Religious Reflections on the Death Penalty
John Carr, Secretary, Department of Social Development and World Peace, US Catholic Conference
Nathan Diament, Director of Public Policy, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America
Barrett Duke, Vice President of Research, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Southern Baptist Convention
Rev. Joseph Lowery, Chairman, Black Leadership Forum and Co-founder, President Emeritus, Southern Christian Leadership Conference
E.J. Dionne, Jr., Co-Chair, The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, and Senior Fellow, the Brookings Institution
MS. MELISSA ROGERS: Good afternoon. My name is Melissa Rogers. I’m executive director of the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life. The Pew Forum is a project supported by The Pew Charitable Trusts, and we’re very grateful for that support and also grateful to have Lori Grange of the Trusts staff with us today. The Forum serves as a platform for research and discussion of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs. And we seek to serve as a true forum for the exchange of ideas, rather than an advocate behind any one perspective expressed at our events.
We’re fortunate at the Forum to have two distinguished co-chairs. We have with us today E.J. Dionne, senior fellow of the Brookings Institution, and a columnist at the Washington Post. We’re very grateful for his leadership in the Forum. He will moderate the panel in just a moment. Our other co-chair is Jean Bethke Elshtain, a distinguished author and speaker on religion in public life issues. Jean is currently a professor at the University of Chicago. Unfortunately, Jean could not be with us today.
We are terribly grateful for the partnership of the Brookings Institution, the University of Chicago, and Georgetown University in the project that is the Pew Forum. Today, we’re here, of course, to discuss the sobering issue of capital punishment. We’re here to explore the arguments stemming from religious thought, in favor, opposed, and ambivalent about the death penalty.
Just yesterday, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in this area, and tomorrow, we’re expecting a decision related to the McVeigh case. So it makes our discussion a very timely one. So again, let me thank you for joining us in this event. Thank you for your participation in the Forum. And, at this point, let me turn it over to E.J. Dionne to make introductions of our panelists and to moderate the discussion. Thank you.
MR. E.J. DIONNE: Thank you, Melissa, and thanks, everyone, for coming today. I think there are few issues on which we need more moral guidance than on the death penalty. For all of the talk about the secularization of our society, that we continue to turn to religious people and religious leaders for enlightenment on moral questions. And we’re very grateful today to have such a distinguished group.
John Carr was stuck in an accident and has somehow miraculously emerged from it. So John is walking in now. I believe the death penalty debate has changed fundamentally in our country for two reasons. One is a series of practical and moral questions revolving around growing doubts about whether people might be put to death by accident. I think Governor Ryan of Illinois, in calling a moratorium on the death penalty, because of evidence that people may have been convicted without adequate evidence against them, was a fundamental step in changing public opinion, or at least leading the country to reconsider its view.
But I think the religious community has played an enormous role in having people question their consciences’ about where they stand on the death penalty. The debate over whether Karla Faye Tucker should be subjected to the death penalty had a powerful effect in the evangelical community in leading to new thinking on this. The pope’s visit to the United States had a powerful influence on the Catholic community, not only liberal and moderate Catholics, but also conservative Catholics in reconsidering their view.
I think one of the things that will be clear today is that it’s impossible to say that there is any religious consensus on the death penalty, that we have an extraordinary group of people here today representing very different traditions. And I think each of them would acknowledge that people within their own traditions disagree with whatever position they are about to present today. But we’re very grateful for these perspectives. And what we’re going to do is, we’ve asked the speakers to keep their comments — it’s unfair on a subject of this magnitude, to ask them to do this, but we’ve asked them anyway — to keep their comments to about five to seven minutes, because we’d really like to engage you all in a dialogue on this very difficult issue.
I will very briefly introduce our speakers, and I will just go in alphabetical order. That seems as fair a way as any to be just to all traditions represented here. John Carr, I confess, is one of my favorite people. You should just know that. He is secretary at the Department of Development and World Peace at the United States Catholic Conference. John tells a wonderful story about somebody coming up to him one day and saying, you’re in charge of development and world peace. And he said, yeah. And the person said to John, well, you’re not doing a very good job. [Laughter.]
And, in fact, John does a very good job. I wish he could be in charge of Development and World Peace for all of us. And we welcome him very much.
Nathan Diament is the director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America. He’s based here in Washington. And at the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, he develops and coordinates public policy research and initiatives on behalf of the Orthodox Jewish community. He is a graduate of Yeshiva University and Harvard Law School.
Barrett Duke is the vice-resident for research and director of the Research Institute of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Agency for Applied Christianity. He has been with the agency since 1997. We’re very grateful that he flew up today to join us.
And then finally, Joseph Lowery, known to many of you. He was described by Ebony Magazine as “The consummate voice of biblical, social, relevancy; a focused voice speaking truth to power.” He is chairman of the Black Leadership Forum. He is cofounder and president emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Reverend Lowery, welcome, we’re very grateful you’re with us today.
What I’d like to do is invite John to bring peace and development to the group, and then we will move on from John. Thank you all.
MR. JOHN CARR: Thank you, E.J. And I apologize for being late. I was tempted to shift my view of capital punishment if I was stuck in traffic. I didn’t know who to hold accountable, but I wanted to find them. I’m honored to be a part of such a distinguished panel, on such a timely and important topic. But I’m a little anxious. There’s a certain irony in the position I’m about to represent, because I think I represent a community of faith where our understanding of the moral dimensions of capital punishment has evolved over time, and in light of changing circumstances.
There’s not a little irony in the fact that the church I serve at one time participated in public executions — Joan of Arc comes to mind — and now, is led by, I think, one of the world’s most foremost opponents to the death penalty, Pope John Paul II. Nonetheless, I would suggest that the development of Catholic teaching on the death penalty has not been abrupt or radical, but a response to changing realities, especially in the criminal justice system, and greater concern for how our culture sees human life.
The application of Catholic teaching on this subject, I think, has had three major elements. First, the articulation of the right of the state to resort to the death penalty in order to protect society. Secondly, the expression of growing reservations on how that right is exercised, questions of fairness, and whether the use of the death penalty is still necessary to protect society. And thirdly now, coming to reject the use of the death penalty in our own time and situation.
This rejection of the use of the death penalty is expressed most clearly in the revised catechism of the Catholic Church, in the words and witness of Pope John Paul II, and the statements and advocacy of the U.S. Catholic Bishops. The catechism was revised and reflects the teaching of John Paul II in his encyclical, The Gospel of Life. We do not revise catechisms easily or often, so this is a big deal.
And essentially, what it said is the state has the right to execute people, but ways have evolved to protect society in other ways, the penal system specifically, and that the state ought to forego the right to execute people and protect society in other ways. This is circumstances where the death penalty is required — is rare, if not non-existent. And then, John Paul II took that a step further, several steps further in his visit to the United States, where he urged American Catholics to become unconditionally pro-life and, in fact, appealed for Catholics to join an effort to end the use of the death penalty. And most visibly, appeals for clemency to the governor of Missouri in a particular case, clemency which was granted and became a centerpiece of the political campaign to follow.
John Paul the second’s witness, I think, is particularly powerful because he was a victim. He forgave the man who attempted to murder him, asked the state not to execute him. The U.S. Bishop says, as a group, have publicly opposed the death penalty since the 1970s, and have spoken out on this issue with increasing urgency and unity. The most recent appeals I have here. If I had arrived on time, they’d be back there somewhere. And a recent statement on criminal justice and a Good Friday appeal to end the death penalty. And the Bishops’ Conference to restrain, restrict and end the death penalty, both at the national and at state capitols across the country.
I think our community — and I would emphasize what E.J. did — there’s a range of views, a diversity of views held with great passion inside the Catholic community. But at the official level, I think there is growing unity and consistency. The Catholic Church has come to oppose the use of the death penalty for four main reasons: it’s uncertainty, in one sense, and its finality in another sense. Uncertainty, as we have discovered, despite the protections built into our system, there are people who end up on death row who are innocent of their crimes. And we should not have to depend on journalism classes to find that out.
And the finality in the sense that there is no revisiting an execution after new evidence comes forward. People say no one who’s innocent has been executed. The Governor of Maryland, the day before yesterday, pardoned a man who was hung decades ago. The second reason is questions of fairness. Some people are on death row for crimes they didn’t commit. Although there are apparently very few, but even one is too many. Others on death row not because their crimes were worse than others, but because their legal representation was worse than others.
The rich and famous, the well connected, and the well represented rarely end up on death row. It very much depends on what state you committed a terrible crime, what prosecutor you had, who you killed apparently is an issue, how you killed them, and there is an arbitrariness, and some would insist an unfairness to this. I live in the state of Maryland: 15 people are on death row; 11 of them are African-Americans. And that is why the state is studying the racial dimensions of the death penalty in Maryland.
The third reason is its coarsening effect on our culture. The bishops oppose the death penalty not just for what it does to the executed but what it does to the rest of us. It promotes, in some cases, an ethic of vengeance, an illusion of closure and of false promise of healing. The death of a murderer does nothing to bring back the person which he murdered. It perpetuates a cycle of violence. In the end, the bishops have said, we cannot teach that killing is wrong by killing those who kill others.
There are now 1,400 people on death row in California, Texas, and Florida, just to name two states. Cardinal Mahoney, when he was here, speaking at the Press Club, said, “Are we a better place, a better state, a more whole society? Is our social fabric stronger because we have 600 people on death row?” What does that mean for guards, for wardens, for people who participate in this process?
Finally, I think the bishops are increasingly opposed to the death penalty because it contributes to a growing disrespect for human life. Our opposition to the death penalty is part of our attempt to articulate and live out what has been called the consistent ethic of life. We believe every life is precious, whether the person lives in a gated community or a box under a bridge, whether it’s an unborn child in a mother’s womb, innocent in every way, or a convicted murderer on death row, found guilty of the most horrible crime. They don’t all have the same moral claims, but we are called to defend life not take life.
There’s a terrible temptation, I think, to try and solve our most difficult problems with violence. I’m sure there are sharp differences on these questions, but think of a million abortions a year to deal with problem pregnancies. Think of now the advocacy of euthanasia and assisted suicide to deal with the burdens of age and illness. And think of the growing reliance on the death penalty in 38 states across the country.
This is not easy. Many Catholics reflect the largest societal support for the death penalty, although there’s evidence that it’s diminishing. And especially interesting to note that pro-life Catholics, Catholics who are against abortion and Catholics who go to church on a regular basis, that their support for the death penalty has declined substantially over the last few years.
So the Bishops’ Conference supports measures to restrain, restrict, or limit the death penalty to seek greater fairness in capital cases. We support moratoria and eventually the abandonment of the death penalty, because we believe although the state has the right to take life, we should forego that right, because we have other means to protect society, and because we need to build a culture of life not of death. We cannot defend life, we believe, by taking life.
MR. DIONNE: Thank you very much, John.
Before I turn to Nathan, I just want to underscore something John said. The Pew Forum and the Pew Research Center did a survey a couple of months back, and there was a very interesting finding. We asked people their views of the death penalty and a series of other issues. And then, we asked them what influenced their view, and we gave them a choice among personal experience, family and friends, the media, and religious belief.
Among opponents of the death penalty, 42 percent cited religious belief as a reason for opposing it. Only 15 percent of supporters said that religious belief led them to support the death penalty. As somebody who is in newspapers, I should note that among supporters of the death penalty, 30 percent cited the media. I’m not sure how that should make those of us in the media feel, but that was the highest number there.
Now, I think that underscores something John said, which is there is the reconsideration of this issue in the country — I think is rooted in the broader society, but I think is very much going on in the religious community. I want to turn to Nathan. And one thing I forgot to mention is that Nathan has recently been so much on the Washington Post op-ed page that he feels like a colleague. And I’m very proud of that. Nathan, welcome.
MR. NATHAN DIAMENT: Thank you, E.J. That’s very kind of you and quite a compliment. It’s also a compliment to be invited to be involved in a Pew Forum on religion in public life programs. Since you launched in January under Melissa Rogers’ wonderful direction, this has really been a fantastic project and program here in Washington. And I can only imagine what kind of work you’re going to be doing ten years from now.
And to state that there’s a range of views in the Jewish community on any issue — it really goes without saying. But with that, I will fear to tread here. And if I have to sum up the position of my organization as the umbrella group for orthodox synagogues around the country in a pithy sound bite, I would say, we’re not abolitionists, but we are for a moratorium. And now, I’ll try to briefly explain to you how we get to such a typically Talmudic position, coming down squarely on both sides of an issue in the next few minutes.
One of Judaism’s great teachings to the world was an appreciation for the infinite value of human life. It’s from the creation story in Genesis that we learn that humans were created in God’s image. It’s from the account of Cain and Abel that we first learned about the consequences of murder. And it’s from the binding of Isaac that the repugnance of human sacrifice was taught to the world.
Interestingly, in rabbinic discussions, these teachings appear in a context that’s directly relevant here. In the section of the Talmud that’s devoted to the rules of courts, and judges, and witnesses, and so on. It’s discussed in the context of how judges are to admonish witnesses before they testify. In a Jewish religious court, you would not just stand up and say, I swear to tell the truth. They would try to literally strike the fear of God into you before you would give your testimony.
And in brief, they would cite you versus from the chapter regarding Cain and the verse about “the blood of your brother is crying out to you from the ground,” and then would go on into a discussion about how man was created as a singular being to teach you that the famous statement, “Everyone that kills one life, it’s as though he or she had destroyed an entire world. And everyone that saves a single life, it’s as though he or she saved an entire world.” And to tell you how great the creator is, a mortal king will make a mould for a coin, and every coin that is minted from that mould will be identical. Whereas God, the creator of the world, created one man and one woman, and all of Adam and Eve’s progeny are infinite in their diversity.
And after saying this to the witnesses, how important human life is, how infinite its value is, then they turn to them and say, okay, so are you ready to testify in a capital case? And interestingly, that’s the context any time there’s a broad discussion about the value of human life. But at the same time, it has to be balanced against other considerations. In the ritual context, the value of human life is balanced against rules, for example, regarding violation of the Sabbath. And one can violate the rules of the Sabbath to save a human life.
At the same time, regarding transgressions, the balance has to be struck again. And if you look through the Bible, there are scores of instances in which the death penalty is prescribed for a variety of transgressions, both ritual and criminal, if you will. In the ritual context, they include violating the Sabbath; they include cursing God. In the criminal context, if you will, you are liable for the death penalty if you engage in incest, if you hit one of your parents. You can warn your children about that. It’s very useful. [Laughter.] And, of course, for murder.
And murder, interestingly, getting to where this discussion must go, because in the United States and the modern world in general, when we’re talking about the death penalty, we’re talking about generally imposing it for crimes of murder, is actually singled out in rabbinic teaching from all those other scores of transgressions and sins where the death penalty is proscribed. And that comes up in another Talmudic statement.
Perhaps, if you’ve been involved in Jewish discussions of the death penalty, perhaps the most famous statement that’s been brought up is the one that says that a court that kills one defendant in a seven year period, and then there’s a second opinion that says, if you kill one defendant in a 70 year period, that is considered a murderous court. But what people leave out is what the Talmudic passage goes on to say, which is first, two rabbis say, if we were on those courts, there would never be a death penalty imposed. And that’s because they would find ways to examine the witnesses. They would disqualify any witness in a capital case because they were so wise and so insightful.
To which another scholar responds, you would be propagating murders in society. If the death penalty was made null and void, you would be propagating murders in society. And that’s a very important insight as well. Moreover, there’s another discussion of how murder is dealt with, again, as opposed to other transgressions. And there we are told that if a court knows, either circumstantial evidence or other reasons, that this person is guilty of murder, but they can’t meet the criteria for actually imposing a capital penalty — and I’ll digress for a moment to say the procedural protections are incredibly strong in Jewish law — you have to have two witnesses.
Not only do you have to have two witnesses, the two witnesses need to know that each of them is there. So I need to see you witnessing this crime while I’m witnessing this crime. There has to be an explicit warning right before the person commits the act that is quite explicit. Are you are aware that if you commit this act of murder, you’re subject to the death penalty, and so on and so forth? And then, there’s a whole host of judicial procedures, again, admonishing the witnesses, how you examine the witnesses, quite excruciating detail and procedural safeguards for trying to get to fairness and accuracy and so on.
And if somehow those procedures are successful in getting the defendant off the hook, so to speak, for the death penalty, but nevertheless, the court knows that the person is guilty, the Talmud tells us that they had a different procedure. And they wouldn’t be put to death through the traditional capital punishment methods. They would essentially be put in jail, and they would starve to death. And this is only for murderers, not for any other crimes that are liable for the death penalty.
And the reason that is given is because murder is a grievous offense, both against God and against society. And when you punish a murderer through the death penalty, you are not only affording that person penance for his or her crime, in all of the contexts of death penalty transgressions or other penalties that are imposed upon criminals in traditional Jewish law, the punishment is viewed as a component of the transgressor’s penance. But in the context of murder, because it’s also a crime against society, it’s critical for the welfare of society. This is a traditional Jewish understanding of why it is imposed.
And again, as this law is translated down through the rabbis into the codes of law, Maimonides tells us, for example, that the courts are admonished, not to say, in the case of a murderer, well, he’s already killed somebody; why should we continue to go down that path and kill him? What good would that do? But, in fact, a court is forbidden to engage in that kind of reasoning because it’s fundamentally unjust. And so there’s a clear counterbalance, if you will, to the understanding of life as significantly valuable, but also counterbalancing against that is the component of trying to do justice and trying to address capital crimes.
Now, everything that I’ve discussed until now is found in a traditional Jewish, religious law context. It assumes a Jewish theocratic state. In fact, the Jewish Supreme Court sat on the temple mount in the precincts of the temple to underscore the connection. And you’re dealing with a theocracy, as imagined by the Bible and as managed by rabbinic, Jewish law. And so, this does not translate neatly or directly, not only to the United States, but even to the state of Israel, where, despite the fact that traditional Jewish law is a component of Israeli law and Israeli civil law, that’s filtered very carefully into that modern democratic state.
Nevertheless, the task for us modern orthodox Jews is to elicit from our teachings relevant lessons for today, whether they would be strictly binding and applied or not. And I hope what I put on the table in this brief presentation are the considerations, are the value system considerations that are part of this discussion, part of this issue, and bring us to where we are. There’s this clear, premium value placed on human life, and there’s a clear need, as exemplified in the judicial processes and so on for accuracy and fairness.
On the other hand, there’s the critical need on a societal level for implementing justice, especially, particularly against those who would take another human life. And those considerations all coming together in the context of modern American society and the challenges that stand before us, bring us and our community to the position that I said at the outset.
We think sufficient questions have been raised. Many of them, as described by John Carr, with regard to accuracy, with regard to fairness, with regard to racial disparities, and so on, and so on, and so forth, that the teachings about that component of a justice system are absolutely critical. And that therefore, it’s time to call a halt to this practice, to put a moratorium in place, and examine how these processes work in the American judicial system and get it sorted out as best we can, and really as best we can.
On the other hand, we’re not about to take the position of abolition, because the teaching that, again, the need for implementing justice, particularly with regard to crimes of murder, for society, is a critical component of Jewish teaching as well.
MR. DIONNE: Thank you very much. I’m grateful for the last point especially, because I think one of the hardest issues here is to decide what constitutes justice. And I’ve always thought that the strongest argument for the death penalty, which I personally oppose, is that this may be the only just penalty for certain kinds of crimes.
Before Dr. Duke speaks, I feel obligated to point out that he not only graduated summa cum laude from Criswell Center for Biblical Studies in Dallas, Texas, he was also the study body vice-president and president. So that means that contrary to recent news reports in the election of 2000 or more recently, you can be an A student and a successful politician at the same time.
Welcome Dr. Duke. Thank you.
DR. BARRETT DUKE: Thank you. I am pleased to be here. I do wish it were under different circumstances, but Southern Baptists did decide to speak on this issue, so we need to show up and take the heat wherever we get invited to do that. And we are pleased that you would invite us to comment, share with you why Southern Baptists have gone on record in support of capital punishment.
Historically, Southern Baptists have supported capital punishment in our rank and file. There were some attempts in the late 60s to have Southern Baptists actually go on record opposed to capital punishment. And Southern Baptist rank and file rejected that as an option. We have traditionally supported capital punishment, and last year went on record bypassing a resolution in our annual meeting to that effect. And there’s a copy of that resolution back there on the literature table, wherever that is. There are plenty of copies of that. We encourage you to pick that up and see why we have taken that particular position. It’s spelled out pretty clearly, I believe.
Our main reason for supporting capital punishment today is because we believe, as Mr. Diament has expressed, it is a biblical position. And we do believe that the Bible continues to be relevant for life today. It is a relevant book; we believe it is God’s word, and that it applies in all ages and all times. The reason why we believe today that the Bible speaks to capital punishment for our society is because we treat the Bible from a developing historical perspective as well as a theological perspective. And for us, you can read the Bible as a historical document as well as a text of theological beliefs.
The first statement that you have in the Bible related to capital punishment is in Genesis chapter nine, verse six. Immediately after the flood, God speaks to Noah and his family, and he says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed.” Now, the location of that passage is significant because, as we understand the development of history, you find in this particular instance, God issuing this mandate for capital punishment prior to the establishment of the Nation of Israel.
There is no Abraham at this time, there is no Moses at this time; there was Noah and his family, and that’s it. And there you find God saying, whoever sheds man’s blood, shall man shed that person’s blood. Which means that God has given this requirement to the only surviving people on the earth. They provide the foundation for all subsequent civilization, all subsequent communities and societies. In other words, this was not a command given solely to the Nation of Israel, though, as Nathan has clearly expressed, it was also issued and developed in a very specific form for the Nation of Israel. In its basic concept, it was established by God for all subsequent societies.
There are several other passages to us that are significant in this issue, but the other one that I would share is found in the Book of Romans, from the apostle Paul. It’s important that this is also addressed in The New Testament because, as we know, you have what we call The Old Testament and then The New Testament. And the New Testament builds on those principles and the theology of The Old Testament.
And when you read Paul’s statements in the Book of Romans, you find that he, under the inspiration of God, also recognizes that this is still a valid practice for society. He makes a statement in Romans chapter 13: “Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right, and he will commend you, for he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”
So we recognize that even when you come into The New Testament, some people want to say, well, The New Testament negates those things in The Old Testament. But here we find the apostle Paul saying that this is still a valid exercise by justice for government to use capital punishment. So our primary grounds are biblical.
Now, in the resolution that you’ll find in the back, we recognized that there are concerns, and we have concerns with the way capital punishment is exercised today. We acknowledge that there are racial and economic issues that need to be addressed. To us, they are real issues, and we call for a study, and we call for change in the way this is done so that there is not racial or economic inequity in the system. However, we do acknowledge that the state has the right to execute those who have violated certain laws.
It is possible, in my mind, and I’ve written further on this, that it is possible for a state to improperly use capital punishment. For a state to be properly using capital punishment, it needs to be following those guidelines that are found in the Bible. There do need, in our mind, to be clear evidences of guilt. It is not for government to use for its own ends. It is not proper for some governments to victimize others for its own purposes. There is supposed to be justice involved in this, and we believe that that’s justice related to the way God calls for justice.
There is a question, then, for us: why did God call for capital punishment? Why would God say to do this? But it makes the one statement there in Genesis chapter nine, “For in the image of God, God has made man.” That is why God says, “One who sheds blood, his blood shall be shed.” Because killing another person violates the image of God, in which every person is created. So, in a sense, the civil government is making a statement about the sanctity of life. If you kill someone, you are damaging the image of God, and it is the state’s responsibility then to call that one to account.
But first of all, it is the state’s responsibility to protect the image of God, in which we are created. The second is that the state does represent God’s burden for the weak. Society must protect its weakest members, and ensure its citizens that it will pursue and punish anyone who preys on them, and even demand the ultimate price on behalf of its citizens. So we recognize that the state has a responsibility to protect its citizens, and that when a citizen has been preyed on, it’s the state’s responsibility to see to it that no one is able to do that without a just penalty.
Our greatest concern about capital punishment is the concern that’s been shared here and the concern that I think everyone shares. And that is the possibility that someone who’s innocent might be executed. We are not oblivious to that accusation, to that concern as being raised about capital punishment today. And so, in our resolution, we do call for clear and overwhelming evidence of guilt. If there is not clear an overwhelming evidence of guilt, then capital punishment should not be sought, should not be practiced. We need to make sure that the innocent are not victimized by their own society and those they trust to protect them.
However, we would also say that such a possibility is less likely today than it has ever been. There are more secure ways of determining guilt than there have ever been. The possibility of moratorium has been raised. Southern Baptists have not spoken to that particular question at this point. My concern about a moratorium is that many who are calling for a moratorium see it as simply the first step to the abolition of capital punishment, not a real effort to try to change the system. And perhaps by not having a moratorium, we continue to keep the pressure up that will bring real reform and change to the system, which is desperately needed.
So at least I would call for Southern Baptists to not focus on this, but I would say that what we need to call for is continued efforts at reform, while we do everything we can do to assure that the innocent are not victimized by this. Finally, I would say that in just summing up our position on capital punishment, it would, I think, be appropriate to say that Southern Baptists believe that all people are conceived with the right to life. Some forfeit that right by their own actions.
MR. DIONNE: Thank you very, very much. As I said earlier, we’re very grateful to have Dr. Lowery with us. Dr. King named Dr. Lowery the chairman of the delegation that delivered the demands of the Selma to Montgomery march back in 1965 to Governor George Wallace. Governor Wallace had ordered that state troopers beat the marchers. And in some ways, Reverend Lowery is a living embodiment of the idea that reconciliation is possible, because 30 years later in 1995, Governor Wallace apologized to Governor Lowery for what had happened 30 years ago.
We appreciate your being with us. Thank you.
REV.. JOSEPH LOWERY: Some advantages to being last, and some disadvantages. You risk nothing being left to say. And the other thing you do is you risk wanting to go off on a tangent on something somebody said, which, you know, you can’t possibly agree, and leave your paper. I’m going to resist the temptation and stick to may paper as much as possible.
MR. DIONNE: You can do that later. You shouldn’t resist the temptation entirely.
REV. LOWERY: That’s right. But I won’t. I didn’t plan to. I just wanted to be nice and courteous. I asked the group to publish, to bring a letter from Bud Welch, whose 23-year-old daughter Julie was killed in the Oklahoma City bombing. He wrote a letter to protestors who planned to protest the execution of McVeigh. It’s very interesting. Perhaps in the discussion we can come up with it.
The death penalty is a matter of place and race, inequity and iniquity: place and race, inequity and iniquity. But our concern primarily is the United States. I have to call attention to our compatriots in the practice of death penalty on the world scene, as a world leader, as the leader of the free world. But I don’t know who we are leading. Who’s following us? Iran, Iraq, Libya, China. Nobody in the European Union is following us in the death penalty. Turkey held out, but recently, they did away with it. So the leader of the free world is leading Iraq, Iran, China, and so forth. Note that South Africa no longer practices the death penalty.
In the United States, the core of our killing is in the South. Place. It’s a matter of place. Southern fried is a term you might use to describe execution. It’s ironic that the Bible Belt is the killing belt — Texas, Florida, Alabama, Virginia, and so forth, Georgia. Chief executioners. In the South, defendants are vigorously prosecuted, but poorly defended. In the year 2000, 80 percent of executions in this country took place in the South. It’s a matter of place.
Where the execution of Jesus Christ is most deplored in the South, the execution of human beings is most employed. It’s a matter of place. I would deny that the state has a right to take a human life. That’s the same argument that was used in the right to enslave. And the Bible was used to justify that as well. The state does not have the right to kill, to take a human life; the state does not have a right to enslave. It has the power, but the Bible addresses that. It says “Not by power, nor by might, but by my spirit, says the Lord.” The death penalty is a matter of place.
It’s a matter of race. This country take it very seriously because it’s us. We are the chief victims. In the 20th century, eight out of ten persons executed in the South were African-American. In Georgia, where I live, black males constitute 15 percent of the population, but 50 percent of those who are on death row. It’s a matter of race. There are 48 prosecutors in the state of Georgia who determine whether they are going to seek the death penalty in the Commission of Crimes. Only one of those is an African-American. It’s a matter of race.
Sixty percent of murder victims are black, yet over 90 percent of the victims in cases where the death penalty is carried out, since 1973, the victims were white. So few cases on record that you can count them on one hand where a white person was executed for killing a black. In McCleskey versus Kemp, a Georgia case, the Supreme Court recognized the overwhelming evidence of racism in the Georgia death penalty statute, but refused to stop it. Dred Scott all over again.
The court rule got to reverse McCleskey, in spite of its racism, but undermine the entire criminal justice system, which states plainly that racism is an essential element of our criminal justice system. Justice Powell, after he retired, said that the thing he regretted more than anything else was the McCleskey decision, because he was wrong. It’s a matter of race.
It’s a matter of inequity. Capital punishment is for people who have no capital. Lewis Lawes, the former warden of Sing Sing, quote, “Not only does capital punishment have no justification, but no punishment could be invented with so many inherent defects. It is unequal in the way it is applied to the poor, to the rich. The defendant of wealth never goes to the gallows.” It’s a matter of inequity.
Funds to provide adequate defense for the accused who are poor are never available. In Illinois, students at Northwestern found it takes approximately $200,000 and many months to do research and provide competent defense. Poor defendants are represented by lawyers who are paid meager fees, and spend an average of two days on the case. It’s a matter of inequity.
Families of poor defendants in desperation settle for any lawyer who will take the case, regardless of experience or reputation. The Chicago Tribune found that 33 persons, since the death in Illinois, were represented by lawyers who had been disbarred. It’s a matter of inequity.
Courts have assigned lawyers who specialize in tax law to defend people in capital cases. It’s a matter of inequity. One lawyer was on call to defend folks who had never tried a case. Prosecutors are well paid, and there are adequate funds for research. The poor are rigidly prosecuted, but poorly defended. It’s a matter of inequity.
Finally, it’s a matter of iniquity. Most of the major religious bodies in this country, Methodist, American Baptist, National Baptist, all except for Southern Baptist oppose the death penalty. Roman Catholic, Episcopalians, Presbyterians have taken strong positions. In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court said that Georgia’s administration of the death penalty was so wrongly pursued and arbitrarily implemented that it was cruel and unusual punishment. It’s interesting to me that killing damages the image of God when it’s done by a person, but it doesn’t damage it when it’s done by the state. It’s a matter of iniquity.
The pope says, “The dignity of human life must never be taken away, even from someone who has committed an evil act.” We cannot defend life by destroying life. Defending life is the principle the death penalty proposes to protect. But it is in reality the principle it violates. We simply cannot stop killing by perpetuating killing. The state sets the wrong example when it seeks to address its social problem by killing.
You mentioned Governor Wallace. We had a 90-minute meeting with him following the Selma to Montgomery march. And he disclaimed any responsibility for inciting violence. I said to him, you use your bully-pulpit to denounce racial integration and racial justice, but those who would emulate you don’t have your forum. So they use what they have, streets, and guns, and lead pipes, and bombs. It’s a matter of iniquity.
For those of us who are Christian, forgiveness and redemption are the tools of the community of faith. The death penalty seeks vengeance: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Jesus had an interesting quote about it. Martin Luther King kind of transposes it. He said, “An eye for an eye would leave us all blind.” It’s a matter of iniquity.
In terms of forgiveness and reconciliation, the family of Martin Luther King, the nuclear family as well as the civil rights family, forgave whoever killed Martin Luther King. The parade under the banner of lies and deception, which the death penalty does as a deterrent, clearly is not a deterrent when some states have had killed four people and others have more homicides than others. It’s a matter of iniquity.
Eighty-seven persons have been released from death row because they’ve been proven innocent. We’ll never know how many innocent persons were killed. A study from Columbia University Law School has shown that two of three death sentences handed down from 1973 to 1995 have been seriously flawed by trial errors and incompetent counsel. They’ve been overturned by a higher court. In Georgia, four of five cases have been turned down. In California, during the same period, 87 percent of the cases were found to be flawed.
This is the system that we find support for at the bottom and in the community of faith. The defendant with the sleeping lawyer was killed. It’s a matter of iniquity. It extends the cycle of violence; it affirms killing as an acceptable means of resolving social problems.
The moratorium we support, but confess, we do see it as a first step. But when a court sees a game going bad — I watched the ‘Sixers, and brother Carl tried desperately to call a time out to fix it. We need a time out on this atrocious barbarism in the name of humanity. It’s a matter of race and place, and it’s a matter of inequity and iniquity.
MR. DIONNE: Thank you so very, very, very much. I never thought I’d do this. I want to thank the audience for actually not applauding any of our speakers. It’s not a comment on the quality of what they said, but on the sobriety of the subject that we’re trying to address today.
REV. LOWERY: They could have said, Amen. [Laughter.]
MR. DIONNE: I was talking to an audience where I was “amened,” and I said I am a Catholic; I’m not used to call and response. But I got into it after a while. I want to just summarize. I think we’ve had some powerful points put on the table. I just made three kind of pairings of sort of arguments here, which are all deeply moral arguments. Reverend Lowery said, I would deny that the state has a right to take a human life. Against that is the view represented by Dr. Duke — the death penalty is the only just punishment — both Nathan and Dr. Duke, in a sense — can be the only just punishment for murder.
The risk of executing an innocent person is too high to permit any executions. Up against that is that only the death penalty — and this is Dr. Duke’s point — can protect the weakest members of society. The death penalty is proscribed in a racist and unjust way. Reverend Lowery and John Carr made that point. The alternative view is that removing the injustices in the process, not repealing the death penalty itself is the proper ethical response. I could multiply those, but I think this panel has put a lot of important issues on the table.
I would like to turn to the audience, and obviously the panel will have a chance to respond to each other as we go one. But I’d like to see if somebody in the audience wants to jump in. I always like to say, oh, you’re the exception to my rule. I always like to say, no on likes to ask the first question, so think of this as the second question. But you can ask the first question.
MS. LIZ ROYAL: Hi. I just wanted to thank all of the panelists. My name is Liz Royal. I’m from the Weekly Standard. I wanted to ask a question with reference to Mr. Diament and Mr. Duke’s comments. And that is, what would you say to an individual that would claim that, in fact, the death penalty does not allow the convicted to truly repent of their own free will, and rather, to have the state impose that penance? Mr. Diament, in specific, I think you referenced that the death penalty, in fact, serves as the convicted’s penance or reparation.
MR. DIAMENT: That’s certainly the Jewish religious view, in the context that I described. And clearly, in the context of a Jewish theocracy, that’s clearly what the rabbinic understanding of the Bible and rabbinic law says. And essentially for that, the Jewish state has decided that question, that it’s okay, so to speak, for the state to impose that sentence, to use your terms.
Although there’s a whole discussion also in the Talmud about how, as the person is proceeding to — sort of like the movie version of, you know, in the movies, the priest is walking along with the person before his execution. That’s from the Talmud. The members of the court would go along with the person to the execution, and the person would confess and repent.
But translating that into the context of the secular state, first of all, I don’t think the secular generally makes policy based on imposing penance or thinking penance, so to speak, in the religious sense. The best they can hope for is trying to achieve some measure of justice. And by that, I’m not suggesting justice for the families of the victim, some sort of vengeance concept. I’m suggesting something more along the lines of, the Jewish tradition, again, speaks of how, again, the crime of murder in particular is a grievous offense. The phrase they use actually is “the stability of society,” roughly translated.
And I think what that gets at is that this is not about vengeance, but more about that there are certain acts which a society may and perhaps must say, if you cross these lines, that is so heinous and so offensive that we have to make the ultimate statement that that is absolutely unacceptable. And if we don’t, the foundations of society’s order crumble underneath — you know, they’re ignoring them. Then you can have a whole debate. What are the red lines? Is the red line murder in any circumstances; is it a particular kind of murder; is it murder with aggravating factors; is it murder of children?
I mean, you can come up with, what is your menu of most heinous acts that society has to absolutely draw a line and say, no? And that’s what I think they’re trying to get at in terms of the sense of stability of society, and that only a clear statement by society as a whole is able to address that challenge to its stability.
DR. DUKE: I pretty much agree with everything that has been said. I never thought of it as penance, as being that particular person’s penance. But as far as the individual having an opportunity to repent, I think it takes, on average, six years for an execution actually to take place, somewhere around there. So there’s certainly plenty of opportunity for that individual to go through his own experience of repentance. And opportunity, perhaps, in that environment, is a great opportunity to reflect on his or her actions and repent, and for whatever peace he possibly can or she possibly can with God, and with the victims as well as with society.
And I would agree with Mr. Diament that there is a social aspect here. It’s not just the individual who’s been violated; it’s society that has been violated. It’s a greater issue than one individual attacking another individual, because when that attack takes place, all of society is affected by that, and there is a sense in which all of society grieves when one member of its citizenry attacks in such vicious ways, someone else who, perhaps, is weak and unable even to defend himself or herself.
MR. DIONNE: I’m going to call on Bob Abernathy. At some point, I want to our own Dara Strolovitch to offer an alternative reading of the Talmud.
MR. BOB ABERNATHY: I hope this is not out of order. I’d like to ask Mr. Diament and Dr. Duke primarily how you feel about the execution of a convicted murderer who is mentally retarded.
DR. DUKE: Last time I served on one of these panels, I got most of the questions too. Mr. Diament will respond to this, but Southern Baptists have not spoken specifically to that. We have talked about it since Southern Baptists passed that resolution. And it would be my personal opinion, I believe that’s shared by many Southern Baptists, that there is a point at which we must say that a person is not mentally competent to really have been able to understand the consequences of his actions, and that that should be taken into consideration. And in some of those, there are certain circumstances capital punishment would not be appropriate.
MR. DIAMENT: In traditional Jewish law, the mentally incompetent are categorized the same as minors, and there’s no basis for imposing the death penalty.
MR. DIONNE: Could I ask Reverend Lowery and John Carr two questions? One is, I have always been against the death penalty because I thought the evidence that it’s a deterrent is so weak. What would the moral position, from your point of view, be if, in fact, there were decisive evidence that the death penalty deterred murder, the murder of innocent people? And related to that, the only place where I ever thought there might be a justifiable death penalty, or the best case for a justifiable death penalty, would be in the case of people in prison for life who murdered a prison guard, where you need some deterrent beyond some existing deterrent. But I throw those two sort of hypotheticals at each of you.
MR. CARR: In terms of if deterrent were, in fact, a deterrent, would that change the argument? I tried to outline four reasons that our community opposes to the death penalty, and it wouldn’t impact those. We have to find ways to protect ourselves from people who do not share our commitment to human life. But we shouldn’t do so in a way that teaches the rest of us that the way you do that is by taking human life.
So I think we need a moral revolution, in a certain sense, that this is a society that’s lost its respect for human life. And it’s not just kids in the streets, it’s also somebody who flies home in the middle of a presidential campaign to preside over the execution of somebody who’s mentally retarded. And part of the church’s job is to bring about that moral revolution. And that’s not only advocacy on the death penalty; that’s advocacy on human life, that’s advocacy on you’re accountable for your actions; that’s advocacy you don’t steal, and all the rest of it. So we have a lot of work to do.
And the deterrent that keeps people from taking the lives of others can’t be, we’ll get yours. That’s not, in my view, a religious or Christian motive. On the question of the prison guard, I think that is one of the toughest cases. The Catholic Bishops have recently done a statement on criminal justice, which tries to say two things. One, people have to be responsible for their actions. There’s way too much violence in this society; we’ve lost our way, as I said. So people have to be handled, but we’re not going to give up on anybody. But we need to structure our prisons and our criminal justice system that the only way we keep prisoners from killing guards is because we’ll kill them.
The rest of the world is figuring out how to do this. As Reverend Lowery explained, those that are following us, in this case, are not an illustrious group. So we need to find ways to, in fact, stand up for our values, stand up for human life, in ways that does not say to the whole society, if you take somebody else’s life, we’ll take yours.
REV. LOWERY: I certainly agree with what John has said. But let me just add that in the issue of deterrence, as I said in my remarks, that states that have the death penalty, they often have higher rates of homicide and murder than those that don’t. So it doesn’t deter. It does deter the person you execute, but beyond that, there is no evidence of deterrence. As a matter of fact, I would argue that when you say we must protect society from one who kills, otherwise society crumbles, it’s already crumbling. When we have schoolchildren with assault weapons killing each other, killing a teacher, young teenagers have devalued life so that they will commit suicide to kill other teenagers, it’s already crumbling.
And I think we protect society by putting that person away in prison for life without parole, and not extend the cycle of violence, and extend the attitude of the devaluation of human life. We’ve got to restore it. I think that’s the challenge of the religious community, to restore the reverence for life. Somebody recently I saw on television, CNN I believe, picked the 100 greatest songs of the 20th century. And I think the first one was “Over the Rainbow,” by — no, I was talking about Patti Labelle [Laughter] — by Judy Garland.
But the fourth one really caught me. And I confess when that song — it was “Respect” by Aretha. And I confess that when it was popular, it really didn’t hit me the theological overtones and undertones of that song. The cry for the — and a cry for reverence. And I wish we’d take the song — it was number four — move it up over the rainbow, and it’s number one because it implies that we must have reverence for life. We’ve lost reverence for life. And you don’t protect society by making killers of all of us because one of us kills.
When you execute on our behalf, you make killers of all of us, because they’re killing on our behalf. I suggest that that’s no way to protect society, that’s the way to further imperil the future of society, by making killers of us all, and by stamping killing and the taking of human life as an acceptable means of resolving our problems. We’ve got to find better ways to deal with our problems than taking a human life. If you damage the image of God, as Brother Duke put it so eloquently, by killing, you damage it so many times over by making all of us kill and damage the image of God.
MR. DIONNE: Over here, mam.
MS. ESTER KAY: My name is Ester Kay. I work for Civitas. I was just curious about the international implications, as far as how the United States, with Robert Hanson, the convicted — or he’s not convicted yet — but the FBI spy. They’re calling for, I believe, the death penalty for him. And I was wondering, is there a difference? Are you guys talking about just the United States? I mean, how does this move into national and federal, how we look at — I’m totally losing it. [Laughs.]
MR. DIONNE: Are you talking about the image of the United States abroad, or are you —
MS. KAY: Yeah, I’m talking more, yeah, the image of the United States abroad, and why is the federal government looking for the death penalty for a spy? And then, why are we having problems with our use of the death penalty is states, for just normal people. I’m sorry, that’s unclear.
MR. DIONNE: No, and also I think that it’s a good question, because it also gets at the revival of the death penalty at a federal level, which we have not used in a while. Does anybody want to sort of comment on that question?
MR. CARR: Well, just a quick comment. I do some travel with — we have groups of bishops who visit other places. And this great admiration for the United States, in many ways, our democratic values and some of the principles, in fact, we stand for, our stance against communism, usually at some point, quietly, in the Catholic community, they talk to us about how many abortions are in this country, and how many people are executed, and how we’re virtually alone on the death penalty. They say, how can such a good place have lost its sense of respect for life?
And so my own view is it doesn’t help arguing. I’ve been in a lot of church basements, and saying that France doesn’t have the death penalty and what Libya does doesn’t make much difference to many Americans. But it’s sort of a disconnect, in that there’s great admiration for the democratic process and for the values we stand for, but they wonder how this society, which is seen as a good society, in many ways, continues to carry on these practices, which threaten human life.
MR. DIAMENT: I think that also goes back to what I said before, which is everybody’s sort of wanting the death penalty for all situations and all crimes. Again, in one discussion, are you going to ever give the death penalty is any situation? I don’t think any of the sources that I have looked at, or I don’t think even the Jewish perspective would suggest that spying, per se, is the same as murder. There may be a given instance where a spy compromised people’s lives, and you show that they got murdered. I don’t know.
But think about Israel for a second. Modern Israel does not have the death penalty. Except, there’s one person that they executed, Adolf Eichmann. And you know, you can draw your line way over here, and that’s entirely appropriate. And I think people, and I don’t know, maybe Reverend Lowery would take exception to this too, but I think even some people — I don’t know what the church’s position would be also, but modern Israel said we’re not going to have a death penalty, but get us a head of the Nazi regime that killed millions of Jews. Then that’s a whole different other category of activity.
It’s so different that maybe it doesn’t teach us anything about any other activities that go on in the United States week in and week out, thank God. But I think it’s important that part of this discussion be, we’re not necessarily talking about anybody convicted of first degree murder automatically gets the death penalty. There’s a whole spectrum that you could potentially talk about, and I think that’s an often left out piece of this.
MR. DIONNE: Do you have a thought on that, Dr. Duke, and in particular, on the question of spying versus murder?
DR. DUKE: We actually spoke to that question on a resolution and included treasonous acts that results in death as something that we feel would be an appropriate response by the United States government. If someone not only imperiled the lives of others, but actually cost them their lives, that’s what we consider to be something along the lines of murder by proxy. They still accomplished the murder of another through violation of those confidences. So the Southern Baptists have spoken to that particular issue.
I think it’s good that the United States does, but we will be the champions for the weak. We will require that those who prey on the weak answer for their actions. I think that shows a respect for life, and especially for the weakest members of our society, when we say that we the people will not stand for that kind of behavior, you will not get away with that kind of behavior in this society.
MR. DIAMENT: Although again, it’s also in the case that you talk about federal laws. The death penalty is often passed for penalties when you kill a federal law enforcement officer or a police officer. I don’t think it’s appropriate that we necessarily say that those people who are certainly not weak — they’re probably carrying guns — why are we saying that murdering those particular kinds of people is any more offensive than murdering a poor person in an alley? So, again, that goes to the line drawing of what categories you’re going to necessarily apply this to.
REV. LOWERY: And it goes to the proposition that some lives are more valuable than others. And I don’t want to be a part of that judgment. I think God has made all lives sacred. And I don’t know where we’re doing all this protection of the weak. It’s the weak we kill. It’s the poor we persecute. And one of the great human rights violations is killing human life, why we must respect the dignity of life of life by destroying it. That’s a contradiction. And it’s confusing to our young people, and they are following in our footsteps, more and more violent, more and more acceptance of the use of violent means to resolve social problems. The end justifies the means.
It’s dangerous. You’re contributing to the crumbling of the social order at the present time. And the church needs to be bold. And thank God that people are pushing us, in spite of ourselves, because popular opinion in this country is moving toward abolition of the death penalty. There are less people opposed to it now. The majority of Americans still say, except when you say imprisonment without parole, then it gets down to be a pretty even proposition. But it’s about 15 percent less of Americans opposed now than it was two years ago.
MR. DIONNE: In support of it.
REV. LOWERY: I mean, yeah, opposed to the death penalty.
MR. DIONNE: There were so many hands, what I’d like to do is bring a bunch of people into the discussion from the audience. And so, if our panel can take some notes. The gentleman behind the lady in the blue sweater was first, and then Keith, and then over here, and then I’ll jump over to this side, if we could just sort of collect some comments.
MR. KENNY BYRD: I’m Kenny Byrd with Associated Baptist Press. And I was interested in the comments between Mr. Duke and Mr. Lowery linking theology, specifically to the more use of the capital punishment in the South, there in the Bible belt you discussed Mr. Lowery. And I want to know, I guess of the two of you my question would be to discuss that link a little bit more. Mr. Duke, do you think that maybe the teachings in the South in the church on Sundays, are they contributing to more of a culture of support, and indeed, higher rates of use of the death penalty? And the same question to you, Mr. Lowery.
MR. DIONNE: Could you hold just a second? That’s a great question. Keith, I’m going to try to take some notes.
MR. KEITH PAVLISCHEK: I think I’m pretty clear on Diament and Duke’s justification for the death penalty. I’m less clear about John Carr’s, because he says the state has the right to take life. Could you tell me why Joseph Lowery is wrong in his belief that the state does not have a right to take life? Now, when I say I think it’s clear here, I mean, at least Mr. Duke has placed it firmly in the covenant of retribution for the taking of life. But, John, I didn’t hear that argument coming from you. So, to get at that, could you tell me why Reverend Lowery is wrong in his, at least, implicit pacifism?
MR. DIONNE: Thank you. And one more, that lady over here, and then we’ll move over to the other side. By the way, just so people know, there’s a transcript that will be published of this discussion.
MS. WENDY DEV: My name is Wendy Dev, Congressman Steve Largent’s office. I have a question, a little bit more of a macro-level than we’ve been talking here. I’m kind of ambivalent on the whole issue, so I see both sides of it. And my question and my comment really is I think the American public hasn’t called for an abolition of the death penalty because they don’t see an alternative or just alternative for someone who takes life. I’m just on a macro-level. You see so many cases in the press where people get off early; they’re back committing more crimes.
So I just think on a macro-level, the American people don’t see a viable alternative to abolishing the death penalty. And I would just question what you think that might be in your support of that.
MR. DIONNE: Let me take those three, and then we’ll go over on this side. John Carr has to explain why he doesn’t agree with Joseph Lowery, even though he agrees with Joseph Lowery. And Reverend Lowery and Dr. Duke have to tell us about the nature of southern preaching, and then, are there alternatives to the death penalty. [Laughter]. Okay, John, I’ll put you on the griddle first.
MR. CARR: Some of my best friends are pacifists, but I’m not one of them. The state citizens have a right to self-defense. The state has a duty to protect its citizens, and it should use those means necessary to protect its citizens. An effective penal system, which can restrain the violence of those who would prey on their systems, capital punishment is justifiable. The reasons my church opposes the death penalty is two. I outline four, but it really boils down to two.
We have better ways to deal with these problems. They’re called prisons. We have a lot of them. We’ve invested millions, billions of dollars in them. And frankly, this is a parenthesis, but looking at the circus of the moment, contrast Tim McVeigh’s notoriety, us waiting for his every utterance and choice, as he seeks what he calls state assisted suicide, dying a martyr to a government he hates, versus rotting away in a jail. Which serves the public good right now? I’ll leave that alone.
But when you have a better alternative that doesn’t involve the use of violence, and secondly, when the use of violence makes other things worse, coarsens the dialogue, it serves the spirit of vengeance. It teaches the wrong lesson, which is you can teach people that killing is wrong by killing people. And it perpetuates a circle of violence. Then you ought to use the other alternative. And we’ve moved beyond not being able to stop people that rampage through a village, except to kill that person.
MR. DIONNE: So, John, your position is that the state has a right which it should not exercise.
MR. CARR: I tried to be clear. The state has a right, which it should forego, because we have better ways to handle this problem, and because exercising that right makes a lot of things worse.
MR. DIONNE: I don’t want to oversimplify the question, but essentially the nature of preaching in the southern church, and sort of, I guess, the theology of the southern church, which is an awfully big category. Dr. Duke, Reverend Lowery.
DR. DUKE: My response to the question, I guess, would be to say that there are more evangelicals in the south, in terms of percentage, who attempt to apply the biblical teachings to life. And their conclusion, then, when they do that is that capital punishment is an appropriate response, under certain circumstances, for a civil government. So I think it’s still related to a larger churchgoing community that is attempting to understand how the Bible applies to life in society.
REV. LOWERY: It fits the southern mores. You interpret the Bible to conform to southern mores. The same argument used to justify slavery. That’s why they dehumanized black folk, so they could enslave them. And there were a lot of biblical arguments for that. It is the section of the country that is the most armed. The NRA has its great rootage in the South. The Second Amendment is the right to bear arms, but it really says that to the South. It doesn’t anywhere else, but that’s what it says to the South. And I don’t believe it grants that right, and I don’t know anybody that can quote any Supreme Court that says that. But I think that is southern fried.
The statistics speak for themselves. Aside from California, the South accounts for 80 percent. Incidentally, when we talk about federal executions, 80 percent of those people who’ve been considered for federal executions are minorities, and about half of them are black, and the rest are Hispanic. But the Bible Belt is the belt with the gun on the holster. That’s just a fact of life. I really can’t say why. I wish they’d change. But it was there in segregation, you know, in separation of the races, white supremacy, all of that came out of that conscience. And we have to look at it from that perspective. I don’t think we can ignore it.
I wish they came, because I’m a southerner, born in Alabama, live in Georgia, and can’t get more southern than that. And the southern people, once they get convinced, make the best neighbors. If I had to really choose between — I don’t know what this has got to do with the death penalty right here. [Laughter.] But if I had choose between a converted southerner and a northerner who comes down south trying to impress by how liberal he is, I’ll take the converted southerner. But it’s just so damn hard to get him converted on this issue, race, and guns, and death, and the use of violence. It’s a southern culture.
And the night riots, the KKK, the use of violence to resolve problems, it’s all tied to a culture. And somewhere, we’ve got to be bold again. These evangelicals need to hear their own thing about being born again. It was the South that wouldn’t turn loose apartheid. Even South Africa. Jerry Falwell held onto it until it almost killed him. And so, I can’t — but I pray that he would lead the charge to get the South converted on this issue, because if you do, they will be the greatest advocates. The warmest people now in terms of brotherhood and sisterhood are southerners who have seen the light. Hello. Are there a few southerners here who’ve seen the light? [Laughter.]
MR. DIONNE: On the question of alternatives to the death penalty, it’s always struck me that the most obvious is life without parole. And the polling is very interesting on that. I’ve always thought one of the reasons support for the death penalty grows is because people have lost faith in the criminal justice system, and assume that if somebody was put in jail for murder, they would somehow be left out. And that life without parole was the obvious answer to that, because it said for certain kinds of crimes, people would never be let out of prison, that it would be a permanent and tough punishment. I don’t know of any other obvious alternatives. I try not to think about some of the alternatives.
MR. CARR: Part of the problem is, there’s been no discussion of alternatives because there’s no discussion. I mean, the only people more for the death penalty than the American people are American politicians. There’s been no discussion in the presidential election about how we solve this problem and what the alternatives are. So it’s been settled in public life. And the religious community and others, and now governors and others are saying, this isn’t working very well; let’s have a conversation. And I think the longer we talk about it, the less likely we’re going to say this is the solution to our problem.
MR. DIONNE: And also, I believe what explains these polls is the great drop in the crime rate, where, because people see the criminal justice system working better, whether it’s the system or something in the society, it’s made people freer to think of an alternative to the death penalty than they felt at a moment when they thought the criminal justice system wasn’t working at all.
REV. LOWERY: And it’s interesting, there’s a Republican governor in Illinois who has the boldness and the courage to say it ain’t working. And not only because the innocent people that have been executed, but because the system didn’t care, the criminal justice system doesn’t care; it’s content. And that’s why I think the church is itself indicted in not grabbing this issue. And I’m including black church folks as well as the — I’m including black church folks as well as others because it’s very difficult to stir up black Christians on this issue.
I went across Georgia; two out of three people in prison in Georgia are black, and two out of three of them hard hardly any defense at all. And there’s too little concern. And one of the reasons why I raise the question about we’re so concerned about the weak, the reason they are not concerned is because it’s the poor and the weak, not the middle class who’s being persecuted. And the warden of Sing Sing was right. We kill a few rich people, maybe if we get some rich people to volunteer to be executed, you know, maybe we can get some discussion about this.
MR. DIONNE: All right, I want to bring back the audience. Do you want to jump in real quickly?
DR. DUKE: I mean, that’s a legitimate question. What happens when you add life without the possibility of parole? Many people will choose to opt for that if they know that option is available. And yet they won’t always opt for that. A recent USA Today poll showed that even people opposed to capital punishment believe that Timothy McVeigh should be executed, even with the consideration of the possibility of life without parole. So I think that the American public is going to continue to say that there are some crimes that are just too vicious, and they’re too terrible to consider anything other than that final solution.
In some instances, I think life without the possibility of parole would be a legitimate, and should be an option that should be pursued. But I’m not sure that it answers all of those instances, and I don’t think the American public will ever say that there aren’t times when that person shouldn’t be executed. Coming back to the question of the weak, at least my response to that is, we need a better defense system. We need to provide adequate defense for those who can’t provide adequate defense for themselves, if we are going to take the position, as a people, that it is appropriate to execute those who have killed others.
The taking of life should never be a simple thing; it should never be a vindictive activity. If we’re going to take that position, we need to make sure that we provide adequate defense regardless of the cost and the time that it takes to accomplish that. And at this point, we also see that in too many instances, that is not happening, and it needs to be corrected.
MR. DIONNE: I want to get a few voices in quickly. We’re starting to run over time. This whole side of the room was discriminated against, so I want to start over here. And if people could be brief, so as many people we can get in as possible. And then brief closing comments. This great panel keeps trying to convert each other, and that’s good. Over here, please.
MS. LORI GRANGE: Thank you. Hi. My name is Lori Grange, and I’m with The Pew Charitable Trusts. And we’re certainly proud of the job Melissa and the Forum have been doing. Pleased to be here. I wanted to ask the panel if you could indicate whether any and/or all of your congregations have made any statement about the state’s responsibility toward those convicted prisoners who have been exonerated? In other words, phrasing the question, if you believe that the state has the power to take a life, or even if you don’t, what’s the state’s responsibility for compensating those who have been unfairly convicted, and indeed, some of whom have spent years and years on death row? What’s the state’s responsibility towards those folks?
MR. DIONNE: That’s a great question. Other hands over here, please. You two together can share the microphone.
MS. SABRINA NEFF: Hi, my name is Sabrina Neff, and I’m with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. And my question is very much addressing what Dr. Duke just mentioned about the reforms that are necessary for the system. And my question is actually to John Carr, asking him to respond to Duke’s comments about not imposing a moratorium while attempting, at the same time, to reform the system, and whether or not you think that that’s a viable or a possible alternative?
MR. DIONNE: And then, right over there.
MR. TIM STANTON: Hi, I’m Tim Stanton with Unitarian Universalists for Alternatives to the Death Penalty. My question is for Reverend Lowery. In envisioning a society without the death penalty, 40 years ago, you were met with violence and did not act with violence. And how did that change you, not so much in pragmatic things like getting the passage of the Civil Rights Act, but on a personal, even now, as a Unitarian will use the word, spiritual basis?
MR. DIONNE: And then, the lady in front, right there, please.
MS. NOTAKA EADDY: Hi, my name is Notaka Eaddy, and I’m with the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. And my question stems from the question of a moratorium. You’ve mentioned that you and the Southern Baptist Church have accepted that there is standards and bias in those that have been innocent that have been convicted under the death penalty. And with the growing number of statistics showing that our criminal justice is inherently biased, and that we can never ever be absolutely sure of someone’s guilt, how do you still justify the death penalty and only see moratorium as a vehicle of reform, with the idea that our system is so inherently biased that we really, it’s hard to reform a system that’s inherently biased?
MR. DIONNE: And two more. That lady in the back, way in the back has been very patient, and then this gentleman up front over here. And I apologize to everyone else.
REV. LOWERY: He’s no gentleman, he’s a preacher. [Laughter.]
MR. DIONNE: I have to ask him to be brief anyway.
MS. JOYCE LADNER: Joyce Ladner at Brookings. I want to ask Reverend Lowery, do you think that the younger, more enlightened southerners’ views on the death penalty are beginning to change? Are they less inclined to want to quit peoples’ deaths than the older people? And I ask that question because all over the South — and I come from Mississippi; that’s a little deeper than Alabama — if, in fact, southerners can be enlightened in education and politics? And the state of Mississippi had no black elected officials in the sixties, and now they have the largest number of any state in the nation — you can just go through a whole number of variables, areas of life and see that there are some changes, subtle for the most part. But on this issue of death penalty, do the young people feel differently?
MR. DIONNE: And finally, for the last sermon.
MR. WARDELL PAYNE: Hi, I’m Wardell Payne. I’m the deputy executive director for the Congress of National Black Churches. And first of all, I wanted to make sure the record is straight, the Congress of National Black Churches is definitely involved in terms of prophetic voice and dealing with this issue. But in particular, I’d like to have the panels address the issue of reducing the age of criminal responsibility, and how that impacts on this whole debate as well.
MR. DIONNE: Thank you very much. And we apply, in a non-sectarian way, the rule, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. So you get to begin, and we will go down the panel to John. Reverend Lowery.
REV. LOWERY: That question directed to me was — two, I think. What was your question on how I reacted to violence? I missed the first part of it. The preacher up here was talking.
MR. STANTON: [Inaudible.]
REV. LOWERY: I think it deepened my appreciation for life. I was almost killed 24 miles from where I was born in Decatur, Alabama, going to Huntsville. I’m a northerner, north Alabama, in Huntsville, and Decatur was 24 miles away from that where they shot four young people and tried to kill me and my wife. It deepened my appreciation for life, and made me see the ugliness of violence, violence at its very ugliest level. They were trying to kill young children, pre-teenagers.
And I think that I found that it’s a burden off me. I don’t see violence as a viable means of dealing with social problems. He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword, to be biblical. On the question of young people in the South, I wish I knew that answer. I’m not aware of any scientific studies…. The problem in the South is with the politicians. And the church has not dared to stand up to the politicians.
We got a fellow up here in this city running around as a Democrat, voting like a republican. What is his name? Zigzag Zell Miller, who was not satisfied with the three strikes, you’re out. He pushed two strikes, you’re out. And the whole issue of mandatory sentencing, and that’s suddenly taken away from churches’ discretion to be applied to individual cases. It’s a thing about jails.
And at the same time, we’re privatizing the jails so that we have incarceration for profit. So that that means you have to be concerned about your occupancy rate, because you’re going to make profit like a hotel. You’ve got to have a certain level of occupancy. And so they keep buying more and more poor folks to put in jail, and most of them are black, and brown, and white.
I don’t know the answer to that. I do know the politicians, very few of them have changed on this subject. The decline in the crime rate, I think, is going to face them to find some alternatives to sell their wares and to prove that they’re competent to hold public office. But I wish I knew the answer. I would hope for, I would pray so, but I still hope that one morning I’ll wake up and see the church, the Southern Baptist Convention, that was bold enough two years ago to apologize for slavery.
Maybe that’s a little crack. I don’t know. It took a long time. How many years? A hundred and thirty-some years. But that’s a crack that’s going to lead to a more humane [situation]. In Atlanta, some very good friends of mine, all white clergy, Protestant, issued a bold statement the other day that they objected to the use of the electric chair to kill. They wanted to support lethal injection. I thought that was so wonderful of them, as though lethal injection is humane. There is no humane way to destroy a human life. But maybe that’s a crack. You know, maybe I just have to be a little more patient with the unfolding of the kingdom in the hearts of my fellow southerners.
DR. DUKE: I think two questions were directed to me. One was, how can we execute someone when we assume there is inherent bias in the system? I think we have enough checks and balances, we have enough appeal processes, we have enough ways to circumvent that bias, I believe. And where there isn’t enough, we need to reform it. So, even though there may be instances where someone who is innocent is convicted, and certainly we’ve seen that that’s been the case, I believe it’s because there is such a long process involved before you can finally execute someone, if those instances can be found.
My opinion is that the issue of beyond a shadow of a doubt is appropriate. If there is any possibility of doubt, capital punishment should not be sought, and those who are responsible for making the decision whether or not they’ll pursue capital charges should consider that more seriously sometimes than they do. It should not be an opportunity to make points in the community. It should be because there is absolute evidence that there is guilt that should be punished in that kind of way.
So there certainly is inequity, there are problems, but I think they can be resolved. I think we have a process that enables us to find those cases of injustice, and I think we’re refining that.
The question about compensating those who have been wrongly convicted is a powerful question. I can’t tell you what would be appropriate compensation, but certainly, someone has had part of their life stolen from them, and something should be done in order to compensate that person in some kind of way. Money certainly isn’t going to replace lost time. That is an important question that I think needs to be visited.
Finally, the question of the lowering the age at which we are prepared to execute. Executing children scares me. We’ve got to say there is a point where a child, even though that child knows that he or she is killing somebody, still does not fully understand the consequences of that decision, has got to be taken into consideration. We cannot kill our children. We’ve got to find out why our children are killing, but we cannot kill our children.
MR. DIAMENT: Actually, we don’t think that the checks and balances that are currently in place are sufficient. While the Columbia Law School study that came out last year had some problems with it, clearly, there are enough problems out there that have been raised in various contexts where you just can’t credibly say that the system is working properly. And that’s why we support the moratorium. And we’re not worried about the moratorium being a first step towards abolition or not. It’s the right thing to do, and we should do it.
And then, you can get into a host of proposals to possibly put in place to deal with these situations. Perhaps there should be special prosecutors who only deal with death penalty cases and are not prosecutors that run for election. Perhaps there should be special defense attorneys physically assigned to these cases. Where it’s relevant, there should be DNA technology made available. There’s also got to be a way found to get at the racial disparity issues.
And all of this is critical. And while, again, we’re certainly not going to legislate in the United States the Jewish teachings about, you know, two simultaneous witnesses, and warnings on the spot, and so on and so forth. But again, that clearly indicates a value of whatever extraordinary steps you can put in place to get at fairness and accuracy are absolutely critical.
The points about a culture of life that have been put on the table are not to be taken lightly at all. And I think the best thing, like a number of other issues that are being debated right now in the American public square, if you will, is that we’re talking about very serious issues in a very serious way. And the most important thing is that we do it seriously, and we allow for subtlety, and nuance, and complexity.
And this is an issue where we have to figure out a way to strike a balance. On the one hand, going back to one of the cases I referred to earlier, when the witnesses are admonished before the court, and if they’re quoted a verse from the account of Cain and Able, and they’re told that the verse says “The blood of your brother is crying out from the ground.” Actually the Hebrew that’s used is the plural for blood, the bloods of your brother. And the rabbis point out that this is to indicate that if a capital defendant is executed, you’re not only executing him, you’re cutting off any potential progeny and descendants that come down the line. And that’s not going to be entered into lightly in any way whatsoever.
On the other hand, one rabbinic commentator, again, talking about how the crime of murder is singled out, even as opposed to what are considered more grievous sins — idolatry, sexual immorality, various others. The crime of murder is singled out for continuing to have the death penalty potentially imposed against it, because in Maimonides’ words, “Someone has had in his hands — this transgression is completely evil, and any good deed that he has done in any of his days cannot redeem him from this wrongdoing.”
That part possibly of constructing an appropriate culture of life as well. If that’s the lens through which we view murder, and not when we flip on the 10:00 news, we hear about however many murders have gone on in the city or locality on that day, and they just sort of blow by us because we’re so used to hearing about it. But if you stop to think about how each murder committed is really the taking of a human life, that’s part of reinstating the culture of life as well. Is this the best way to go about for the United States? I don’t know. But we have to have a discussion. It’s wonderful that Pew is helping us have this discussion, and it will go forward over the coming months.
MR. CARR: The only thing worse than showing up late for an accident is going out and finding your car towed. So I’ll be brief. I think the question to me was, given our conviction that this is not what we should be doing, what do we feel about reform measures and moratoria which takes steps but not full steps? The Catholic Bishops’ Conference will work and has worked to restrain, restrict to stop and end the death penalty. We know that’s going to be a long time. This is a matter of persuasion, not proclamation, where a lot of education and a lot of dialogue has been said.
So reforms now are essential. They’re the right thing to do. It means fewer innocent people wind up on death row, it means we’ll address some of the racial disparities, which are indefensible, it means that people facing death will have better counsel; there will be more justice in the system, and fewer people will die. And so, we’re going to work for those. There’s the Innocents Protection Act on Capitol Hill. I think all of us could work to see the strong version of that passed.
We are convinced the more we talk about it, the more we look at this, the more we think about this, the less likely we are to believe that it’s going to solve our problems; that, in fact, you cannot — Catholics are sometimes accused of being biblically challenged. So let me be the last one to quote scripture. [Laughter.]
If we think about this, I don’t know if it takes 10 years, or 20 years, or 50 years, we will choose right, so that we and our descendants can live. Deuteronomy: “I set before you life and death. So choose life.” We have a chance, and it’s going to take a while, but this kind of conversation advances that dialogue, where we sit down and say, how are we going to address the terrible violence and crime in our country? And our conviction is, in the end, we will not say that you can teach that killing is wrong by killing.
MR. DIONNE: John, thank you. Melissa wanted to say a few words. I wanted to say just two things in closing. One is the Reverend Lowery has now provided the Pew Forum with a perfect summary of how most people feel in the course of these conversations, quote: “It’s so damn hard to get him converted,” he said. I am very grateful for that comment.
The other thing I want to say is, I think this issue is debatable again in American public life after a very long period when it really wasn’t. And I think that is a good thing. And I think we owe the religious community a great debt for raising both the moral and intellectual level of that discussion, and that includes the people in this audience. I apologize to all I didn’t get a chance to call on, but I’m very grateful to you all. Melissa.
MS. ROGERS: Thank you all for hanging in there and staying for a very interesting discussion. And a special thanks to the panelists to discuss these very serious issues in a very productive way. We really appreciate that. And I wanted to say thank you to the whole Forum staff, but particularly to Staci Simmons, who had a very major role in envisioning and executing this event. So I want to thank her particularly, and thank you for coming. Please join us the next time.