The storm over the Cameron Todd Willingham case has focused publicattention on the death penalty and stirred debate in the Texas governor'srace. Willingham was executed in 2004 for setting a fire that killed histhree children. He maintained until his death that he was innocent, andevidence in the case presents a mixed picture. Several independent expertshave challenged whether it was arson. The governor and the prosecutor areconfident he was guilty.
In Texas, more than 400 people have been executed since capital punishmentwas reinstated by the Supreme Court in 1976. Ours is the busiest deathchamber in the nation - and Texans overwhelmingly back the death penalty.Polls indicate that nearly three-quarters of Texans support capitalpunishment.
What is the moral dimension? Supporters say the question is not whetherthe state is justified in taking a life, but when - for example, inself-defense or in order to save someone else's life. There is theargument of deterrence. And justice - "an eye for an eye."
Opponents make two arguments: 1) the death penalty is immoral and 2) thedeath penalty is flawed because an innocent person could be put to death.
So here's the question: Is it moral to support capital punishment? Or areTexans immoral because they support the death penalty?
The responses from our Texas Faith panelists are varied, provocative and well worth reading amid this political and faith-based debate:
JOE CLIFFORD, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dallas
Jesus was once asked his opinion on the death penalty when a woman was caught in adultery, a capital offense in his day. (I've always wondered where the man was in this story!) Jesus responded, "Go ahead and stone her ... just let the one who is without sin cast the first stone." No one could; which is to say no one is moral enough to impose the death penalty.
Having said that, I could not tell the relatives of a murder victim they are immoral because they support the death penalty for the person who killed their loved one. They don't want to hear statistics about the ineffectiveness of capital punishment in deterring crime, nor how economics affect the equity of our system. They don't care that racism distorts the justice system as in Texas, 12% of the population is African American, but 40% of death row inmates are black. They don't care that innocent people might be executed in the name of expediency. They just want justice for their loved one. I can't say that's immoral.
However, killing the killer will not provide that justice. It cannot fill the void created by the immoral act of murder. Rather, for all the reasons listed above it compounds the immorality. Therefore I cannot support capital punishment.
DARRELL BOCK, Research Professor of New Testament Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary
Capital punishment? Only in extremely clear cases for very grievous crimes. If there is any doubt at all about the evidence, it should not be instituted. Judges should be given latitude here as legal experts. The dignity of human life is precious, which is why its application should be limited. But disregard for human life should result in risk of losing one's life as one who does not respect the community that requires respect for life to function. The fact that Scripture has the category means it is not immoral. Mass murders and other intentional violent crimes designed to take several lives should be on that list. This is not revenge, but a form of corporate justice. Taking multiple lives intentionally reflects a lack of respect for human life.
DEAL HUDSON, President of Morley Publishing Group and Director of Inside Catholic.com
I'm not going to call anyone "immoral" because they support the death penalty. It was only a short time ago John Paul II revised the Catholic Church's teaching on that issue. Until that time I supported the death penalty, but upon reading the argument in the Holy Father's "The Gospel of Life" I was convinced that "bloodless means" should be used whenever the common good can be protected without taking a life. I don't think the notion of retribution is a safe one to invoke -- there are too many subjective elements. Although it is legitimate for a murderer to pay the "price" of his or her crime, the main consideration should be protecting others from potential harm. It seems to me that a life sentence, without parole, fits both criteria. All states should have a true, life without parole, sentence for first degree murder. Otherwise, states are encouraging the use of the death penalty by prosecutors and jurors who don't trust parole boards.Texans are no more immoral than folks from other states, with or without a death penalty, though I know many Texans who are proud of their purported immorality, which they revel in.
GEOFFREY DENNIS, Rabbi Congregation Kol Ami in Flower Mound
The issue of the death penalty being immoral has come up in Jewish tradition, but only obliquely, and ends up expressing itself through mostly through the second issue. Given that the Torah itself imposes capital punishment for some offenses, there have been few direct attacks on the intrinsic morality of judicial execution. Rather, in elaborating on the spase criminal procedures provided by the Torah, the Talmud surrounds the issue with a flurry of witness and procedural requirements that effectively limit, if not utterly prevent, a capital conviction. Thus, for example, for the death penalty to be imposed, there have to be two eye witnesses to the murder, both witnesses have to have direct, unhindered view of the act as it is committed, and one has to offer a warning to the perpetrator to the effect of "Hey, don't you know what you are doing is wrong?" The tension between sages on this issue is evident in a reported discussion where Rabbi Akiba declares a court with but one execution on its record in seventy years should be considered a "bloodthirsty court." Another Sage laments this attitude, claiming it encourages the proliferation of murderers among the people. History has also had a hand in shaping Jewish attitudes. In many medieval lands, the power of execution was taken from the jurisdiction of Jewish courts. In modern states, also, the power of execution is reserved for state courts. The end result is that many modern Jews now reject capital punishment in principle as well as in practice. In the modern State of Israel, execution is a penalty reserved for those guilty of crimes against humanity, and has only been carried once in it's 60 year history. The run of the mill terrorist/mass-murderer faces a life behind bars, but not death at the hands of an Israeli court. The Talmud understands the unique nature of capital punishment, that it is a penalty which, wrongly administered, cannot later be corrected or compensated. Given the now-well-documented record of false convictions in Texas, it seems to me the moral response is to suspend all executions until a fairer, bettered safe-guarded, radically reformed system can created. Which, the way things go, means an end to the death penalty for the foreseeable future.
WILLIAM LAWRENCE, Dean Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University
A brief clarification is in order. It is not precisely correct to say that "Texans ...support the death penalty," although it is almost certainly true that a majority of Texans do and it is without question that the controlling forces in state politics do. Let me be clear in stating that I am a Texan who does not support the death penalty.
The problem is that two moral virtues are in conflict with each other. One is the standard of justice which declares that the only appropriate way to balance the evil of taking another's person's life is to have someone who commits a murder lose his or her own life. The second is the standard of justice which declares that the only appropriate way to be sure that errors in judgment are correctable is to avoid making judgments that are permanent and uncorrectable.
From the perspective of the first moral virtue, the only appropriate punishment for one who commits murder is to kill the murderer. From the perspective of the second moral virtue, the only appropriate way to make absolutely sure that no one falsely accused of murder is being killed is to use some punishment short of death.
When two moral virtues are in conflict, Christians must choose the one that inflicts less harm. In my view, punishment short of the death penalty inflicts less harm--to the perpetrator who may be falsely accused and to the society that claims a right to inflict the ultimate penalty even though its judgments may only be penultimate at best.
NITYANANDA CHANDRA DAS, Minister ISKCON Hare Krishna Temple, Dallas
Everything has its proper utility, and a man who is situated in complete knowledge of the self knows how and where to apply a thing for its proper utility. Similarly, violence also has its utility, and how to apply violence rests with the person in full knowledge of the eternality of the self. Although the justice of the peace awards capital punishment to a person condemned for murder, the justice of the peace cannot be blamed, because he orders violence to another person according to the codes of justice. In the Vedic scriptures it is supported that a murderer should be condemned to death so that in his next life he will not have to suffer for the great sin he has committed. Therefore, the government's punishment of hanging a murderer is actually beneficial. Such a sinful person who has murdered is better suffering in this life rather than greater sufferings in his next lives. A surgical operation is not meant to kill the patient, but to cure him.
Capital punishment also stands as a powerful deterrent for future criminals. Politicians, afraid of being implicated in their own laws, often shy away from a strong stance.
AMY MARTIN, Executive Director of Earth Rhythms and editor Moonlady Media
There is absolutely nothing in the Tao Teh Ching that supports capital punishment. Leaders are mandated to protect the people. But once a violent criminal is removed from society, the people are protected. The state's job is done. Nothing else need occur but to let "wu wei," the inherent way of nature, to take its course on the criminal until they age out and die.
If the crime warrants the most severe of punishments, isn't it far worse to fester in jail for a lifetime? Create the possibility of atonement by lining the jail cell with photos of the criminal's victims, or piping in audio of the victims' survivors relating their anguish. Let's get creative about it. Brutishness is so last millennium.
Fairness is a central value of Taoism. If Cameron Todd Willingham is executed for arson that kills children, then why don't we execute ALL arsonists who kill children? Why execute the bomber who kills dozens of people, but not the serial rapist who murders a score of women? Of course, then the state would be in the business of killing LOTS of people, much like countries whose criminal justice systems we consider barbaric. The decision to apply the death penalty centers at least partly on the sympathetic worth of the victim. Why are some victims rated higher than others?
It doesn't logically seem that the death penalty would be a deterrent to heinous crimes. Criminals who commit such acts consider themselves too smart to get caught, or the crime is done while they were high on drugs or emotions and the potential of the death penalty never crossed their minds. If it were a deterrent, states with the death penalty would have lower murder rates, but that's not the case.
People who support the death penalty are reacting emotionally and haven't thought it through with the higher mind. But really, who are we to play God? Shouldn't we be conservative in all matters that end in death? It's not a mistake we can fix. How can we rationalize that the death penalty is disproportionately applied to minorities, the mentally ill and poor?
Eye-for-an-eye vengeance sets up a never-ending cycle of retribution, one that some global areas are still mired in. It sends the message that murder for vengeance is an acceptable concept. Surely we are above all that by now. But alas, not Texas. Lone Star comedian Ron White wryly observed, "Other states are trying to abolish the death penalty. Mine's putting in an express lane."
CYNTHIA RIGBY, Professor of Theology, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary
I know my response to this question will be controversial, but I believe capital punishment is immoral. As a Christian believer, it is my conviction that God is a God of justice, but that the justice of God is grounded not in a literalistic "eye for an eye," but in God's grace and God's mercy. (Interestingly, btw, a strong case can be made that the "eye for an eye" rule of the Old Testament was not as much about demanding equitable retribution for crimes that had been committed, but for protecting the perpetrator from being OVERPENALIZED for his or her crime. In other words, if one person puts out the eye of another, the most that can be taken from the guilty one is an eye - not both eyes, not a leg, not a life, but "only" an eye).
While I am tempted to launch into a lengthy theological discourse about the relationship between justice and mercy in various New Testament texts, let me spare everyone and instead put forward two "scenes" from my own heritage and life that have fed my reflection on the death penalty. The first has to do with remembering my maternal grandfather, Frederick Goddard, whom I never knew. Goddard was a Salvation Army preacher in Macalaster, Oklahoma, in the 1930s and 40s (long before "DNA evidence"). He died when my mom was only twelve years old. One of the ministries to which he was most committed was sitting with prisoners who were on death row. He frequently walked them to their deaths. And one of the most salient memories my mother has of him is how haunted he was not only by the deaths of these men, but by his belief that some were innocent. My mother (who is hardly ever visibly shaken) is still visibly shaken when she recalls the time her father announced, one evening, that a man he had walked to the death chamber the week prior had too late been found to be innocent.
My second "scene" is from 11 years ago, shortly before the execution of Karla Faye Tucker. You might remember that the late '90s was the time when the "WWJD?" ("What Would Jesus Do?") movement was in full swing. In a class I was teaching, I asked my mainly-mainliner seminary students if they saw any value to "WWJD?," and if they thought we should do what Jesus would do, if we were pretty clear on exactly what that was. Every student in the class (20+, as I recall) answered, emphatically, "yes!!"
Since the biggest issue in the news that week was that Tucker was asking for a stay of execution, I spontaneously asked: "Would JESUS execute Karla Faye Tucker?" "No!" all the students answered. Feeling like I was on a roll, I then asked, "Well, then: should WE execute Karla Faye Tucker?"
Silence in response to a question that I thought was a no-brainer, in light of the conversation. Suddenly, the mood of the class shifted. My students acted indignant; as though they had been betrayed. A senior student shot his hand in the air, declaring that he thought it would be "presumptuous for us to assume we could do what Jesus should do." "We need a new question," he said: "WWJWUTD?" "What would Jesus want us to do?" he asked, looking around at his classmates. And then he answered: "Jesus would want us to leave forgiveness to him, and to
EXECUTE Karla Faye Tucker."
We took another vote, and all but 2 of my students agreed with him.
KATIE SHERROD, Independent writer/producer, Fort Worth
The Episcopal Church has consistently made clear its opposition to capital punishment, most recently on June 20, 2001 when the Executive Council - the body that governs the Episcopal Church between triennial General Conventions -- passed a resolution entitled "Recommitment to abolish the death penalty." Its wording mirrored that of statements dating back to 1958.The Episcopal Church's 1958 statement opposed capital punishment "on a theological basis that the life of an individual is of infinite worth in the sight of Almighty God; and the taking of such a human life falls within the providence of Almighty God and not within the right of Man." This position was reaffirmed at the 1969, 1979, 1991, and 2000 General Conventions. The 2001 resolution was passed in the immediate aftermath of the June 11, 2001 execution of Timothy McVeigh, the man who bombed the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. At a time when emotions were high, the church felt it was more important than ever to raise a voice in opposition to the death penalty - a hugely unpopular stance at the time.So why speak out then? Here's why: "In our baptismal covenant, we respect the dignity of every human being, and commit ourselves to strive for justice and peace among all people. The Church will continue to decry the revenge of state-sanctioned homicides. We abhor the racism and economic injustices evident in our criminal justice system." So is it moral to support the death penalty? I do not think so and for myself, I cannot support it. With the repeated discovery that our justice system has sentenced innocent people to death, it is harder than ever to justify capital punishment. Texans are at heart a fair-minded folk, and I believe eventually the faults in our system will become so glaringly apparent that even this state will realize the immorality of the death penalty.
BRIAN SCHMISEK, Dean School of Ministry, University of Dallas
Capital punishment rouses emotion like few other issues. For many, the problem is not only that a person dies, but that the state itself executes the person. As we live in a democratic republic, we the people are executing fellow human beings. Even so, many in Texas favor the death penalty. In this debate one side often points to the unrepentant malicious criminal who "deserves to die" while the other side discovers the wrongly convicted and executed.
Though the Catholic Church "does not exclude recourse to the death penalty" it also makes clear that in today's society, "the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity are very rare, if not practically non-existent" (Catechism of the Catholic Church §2267). In short, lifelong imprisonment is to be preferred to execution.
Our stance on the issue says more about us than about the person being executed. We are better people when we are showing compassion rather than making arguments to justify killing. Instead of arguing over who deserves to die, we would do well to argue over how to bestow compassion in a world that desperately needs it.
DANIEL KANTER, Senior Minister First Unitarian Church of Dallas
When I was a student minister in St. Louis I used to attend vigils outside the Potosi Prison on nights of executions. People of faith gathered with candles and sang "Amazing Grace" in hopes of sending a message that the death penalty is wrong and extending a global prayer of hope for us all. The Ku Klux Klan also showed up to drink beer, to blare loud music, and to cheer at the hour of execution. We said it was not moral to take a life for any crime no matter how heinous because the penalty never deters anyone bent on murder and because there are too many mistakes in the justice system. The Klan just loved revenge. As a person of faith the moral issue of justice is that all people have an equal chance at dignity. The death penalty system is too flawed to uphold this. And in the end the murder of a murderer is only momentary revenge. The best revenge is to force the criminal to face his acts for life, do reparative work, be forced to do some soul searching, and if not all that, to confront unbearable isolation and the highest level of boredom. The punishment itself is the immoral element here. We have a choice whether to stand on the sidelines and let it continue or hold up a candle and confront ourselves about this issue.
RIC DEXTER, Men's Division Chapter Leader, Nichiren Buddhist Soka Gakkai lay organization
There is debate within Buddhism about the taking of life. Theravadan canon will say 'never", even in defense of your own life. Mahayana schools vary, saying there is no justification, or self defense, the protection of others, and even saving a criminal from bringing further bad effect upon himself, are justification. Buddhist traditions agree, however, that a life should never be taken to post a warning, or as a punishment, or to satisfy a desire for vengeance.In his dialogue with Arnold Toynbee, Daisaku Ikeda explains this saying, "...life, as an absolute entity worthy of the deepest respect, must never be treated as a means of achieving anything other than life itself. When social restraint is necessary it is far better to devise a method that does not deny life. The use of the death penalty as a warning manifests a regrettable tendency that has long plagued human society. That tendency is the habit of undervaluing life."We live in a society of laws, where hopefully most of those who commit crimes are apprehended and incarcerated. In doing so we have taken the measures necessary for self defense and for the protection of others. Beyond that, a determination to inflict the penalty of death is to say that one life has value, and another does not. Buddhism teaches that all life has value.The question asked whether it is moral to support the death penalty, and if those who do are immoral. I have to ask the question differently, and each person must ask it of themselves. If I support the taking of a life, what are my reasons? If my most honest answer is that I think I will suffer less because someone else has died, or that the taking a life will satisfy my thirst for vengeance, or that causing another's death will assuage my anger, or that the life I wish to take has no value, then my cause reflects my lowest nature. The universal truth manifests itself through the effects of our thoughts, words, and actions. The effects in my life will reflect those basest energies. I will not determine to take a
life that poses no danger to myself or others. I will not ask you to do it for me.
GERALD BRITT, Vice-president of public policy, Central Dallas Ministries
I can understand the inclination of some supporters of the death penalty. There any number of people who have suffered terrible losses due to the cruelty and criminality of another human being. Society has every right to protect itself from those individuals and the probability that they may commit crimes as heinous or worse than the ones for which they are either incarcerated or for which it has been deemed that they worthy of capital punishment. In doing so the state is saying that the harm inflicted on an individual makes that person so dangerous that we can no longer risk their living among us. That is a strong statement.
As one whose family has incurred such a loss a couple of years ago, I can understand that inclination on a very personal level. The death of a loved one at someone else's hands is a horrific experience for those who are left behind. And, in our case, we know exactly who committed the murder. However, the charge against that person doesn't rise to the level of the death penalty, but we've made the conscious decision that we not only wouldn't want the death penalty imposed; the circumstances are such that we're not even seeking life imprisonment. Again, different circumstances prevail.
In other circumstances, on principle, it is extremely difficult for me to support the death penalty. My opportunity to meet with and do some work with Dallas County's exonerees, has shown me that it is indeed possible for citizens to be wrongfully convicted and incarcerated. Whether it was through shoddy police work, mistaken eyewitness identification, predatory prosecution and misconduct, a significant portion of these men's lives were taken away. They had a trial and were 'lawfully' convicted. Yet they were innocent. However tragic that circumstance is (and it is indeed), these men are getting an opportunity to rebuild their lives and reestablish themselves in society.
But I also can't help but remember that Tim Cole, a young man wrongfully incarcerated, died in prison and has been found innocent of the crime for which he was imprisoned, posthumously. These facts, make it difficult for me to believe that we have not already put to death innocent men and women. And the fact is whether it is ten, 50 or even one - we are not carefully reviewing the circumstances under which we are imposing let along applying the death penalty. And that is moral issue enough to have serious questions about it.
LARRY BETHUNE, Senior Pastor University Baptist Church, Austin
I cannot speak from other religious points of view, but from a New Testament Christian point of view, the death penalty is immoral. It has no place in a tradition which emphasizes grace, mercy, and healing from violence. At the heart of the Christian message is the belief that no person is beyond redemption in the eyes of God. Vengeance belongs to God alone, and the justice of God is filled with mercy. The death penalty demeans the society which uses it and the persons required to apply it.
The United States is one of the last nations to insist on practicing capital punishment despite strong stands taken against it by several Christian denominations. The current system is long and torturous, not only for perpetrators but for their families and especially for the families of victims. It is open for abuse, and it is always dangerous to give government the power to take life. Since life imprisonment without parole would be an equally effective means of deterrence, justice, and prevention of repeat offense, the death penalty remains a violent form of revenge unbecoming of a people who value human life. The death penalty is irretrievable; there is no remedy when the state executes an innocent person (of which there have been numerous proven cases).
The current system is broken, unequally weighted against the poor and minorities. For all these reasons, the death penalty needs to be abolished and judicial reform focused on the protection of life and the healing of victims of violence.