I’m an evangelical pastor, and I recently changed my mind on the death penalty. The change didn’t occur all at once. Rather, it occurred in a series of stages spread out over a number of years.
I suppose the change started when I read John Grisham’s The Innocent Man, a true account of justice gone horribly wrong. Grisham told the tragic story of Ron Williamson, a minor league baseball pitcher who was wrongly convicted and sent to death row for a rape and murder he didn’t commit.
As I turned the pages of the book, I kept waiting for the situation to right itself, for someone to come to the young man’s defense and for the justice system to say “Oops, we got this one wrong.” Ron languished on death row for 11 years before being exonerated by DNA evidence. He missed his chance at a professional baseball career and spiraled into a severe state of mental illness. In 1999, he became the 78th death row inmate to be completely exonerated. Five years later, at age 51 he died in a nursing home.
Grisham’s book planted an important seed of doubt in my mind about capital punishment, but it would take a few years for my position on the issue to change.
I grew up and spent my entire adult life supporting the death penalty. Not actively supporting it, but supporting it by default — supporting it because I had never taken the time to closely examine and question it. An approving stance on the death penalty was just something I inherited by virtue of growing up evangelical. Evangelicals support the death penalty because it’s biblical, or so I thought.
The first step in changing my position on the death penalty was just moving from apathy to an awareness that the system is broken in ways that put certain people more at risk than others.
Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy picked up where Grisham’s book left off. Stevenson made me aware of the extent to which the justice system is broken. It’s not just a rare case here or there where the innocent are condemned, rather it’s systemic brokenness tilted against the poor and people of color. For example, in Florida, for more than 140 years a white person has never been sentenced to death for killing a black person. Nationwide, two percent of white defendants were issued the death penalty when sentenced for murder compared to 14.5 percent of black defendants who commit the same crime. Four percent of white defendants who kill black victims are sentenced to death. When the tables are turned, the number of defendants sentenced to death rises to 21.2 percent.
The next step involved a closer look at scripture, particularly the scriptures of the Old Testament which I had been told supported capital punishment. The more I looked, the weaker the biblical case for the death penalty became. For example, in the case of Cain and Abel (the case where God seems most directly involved in the sentencing), God does not sentence Cain to death even though Cain’s crime was premeditated and brutal. Cain is punished by being banished from the community, and rather than receiving a death sentence, in fact, God places protections around Cain to keep others from seeking revenge.
Then there’s the fact that if capital punishment were God’s desired intent, Moses, David, and Paul should have been executed before they wrote some of the most important parts of the Bible. And finally, if we are going to use Old Testament scripture as our definitive guide, we would need to expand capital punishment to cover a whole range of things including theft, adultery, and disobedience to one’s parents. I don’t hear anyone except religious extremists suggesting that.
After concluding that scripture does not prescribe continued use of the death penalty, I turned my attention toward arguments used to support it, particularly the argument of deterrence.
There are two reasons related to law enforcement that are often used to support the death penalty: deterrence and cost effectiveness. I’ll spend very little time on cost effectiveness, since I can’t imagine a Christian saying, “Let’s execute this guy so that we can save a few bucks.” It’s also fairly well established that the cost of enforcing the death penalty exceeds the cost of a life in prison.
Some argue that the death penalty is an important deterrent to violent crime. Those in law enforcement agree that the facts don’t support this conclusion. A recent article in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology cites that 88 percent of the country’s top criminologists do not believe that the death penalty deters violent crime. States with the death penalty consistently have higher murder rates than those that have discontinued it. Common sense also suggests that people who commit horrendous crimes don’t sit around beforehand to consider the range of consequences.
Finally, I quit asking what is fair and started asking what is best? Grace and mercy are inherently unfair. Grace gives us what we don’t deserve, and mercy withholds what we do deserve. The death penalty may appeal to a sense fairness and vengeance; heinous crimes anger us and a human reaction is to want to even the score. However, feeding these emotional reactions no longer seems consistent with the call to follow Jesus and take up his cross. The death penalty totally shuts the door on the possibility of repentance and reconciliation.
In so many death penalty cases, by the time the State carries out an execution, the person being put to death is a different person They have often developed heartfelt remorse for what they had done to another human being. Executing them at this point doesn’t seem to accomplish anything of value, and it certainly doesn’t accomplish anything redemptive.
Some argue that the solution to this problem is a shorter appeal process and swifter executions. I counter this conclusion by noting that many people are exonerated after 15 or 20 years in death row. Swifter executions would result in more innocent people being put to death.
When faced with ethical dilemmas such as this, I think there are two questions we must ask, “How would I want this handled if I or one of my children were convicted of a capital crime?” and “What would this process look like if it were occurring in heaven?”
Jesus is calling us to a better way. He is a restorer and a redeemer. He is fixing all that is broken, and in a Jesus-centered world I have come to the conclusion that the death penalty should be replaced with life sentences. Life sentences hold people accountable for their crimes, but can be commuted in cases of exoneration. They protect the public from people who have committed violent acts. And finally, they allow for the opportunity of repentance and reconciliation, and demonstrate a more consistent respect for the value of life.