Abolish the Death Penalty

Regular readers may have noticed a change on my blog header. I'm a member of and I've added a link to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

A reason why I'm a member of the TCADP seeking to abolish the death penalty in my state was illustrated last week. From Dahlia Lithwick's article in Slate:

The convictions of two mentally disabled half-brothers were vacated and the two men were ordered released by Superior Court Judge Douglas Sasser in North Carolina on Tuesday. They were freed from prison Wednesday. Henry Lee McCollum, 50, had been on death row for 30 years, longer than anyone in North Carolina history. He and Leon Brown, 46, who was serving a life sentence, were convicted for the 1983 rape and murder of an 11-year-old girl. DNA evidence implicated another man, a known sex offender the police had not investigated, despite the fact that he lived next to the crime scene. McCollum and Brown were 19 and 15 at the time local police were investigating the murder of Sabrina Buie. Both confessed to the crime after lengthy police interrogations. They recanted shortly after—in fact McCollum has recanted 226 times—but were convicted, largely on the basis of the false confessions, even though no physical evidence connected them to the crime scene. Police also hid exculpatory evidence for years.

A cigarette found at the crime scene now implicates a man who lived a block away from the soybean field where the girl’s body was found. He is currently serving a life sentence for a rape and murder that happened less than a month after Buie’s rape and murder.

The two teenagers signed confessions after hours of coercive police interrogation, under the erroneous belief that they’d be allowed to go home afterward. Both have since always maintained their innocence, filing various appeals over the intervening decades. It wasn’t until 2010, when the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission came into the case, that the evidence was re-examined seriously. In July, the DNA on the cigarette butt found at the crime scene was revealed to match the DNA of the known sex offender. This led to Tuesday’s extraordinary release order.

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14 thoughts on “Abolish the Death Penalty”

  1. I saw that ink the other day, and followed it, Richard. Great information on their site. I've been against the death penalty for several years now. In my view, none of the arguments supporting it hold water anymore.

    I've heard a Jewish radio host defend executions as upholding the sanctity of life as decreed by God. It seems to me that Christians that agree with his view don't fully grasp and appreciate the immense change implied in Christ's new covenant, or even the implications of Girard's ideas, for that matter

    I wonder how many Christians who support the death penalty would have the fortitude to actually be the one to carry out this state-sponsored revenge?

    Thanks for this post, Richard. I'd love to see your thoughts on why people support the DP in more depth.

  2. Amen, & Amen!! I have numerous reasons why I have always been against the death penalty. But I am in a situation in which many do not find themselves. Whenever I state that I am against the death penalty, more often than not, someone will ask, "Well, how would you feel if someone murdered a member of your family?" To which I respond, "What would you feel if someone in your family did the murder?", along with a look that unmistakably says, "I wouldn't go there if I were you!". It may not change their mind; but, it is a challenge that, for most, has never before stared them in the face.

  3. Here's a brief report on the case: http://wunc.org/post/dna-evidence-frees-brothers-after-31-years-prison

  4. There is an undergraduate course being offered here at UNC-CH this semester that addresses this topic, and it's open to the public.

  5. There is an undergraduate course being offered here at UNC-CH this semester that addresses this topic, and it's open to the public!

  6. There is an undergraduate course being offered here at UNC-CH this semester that addresses this topic.

  7. I think it's due to our innate moral software which gravitates toward a criterion of "balance." In the metaphor I use in Unclean, lex talionis is a sort of mental "sweet tooth." We feel in our guts the "rightness" of the balance in "eye for an eye" and "life for a life."

  8. Almost everyone I ask, who is for the death penalty, see it as a deterrent to crime. I'm not so sure most have thought it through completely, though.

  9. Speaking of the drive to restore balance, it's interesting how Jesus seems to abolish lex talonis in the sermon on the mount, while repentance from doing evil in the gospels often involves a lex "multi-talonis" (e.g. Zaccheus). Consistent with its handling in the rest of the gospels, Mosaic justice is repudiated simultaneous with its fulfillment.

  10. Richard, I like your point. My father, who has since passed away, once admitted to me that as a young Christian man, and a conservative one, he was against the death penalty; however, I could tell by the conversation that it was the radicalized sixties that frightened him into a pro-capital punishment position. I am positive that he felt the country was "toppling over". It frightened his sense of fairness, or to use your word, "balance".

  11. To finish my comment below I should have added that because of a horrible situation that happened within the family, my father, later on in life, became quite mum regarding the death penalty. It was never discussed openly after that. My parent's emotions had had enough.

  12. The fallibility of capital punishment with respect to wrongful convictions and the killing of innocent people is painfully well documented. The argument from deterrence has long been known to be empirically specious (though knaves keep repeating it and the ovine keep believing it). And the brutalisation of those involved in administering the death penalty demonstrates that a punishment that is supposed to uphold moral values in fact undermines them.

    But what if there were methods for guaranteeing that only the guilty die? And what if it could be proven that capital punishment does act as a deterrent to violent crime? And what if there were ways to shield the managers of executions from dehumanisation? The moral case against capital punishment, I suggest, transcends (contingent) utilitarian arguments, as polemically useful as they might be.

    As for the argument from retributive justice, while it is not to be sneered at, it is, finally, theologically trumped by the unequivocal rejection by Jesus of the lex talionis, based as it is on the nature of the divine justice he discloses, viz., restorative justice. In Jesus we learn that God is not "just" on the one hand and merciful on the other, rather God is just precisely in his mercy (cf.: God is not all-loving on the one hand and all-powerful on the other, rather God's only power is the power of love).

    I would only add that Christian supporters of capital punishment, this ultimate expression of social despair, should read a little Girard on the scapegoat mechanism -- and both its radical exposure in and definitive abolition by the Crucified whose Father is the God of hope.

    Finally, a connection I draw in a "doodling" I did at "Faith and Theology" a few years ago: "Is it surprising that so many American Christians are obsessed with hell when mass incarceration and capital punishment are the way the nation does justice?"

  13. I agree with all of your conclusions and am against the death penalty myself, but I am curious about your statement that "The argument from deterrence has long been known to be empirically specious". I don't actually know if that's true. For instance, a leading researcher on this topic is Naci Mocan at LSU. Here is his work, which is very carefully done, peer-reviewed, and well-published: http://www.bus.lsu.edu/mocan/Getting%20off%20Death%20Row.pdf. Now, I don't think believing in evidence for deterrence means you have to believe in the death penalty by any means, but I think we have to be honest about what the evidence is (incidentally, Nocan himself is against the death penalty despite his research, so he is not an advocate of any kind here). Perhaps you can point me to something that contradicts this.

  14. Much obliged for the heads-up, Jamin.

    See, e.g., “Do Executions Lower Homicide Rates?: The Views of Leading Criminologists” by Michael L. Radelet and Traci L. Lacock (2009), in The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.

    And you'll know, conversely, that there is evidence of homicide rates actually increasing after well-publicised executions.

    But okay, yes, the evidence is conflicting. I shouldn’t have been so apodictic. Still, the argument from deterrence strikes me as having an incredibly thin, decisionist, CBA understanding of human behaviour, and I suspect that even insofar as criminals are calculative, their reasoning (sic) has more to do with the fear of apprehension than execution.

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