in today's society.

The publisher of Apologetics Index is a member of Amnesty International, and opposes the death penalty for the following reasons:
  • moral reasons (I believe no human being has the right to take another human being's life),
  • legal reasons (America's justice system is severely flawed), and
  • because as a Christian I value grace and mercy, and believe no person is beyond redemption
  • I consider the death penalty to be a human rights violation
Though I am not a Mennonite, my views regarding capital punishment are pretty much along the lines presented here:

Though Old Testament law codes provide for capital punishment, some Old Testament texts emphasize forgiveness and reconciliation even for capital crimes (Genesis 4; Hosea 1-3; 11; Jeremiah 3). Old Testament law is especially concerned for the slave, the poor, and politically weak. Its goal is an egalitarian society, each household an economic unit free from tyranny. From a Near Eastern perspective, Old Testament law represents a major break from state law, a turning toward Jesus and the New Testament.
Theology of Law, Mennonite Historical Society of Canada

That statement links to an entry on Capital Punishment, from which I quote:

The conviction that human life is sacred has generally but not uniformly meant that Mennonites sanctioned neither war nor capital punishment. Opposition to capital punishment is based on biblically oriented arguments. The stipulation of ''life for life,'' was not enforced with Cain, the first murderer (Gen. 4:8-15), nor with David (2 Sam 11:11-2:23). Jesus refused to advocate stoning for the woman caught in adultery John 8:12-11), though biblical law so prescribed. The direction in the Bible, it is claimed, is from an older severity to a stance of grace, from retribution to rehabilitation. Genesis 9:6, which on the face of it calls for the death penalty for murderers, is explained as being in the nature of an atonement. With Christ's satisfactory atonement, such demands fall away.
Capital Punishment, Mennonite Historical Society of Canada

In an item regarding the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, Christianity Today said:

Human nature inevitably escalates the measure of our retaliation above our loss in order to show who is boss. As Lamech boasted: ''I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me'' (Gen. 4:23). But the law of God always seeks to limit punishment to the proper proportion and the proper agent. Thus Paul recognized a legitimate role for the admittedly oppressive Roman government (Rom. 13:1-5): the magistrate bears the sword as a terror to evildoers.

The law of Moses put the brakes on vengeance, but the other stream of biblical thought calls for its end. God's first, and perhaps most characteristic, response to murder was not law but grace: he placed a protective mark on Cain, protecting him from those who would avenge Abel's blood, and warning others of a dangerous man.

In Leviticus, the Lord commanded: ''You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people.'' Here the Old Testament anticipated Jesus' teaching: ''You have heard it said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.'' Paul likewise proclaimed that vengeance is reserved for God and that Christians should feed their enemies, overcoming evil with good (Rom. 12:19-21).
Christian The Lesson of Karla Faye Tucker, Christianity Today
Cardinal Dulles, who teaches at Fordham University, said that church teaching held that punishment of criminals should have four purposes: rehabilitation, society's defense against the criminal, deterrence to crime and retribution.

He analyzed each in relation to the death penalty, paying particular attention to the idea of retribution. He said that in earlier eras, government could be seen to act symbolically on behalf of God, as the protector of ''a transcendent order of justice.''

That idea, he wrote, no longer holds, as government is instead seen to represent the popular will.

''In this modern perspective, the death penalty expresses not the divine judgment on objective evil but rather the collective anger of the group,'' he wrote.

In an interview, Cardinal Dulles said that in a democracy, ''the state is not seen as a superior institution over against the people, but rather as an instrument of the people.''

That, he added, ''changes the rules of the game'' where capital punishment is concerned.
Religion Journal: Standing Against Death Penalty, The New York Times, Apr. 21, 2001

The publisher of Apologetics Index believes that the willful killing of another human being is murder - even if done in the name of "justice." This is especially true in countries like the United States of America, where the legal system is
  • racist (blacks are consistently punished more often and more severely than whites),
  • discriminatory (e.g. the rich can afford better lawyers and more "justice"), and
  • faulty (in recent years numerous people have been released from death row after research, new evidence, and/or the confessions of crooked police officers and prosecutors proved their innocence).

Chiefly its these narrow escapes from the electric chair and lethal injection that have fed America's debate about the death penalty.

What may in the end prove even more telling, however, is the result of a study by the Columbia School of Law in New York.

After examining every capital punishment case passing through the appeal courts between 1973 and 1995 its lawyers found that seven out of 10 death sentences were reversed because of serious error in the original trials.

To its authors the study suggests that America's capital punishment system is breaking down under the weight of its own mistakes. They point out that an appeals process burdened with the task of catching so much error is hugely expensive. Also it takes an inordinate amount of time.

Clearly nearly 70% of America's 3,700 death row inmates should never have been sent there. And although not more than about one in 10 will ever be executed, the wrongly sentenced are having to wait for anything from 10 to 18 years to be told of their fate. That's not unusual, and it is certainly cruel.
Death row on trial, BBC, Feb. 16, 2001

There is no excuse for premeditated murder, which is what capital punishment is. The Bible forbids taking revenge. Proper punishment can be meted out in other ways. Too, study after study has shown that the death penalty does not deter crime.

U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, the country's top law enforcement official, said on Thursday that she has yet to find any evidence that the death penalty deters crime.

''I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show that the death penalty is a deterrent. And I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point,'' Reno said at her weekly Justice Department news briefing.

Tragically, while other civilized nations progressively move to abolish capital punishment, the United States is actually adding to the list of crimes for which adults and children may be killed by their government -- despite the fact that over 75 people sentenced to death in America since 1976 have been later proven innocent.
Statement on the death penalty, The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL)

No one comes remotely close to our record on the death penalty -- 227 dead so far since 1982 -- more than the total of the next five death-penalty states combined. If this were working, Texas would have the lowest crime rate in the nation.

As of the end of the year 1999, there were 706,600 Texans in prison, jail, parole or on probation, five percent of all adult Texans, one out of 20 are under some form of criminal justice supervision,'' says the Institute report. ''The scale of what is happening in Texas is so huge, it is difficult to contrast the size of its criminal justice system to the other states it dwarfs. There are more Texans under criminal justice control than the entire populations of some states, including Vermont, Wyoming and Alaska.
Even more prisons wanted in Texas, The Spokesman-Review, Sep. 5, 2000

Most civilized countries no longer use capital punishment, and instead see its continued use in other countries as human rights violations. It is, therefore, both tragic and ironic to see the United States use a double standard - defending and continuing the use of the death penalty at home, while criticizing what it considers to be human rights abuses abroad.

Incredibly, this approach even includes chiding sovereign countries like Germany and France for their practise of keeping tabs on cults and extremist movements such as the so-called Church of Scientology.

This double standard is one reason why the death penalty issue is addressed in Apologetics Index.


Secular Death of Innocents ''When the state makes a mistake and the penalty is death, there is no way to make amends.''
Secular Facts about Deterrence and the Death Penalty Research that death penalty proponents always ignore.
Christian Is Capital Punishment Biblical? James Watkins asks, If we use the Old Testament as support for capital punishment--shouldn't we support execution for all  offenses it lists as capital?
Christian The Lesson of Karla Faye Tucker A Christianity Today editorial: "Evangelical instincts against her execution were right, but not because she was a Christian."
Christian What would Jesus do on death row?, by Sean Gonsalves
Now, having been nurtured in a prophetic religious tradition that worships a man who consorted with social outcasts, announced the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand by proclaiming "liberty to the captives" (see Luke 4:18), and who implored His followers to be like God "who makes the sun shine on both the good and evil," I can't understand why supporting organizations like the Innocence Project isn't a high priority for church folks.

Sure, plenty of preachers go into the jails to evangelize. But what will it take to get the church body to move beyond prison charity to inmate solidarity?
If a man after God's own heart can spare King Saul's life, and if Jesus can spare the life of Saul of Tarsus and make him Paul an apostle, who am I to support putting to death a man who might not be guilty?
Christian Would Jesus pull the switch? by Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J.
Secular Wrongly Convicted Offer Some Tips The story of Sonia (''Sunny'') Jacobs, who was ''freed from a Florida prison (...) after being locked up for 16 years.''


The Innocence Project is a pro bono civil rights organization that helps innocent people who have been unjustly imprisoned win their freedom through DNA testing. Run by Barry Scheck and Peter Neufeld (known for their roles in the O.J. Simpson murder trial), the project has thus far managed to free 43 wrongly convicted people and has taken on the cases of over 200 more. In Actual Innocence, Scheck, Neufeld, and Pulitzer-winning columnist Jim Dwyer tell the stories of 10 of the men they have helped. How did these men wind up in prison--some on death row--for rapes and murders they didn't commit? The causes range from mistaken identification by the victims to sloppy police work--and, in some cases, outright dereliction of duty or fabrication of evidence. Far too often, cops lock on to their suspect early and decide that their instincts can't possibly be wrong--an attitude that can persist even after the falsely accused has been exonerated. ''If he is innocent,'' says one investigator of a man who spent seven years in prison, ''I wish him a good life, but I will have no remorse for him. I have no remorse for anyone that I have ever arrested.''

George F. Will, Washington Post, April 6, 2000:
It should change the argument about capital punishment...You will not soon read a more frightening book... Heartbreaking and infuriating.

(...) In this timely book, Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell, award-winning authors and collaborators on Hiroshima in America, take an unusual approach to the issue. By exploring the mind-sets of those directly involved in the death penalty, including prison wardens, prosecutors, jurors, religious figures, governors, judges, and relatives of murder victims, they offer a textured look at a system that perpetuates the longstanding American habit of violence.

Powerful, passionate, and informed, Who Owns Death? is the right book at the right time. As citizens of the only Western democracy that sanctions state killing, Americans have to find a way to acknowledge simultaneously both the horror of the original murder and the wrongness of legal killing. This remarkable book shows the way.
Editorial Review, Amazon.com

- Multimedia -
Secular Death row on trial Feb. 16, 2001 BBC program. Includes videos.
Clearly nearly 70% of America's 3,700 death row inmates should never have been sent there. And although not more than about one in 10 will ever be executed, the wrongly sentenced are having to wait for anything from 10 to 18 years to be told of their fate. That's not unusual, and it is certainly cruel.
Death row on trial BBC, Feb. 16, 2001


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- Reports -
Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, at least thirty-five people with mental retardation have been executed in the United States. The exact number of people with this disability who are on death row awaiting execution is not known; experts believe there may be two or three hundred. Because of their mental retardation, these men and women cannot understand fully what they did wrong and many cannot even comprehend the punishment that awaits them. While they have the bodies of adults, in crucial ways their mental function is more like that of children. Twenty-five states, nevertheless, permit capital punishment for offenders with mental retardation. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the execution of persons with mental retardation is not cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Secular A State Of Denial: Texas Justice and the Death Penalty Indepth report by Texas Defender Service, whose mission is to help improve the quality of representation afforded to indigent Texans under sentence of death. Also available in PDF format

See Also


Secular Amnesty International - Campaign Against The Death Penalty (Contra)
Secular Amnesty International - Rights For All Campaign (Contra) Amnesty International's campaign highlighting America's human rights violations, including continued use, promotion and export of the death penalty, putting to death innocent people, violating international conventions even though signed by America's government, promotion of torture through its export of torture equipment to countries known to use torture, etcetera.
Secular The Case Against The Death Penalty (Contra)
Secular Death Penalty Information Center (Contra)
Secular The Death Penalty in the USA Death Penalty section of New York-based Human Rights Watch - which has also authored a report strongly denouncing America's manifold human rights violations
Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment in all circumstances because of its cruel and inhumane nature. The cornerstone of human rights is respect for the inherent dignity of all human beings and the inviolability of the human person. These principles cannot be reconciled with the death penalty, a form of punishment that is unique in its barbarity and finality. The intrinsic fallibility of all criminal justice systems assures that even when full due process of law is respected, innocent persons may be executed.

Secular Council of Europe - Theme File: Death Penalty Collection of articles, speeches, and reports outlining European views regarding the death penalty.
Secular History of the Death Penalty in the USA Part of a report on the death penalty, by the University of Alaska Anchorage
Secular Human Rights USA
When Americans think ''human rights,'' they assume the term applies to somewhere else. Something to worry about in Africa, or Bosnia, or Colombia. Yet human rights battles are fought on American soil every day, right in front of our faces -- in our neighborhoods, our schools, our city halls, our homes, our jails. In these places, and in many others, people struggle continually against assualts on their most basic rights. Sometimes they win triumphant victories. Sometimes they suffer crushing defeats. AlterNet's Human Rights USA page is devoted to exposing both the victories and defeats, with an eye to providing positive models and information.
Source: Human Rights USA Overview, Accessed, Nov. 10, 2001

Secular IllinoisDeathPenalty.com (Contra)
Operated by The Illinois Death Penalty Education Project,
The Illinois Death Penalty Education Project is a nonpartisan organization committed to correcting potentially fatal flaws in the state's administration of capital punishment. In light of 13 documented wrongful convictions in Illinois capital cases in recent years, the Project is dedicated to promoting informed public dialogue on whether the death penalty should be reformed or terminated. To that end, the Project supports research, publishes and disseminates educational materials, and sponsors forums and other public education initiatives concerning the Illinois capital punishment system and possible alternatives.

and by Center on Wrongful Convictions
The Center on Wrongful Convictions at the Northwestern University School of Law is a clinical program dedicated to identifying and rectifying wrongful convictions and other serious miscarriages of justice.

and by The MacArthur Justice Center
The MacArthur Justice Center is a nonprofit public interest law firm at the University of Chicago Law School dedicated to fighting for human rights and social justice through litigation, with a particular emphasis on criminal cases that raise constitutional or other significant issues.

The mission of The Justice Project's Campaign Against Wrongful Executions is to rally like minded Americans all who will not tolerate even the thought, much less the reality, of one more innocent person forced to spend his or her life waiting to die.

We believe that at the very least our justice system must guarantee that everyone has access to competent counsel, that everyone is given the opportunity to have the court hear all the facts, and that no one is denied access to evidence that might save their life.

After a murder, victims' families face two things: a death and a crime. At these times, families need help to cope with their grief and loss, and support to heal their hearts and rebuild their lives. From experience, we know that revenge is not the answer. The answer lies in reducing violence, not causing more death. The answer lies in supporting those who grieve for their lost loved ones, not creating more grieving families. It is time we break the cycle of violence. To those who say society must take a life for a life, we say: ''not in our name.''
Marie Deans, founder of Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation

Secular National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (Contra)"[A] coalition of organizations and individuals committed to the abolition of capital punishment, provides information, advocates for public policy and mobilizes and supports people and institutions that share our unconditional rejection of the state's use of homocide as an instrument of public policy."

Secular Pro-Death Penalty.com (Pro)
Christian Religious Organizing Against The Death Penalty (Contra)


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First posted: Oct. 16, 1996
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