The Death Penalty and Innocence by Zachary Bailes

Every day I read The New York Times. Feverishly I flip through the pages, catching up on “all the news that’s fit to print.” Reading the news and learning about current events helps me more deeply understand my faith. With this in mind, in Section A of Monday’s (March 19, 2012

In Belarus a government television report on Saturday night confirmed that the two men convicted of bombing a subway station last year in its capital had been put to death. When they were arrested both men confessed, but one man, Vladislav Kovalyov, later retracted his confession saying the confessions were “extracted under torture.”) Times there are two stories about the death penalty, but the same theme emerges in both: are we killing the innocent?

Though no motive was ever established, the executions were expedited, as executions normally occur one to two years after the verdict is delivered.Belarus, while the only country in the European Union that still uses the death penalty, isn’t the only government in the world facing tough questions about the highest form of punishment.

Again, in The New York Times, an Editorial entitled, “Pennsylvania and the Death Penalty,” agues that, “Two new judicial reports and a recent death sentence for an indigent defendant in Philadelphia further bolster the case to abolish the system.”

Derrick White was only 20 when he received a 2010 death penalty sentence after only 15 minutes of deliberation between life without parole or death penalty. White’s lawyers failed to take steps considered basic for capital cases, such as not entering evidence about his background, and even failed to hire a death penalty expert.

On a Monday morning, reading The New York Times, I am reminded that justice remains elusive for many. In the larger social conscience, since Troy Davis’ execution in 2011, people have become aware of the reality that innocent people are killed every year. Across the globe we find, time and time again, that we would rather kill than seek justice.

While many will continue to call for the death penalty, I find that continually using the death penalty and its mere existence allows for excuses of injustice to continue. Doing away with the death penalty will not do away with heinous crimes, but it might cause us to look into the structural, systematic issues that feed death-row cell blocks.

According to Amnesty International:

  • Since 1977, 77% of death row defendants have been executed for killing white defendants, while African-Americans make up half of all homicide victims.
  • The Federal Bureau of investigation shows that the 14 states without capital punishment have homicide rates at or below the national rate.
  • Almost all death row inmates could not afford their own attorney at trial.

To my own religious identity I turn, wondering what it is within the Christian tradition that calls me to stand against capital punishment. During this season of Lent I turn to the of narrative Jesus, and specifically the Cross. It is in the Gospel of Luke chapter 23 that Jesus says, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”

Jesus himself became a victim of capital punishment. In that moment of offering forgiveness is the challenge for bold mercy. In the end, perhaps Jesus knew that by offering forgiveness to those society would not have forgiven he challenged the system. By offering mercy we make wholeness and reconciliation possible.

In addition to calling for greater scrutiny of death row cases, we must become more proactive in taking from the streets instruments of violence. We need to push for greater gun laws that make it more difficult to obtain one, and increase the penalty for illegal sales of guns. We must increase educational measures in high-crime areas. Lack of education is an instrument of violence so easily preventable, but so often ignored. Most of all, we need to understand that we are engaged in a web of humanity, and when we devalue one person, we devalue ourselves.

Killing people because they have done wrong will not repair our communities or our nation. Though it might bring immediate closure for some, it leaves our common humanity tortured and bruised. If we want to change our society, if we want to make it more just, executing people will not assit in its arrival.

But if we want to look at the systems like structural racism, economic disparity, and the prison industrial complex, then we might see that change and transformation is possible. In the end, this is not about political statements, but our common humanity. Our common identities are not always the same religiously, but they are all human identities.

We share a common bond that is the breath in our lungs–to deny that breath and forcibly expel it from the lungs of humans denies that humanity.

Photo Courtesy of NYS Department of Correctional Services (Attribution Wikimedia Commons)

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One thought on “The Death Penalty and Innocence by Zachary Bailes

  1. Christian Death Penalty Support
    Dudlery Sharp

    “All interpretations, contrary to the biblical support of capital punishment, are false. Interpreters ought to listen to the Bible’s own agenda, rather than to squeeze from it implications for their own agenda. As the ancient rabbis taught, “Do not seek to be more righteous than your Creator.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7.33.). Part of Synopsis of Professor Lloyd R. Bailey’s book Capital Punishment: What the Bible Says, Abingdon Press, 1987.

    Saint (& Pope) Pius V, “The just use of (executions), far from involving the crime of murder, is an act of paramount obedience to this (Fifth) Commandment which prohibits murder.” “The Roman Catechism of the Council of Trent” (1566).

    Pope Pius XII: “When it is a question of the execution of a man condemned to death it is then reserved to the public power to deprive the condemned of the benefit of life, in expiation of his fault, when already, by his fault, he has dispossessed himself of the right to live.” 9/14/52.

    “Moral/ethical Death Penalty Support: Christian and secular Scholars”

    Christianity and the death penalty

    Catholic and other Christian References: Support for the Death Penalty,

    Quaker biblical scholar Dr. Gervas A. Carey agrees with Saints Augustine and Aquinas, that executions represent mercy to the wrongdoer: “. . . a secondary measure of the love of God may be said to appear. For capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet his God. It is as if God thus providentially granted him a special inducement to repentance out of consideration of the enormity of his crime . . . the law grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the opportunity to prepare to meet his God. Even divine justice here may be said to be tempered with mercy.” (p. 116). ” . . . the decree of Genesis 9:5-6 is equally enduring and cannot be separated from the other pledges and instructions of its immediate context, Genesis 8:20-9:17; . . . that is true unless specific Biblical authority can be cited for the deletion, of which there appears to be none. It seems strange that any opponents of capital punishment who professes to recognize the authority of the Bible either overlook or disregard the divine decree in this covenant with Noah; . . . capital punishment should be recognized . . . as the divinely instituted penalty for murder; The basis of this decree . . . is as enduring as God; . . . murder not only deprives a man of a portion of his earthly life . . . it is a further sin against him as a creature made in the image of God and against God Himself whose image the murderer does not respect.” “A Bible Study” (p. 111-113) Essays on the Death Penalty, T. Robert Ingram, ed., St. Thomas Press, Houston, 1963, 1992.

    God/Jesus: ‘Honor your father and your mother,’ and ‘Whoever curses father or mother must certainly be put to death.’ Matthew 15:4 full context (NAB)

    Jesus: “So Pilate said to (Jesus), “Do you not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you and I have power to crucify you?” Jesus answered (him), “You would have no power over me if it had not been given to you from above.” John 19:10-11

    Jesus: Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Jesus) replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23: 39-43

    Jesus: “You have heard the ancients were told, ˜YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER” and “Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court”. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever shall say to his brother, “Raca”, shall be guilty before the supreme court and whoever shall say, “You fool”, shall be guilty enough to go into fiery hell.” Matthew 5:17-22.

    The Holy Spirit: God, through the power and justice of the Holy Spirit, executed both Ananias and his wife, Saphira. Their crime? Lying to the Holy Spirit – to God – through Peter. Acts 5:1-11.

    OT: God: “You shall not accept indemnity in place of the life of a murderer who deserves the death penalty; he must be put to death.” Numbers 35:31 (NAB) full context www(DOT)usccb(DOT)org/nab/bible/numbers/numbers35.htm

    Saint Paul, in his hearing before Festus, states: “if then I am a wrong doer, and have committed anything worthy of death, I do not refuse to die.” Acts 25:11.

    St. Augustine: “The same divine law which forbids the killing of a human being allows certain exceptions. Since the agent of authority is but a sword in the hand, and is not responsible for the killing, it is in no way contrary to the commandment “Thou shalt not kill”, for the representative of the State’s authority to put criminals to death, according to the Law or the rule of rational justice.” The City of God, Book 1, Chapter 21

    St. Thomas Aquinas finds all biblical interpretations against executions “frivolous”, citing Exodus 22:18, “wrongdoers thou shalt not suffer to live”. Unequivocally, he states,” The civil rulers execute, justly and sinlessly, pestiferous men in order to protect the peace of the state.” (Summa Contra Gentiles, III, 146

    St. Thomas Aquinas: “The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgement that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers.” Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, 146.

    Saint Augustine confirms that ” . . . inflicting capital punishment . . . protects those who are undergoing capital punishment from the harm they may suffer . . . through increased sinning which might continue if their life went on.” (On the Lord’s Sermon, 1.20.63-64.)

    Saint Thomas Aquinas finds that ” . . . the death inflicted by the judge profits the sinner, if he be converted, unto the expiation of his crime; and, if he be not converted, it profits so as to put an end to the sin, because the sinner is thus deprived of the power to sin anymore.” (Summa Theologica, II-II, 25, 6 ad 2.)

    St. Thomas Aquinas: “If a man is a danger to the community, threatening it with disintegration by some wrongdoing of his, then his execution for the healing and preservation of the common good is to be commended. Only the public authority, not private persons, may licitly execute malefactors by public judgement. Men shall be sentenced to death for crimes of irreparable harm or which are particularly perverted.” Summa Theologica, 11; 65-2; 66-6.

    “St. Thomas Aquinas quotes a gloss of St. Jerome on Matthew 27: “As Christ became accursed of the cross for us, for our salvation He was crucified as a guilty one among the guilty.” As Prof. Michael Pakaluk writes: “If no crime deserves the death penalty, then it is hard to see why it was fitting that Christ be put to death for our sins and crucified among thieves.” ” That Christ be put to death as a guilty person, presupposes that death is a fitting punishment for those who are guilty.” The Death Penalty: An Opposing Viewpoints Series Book, Greenhaven Press, (hereafter TDP:OVS), 1991

    Christians who speak out against capital punishment in deserving cases ” . . . tend to subordinate the justice of God to the love of God. . . . Peter, by cutting off Malchu’s ear,. . . was most likely trying to kill the soldier (John 18:10)”, prompting ” . . . Christ’s statement that those who kill by the sword are subject to die by the sword (Matthew 26:51-52).” This ” implicitly recognizes the government’s right to exercise the death penalty.” Dr. Carl F.H.Henry, “A Matter of Life and Death”, p 52 Christianity Today, 8/4/95.

    “It is lawful to kill when fighting in a just war; when carrying out by order of the Supreme Authority a sentence of death in punishment of a crime; and, finally, in cases of necessary and lawful defense of one’s own life against an unjust aggressor.” (Catechism of Pius X)

    Pope Innocent I” “It must be remembered that power was granted by God [to the magistrates], and to avenge crime by the sword was permitted. He who carries out this vengeance is God’s minister (Romans 13:1-4). Why should we condemn a practice that all hold to be permitted by God? We uphold, therefore, what has been observed until now, in order not to alter the discipline and so that we may not appear to act contrary to God’s authority. Innocent 1, Epist. 6, C. 3. 8, ad Exsuperium, Episcopum Tolosanum, 20 February 405, PL 20,495

    “On the contrary, Augustine says to Publicola (Ep. xlvii): “When we do a thing for a good and lawful purpose, if thereby we unintentionally cause harm to anyone, it should by no means be imputed to us.” Now it sometimes happens by chance that a person is killed as a result of something done for a good purpose. Therefore the person who did it is not accounted guilty.” (Aquinas ST I/II 64,8)

    We speak of merit and demerit, in relation to retribution, rendered according to justice. Now, retribution according to justice is rendered to a man, by reason of his having done something to another’s advantage or hurt. … When, therefore, anyone does good or evil to another individual, there is a twofold measure of merit or demerit in his action: first, in respect of the retribution owed to him by the individual to whom he has done good or harm; secondly, in respect of the retribution owed to him by the whole of society. Now when a man ordains his action directly for the good or evil of the whole society, retribution is owed to him, before and above all, by the whole society; secondarily, by all the parts of society.(Aquinas ST, I/II 21,3)

    Even the punishment that is inflicted according to human laws, is not always intended as a medicine for the one who is punished, but sometimes only for others: thus when a thief is hanged, this is not for his own amendment, but for the sake of others, that at least they may be deterred from crime through fear of the punishment, (Ibid I/II 87, 3 ad 2)

    “To desire vengeance in order to do evil to someone who should be punished is illicit,” but it is praiseworthy to impose restitution “to correct vices and maintain justice.” (CCC 2302)

    Augustine says: “Unless a man restore what he has purloined, his sin is not forgiven. “Since therefore the safeguarding of justice is necessary for salvation, it follows that it is necessary for salvation to restore what has been taken unjustly. (Aquinas, ST II/II 62,2)

    A penalty is the reaction required by law and justice in response to a fault: penalty and fault are action and reaction. Order violated by a culpable act demands the reintegration and re-establishment of the disturbed equilibrium. (Pius XII)

    It is unlawful to desire vengeance considered as evil to the man who is to be punished, but it is praiseworthy to desire vengeance as a corrective of vice and for the good of justice; and to this the sensitive appetite can tend, in so far as it is moved thereto by the reason: and when revenge is taken in accordance with the order of judgment, it is God’s work, since he who has power to punish “is God’s minister,” as stated in Romans 13:4. (Aquinas ST II/II 158 1 ad 3)

    Two vices are opposed to vengeance: one by way of excess, namely, the sin of cruelty or brutality, which exceeds the measure in punishing: while the other is a vice by way of deficiency and consists in being remiss in punishing, wherefore it is written (Prov. 13:24): “He that spareth the rod hateth his son.” But the virtue of vengeance consists in observing the due measure of vengeance with regard to all the circumstances. (ST II/II 108 2 ad 3)

    A word must be said on the full meaning of penalty. Most of the modern theories of penal law explain penalty and justify it in the final analysis as a means of protection, that is, defense of the community against criminal undertakings, and at the same time an attempt to bring the offender to observance of the law. In those theories, the penalty can include sanctions such as the diminution of some goods guaranteed by law, so as to teach the guilty to live honestly, but those theories fail to consider the expiation of the crime committed, which penalizes the violation of the law as the prime function of penalty (Pius XII)

    For the fundamental demand of justice, whose role in morality is to maintain the existing equilibrium, when it is just, and to restore the balance when upset. It demands that by punishment the person responsible be forcibly brought to order; (Pius XII)

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