It looks like the death penalty may be on life support.
January was set to be the deadliest month for U.S. executions in 2015, but nine of the 15 executions were stopped. In an unprecedented wave, three of the deadliest states stopped executions planned for last month — Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri. February has just begun, but nine of its 12 scheduled executions have been halted.
Last year was not a good year for the death penalty, either, as death sentences hit a 40-year low and executions were at a 20-year low.
There were botched executions such as that of Clayton Lockett, who writhed in pain for 43 minutes before dying of a heart attack, with the Oklahoma prison warden calling it “a bloody mess.”
Then there were the exonerations, such as that of Ricky Jackson in Ohio, who spent 39 years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, convicted solely on the testimony of a 12-year-old boy who recanted.
Jackson was not alone — several others exonerated in 2014 spent over three decades behind bars. In December, we saw the 150th exoneration (since 1976). That means for every nine executions, one person was found innocent. What if the Postal Service lost one letter for every nine it delivered? What if an airline crashed one of every 10 flights? Innocence has raised questions for many of us.
Richard Glossip was one of those whose Oklahoma execution was halted by the U.S. Supreme Court last month. Glossip has maintained his innocence in the murder-for-hire of his boss. In fact, it is clear that if he had lied — and pleaded guilty to a lesser crime that he did not commit — he would not face execution for the greater crime, which he also did not commit.
It might be that folks are getting tired of the massive resources spent on death penalty cases. It is now a well-established fact that it costs more to kill someone than to keep them in prison for life. Political conservatives are now blasting the money wasted on the death penalty — money that could be used to support victims, prevent crime and repair broken schools and families. In some states, such as Nebraska, it is likely that Republicans will lead the way to abolition.
Groups such as Journey of Hope, Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation, the Forgiveness Project and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights are gaining more and more traction as they insist that capital punishment creates a new set of victims and perpetuates violence instead of healing. As you listen to them, you can’t help but be convinced that we can do better than killing to show that killing is wrong.
So the death penalty is in critical condition.
But it is not dead — not yet, anyway. With recent polls showing that more than half of Americans are opposed to the death penalty when given other alternatives, advocates are turning up the volume. In 2014, Tennessee reinstated the electric chair, and Wyoming tried to bring back the firing squad, though neither state had an execution in 2014.
Despite a loud minority, most of the U.S. has moved on. Last year, seven states accounted for 80 percent of all executions. And it is even more evident when you look at counties. More than half of death penalty convictions originate in 2 percent of the counties in the U.S.
More and more Christians are troubled that 85 percent of executions take place in the Bible Belt. A 2014 poll showed that millennial Christians are overwhelmingly against the death penalty, and only 5 percent of Americans think Jesus would favor it.
Echoing the pleas of his predecessors Benedict XVI and John Paul II, Pope Francis called for a renewed commitment from Christians to abolish the death penalty — “whether legal or illegal, and in all its forms.” Word on the street is that the National Association of Evangelicals, representing nearly 50, 000 congregations, may soon weigh in on the issue.
So I am hopeful that 2015 might be a year of abolition. The six executions that have gone forward this year reveal how broken the system is. Two of those executions involved a lethal injection protocol that is now under review by the Supreme Court. Georgia executed a decorated war veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. Another man was found intellectually disabled by seven doctors. Texas executed a man with an IQ of 67 who was diagnosed as mentally retarded at the age of 13. And then there was Arnold Prieto, the 41-year-old Texas inmate whose life would likely have been spared had he accepted a plea bargain (his co-defendants did not face execution, though accused of the same crimes).
Might it be that there is a new pro-life movement in America? Not your granny’s pro-life movement. This time it’s not just about being anti-abortion but standing against death in all its ugly forms.
It feels like we have death-fatigue.
Perhaps it is no surprise that alongside constant stories of death from Paris and Nigeria to Ferguson and NY, there is a surge of opposition to the death penalty in the U.S. It just feels strange to protest another ISIS beheading and then watch another botched execution in the U.S.
Revolution is in the air — and the revolution is about how life matters. Let’s say no to death — from ISIS to Texas.