A Step in the Right Direction: A Public Policy Statement about Capital Punishment in America

A Step in the Right Direction: A Public Policy Statement about Capital Punishment in America May 31, 2014

A Step in the Right Direction: A Public Policy Statement about Capital Punishment in America

The Constitution Project (TCP) is a highly regarded, influential “think tank” headquartered in Washington, D.C. It supports non-partisan research into public policies and practices and issues occasional policy recommendations aimed at government entities (as well as the public in general). Probably because of my outspoken opposition to capital punishment, I was invited to participate in a round table discussion of the subject hosted by TCP in Washington, D.C. About 25 evangelical leaders gathered around a table for a day of listening and conversation—about TCP’s proposed policy statement which was later issued (May 9, 2014) under the title “Irreversible Error: Recommended Reforms for Preventing and Correcting Errors in the Administration of Capital Punishment.” The policy statement itself is available at TCP’s web site. Just “Google” “The Constitution Project,” go to its web site, and wait until you see this policy statement appear. Click on the icon (cover of the statement book).

The statement was put together by a committee including many respected American jurists, attorneys general, philosophers, elected officials and ethicists. You can see the list “inside” the statement itself. The “gist” of the statement is that capital punishment in America stands in need of reforms—including regulations that would, if implemented by state governments and the federal government, virtually guarantee that no innocent person is executed. The statement includes statistics and case studies demonstrating conclusively that, at present, no such comprehensive guarantees exist. After viewing the evidences marshaled by the committee and TCP, it is difficult, if not impossible, to conclude that innocent people have not been executed and that innocent people will not be executed if these regulations are not implemented.

Here is just one very compelling paragraph from TCP’s policy statement: “In 2009, the American Law Institute—the organization that promulgated the blueprint for death penalty laws in the U.S. for the last fifty years—repealed all provisions of its model penal code related to the death penalty ‘in light of the currently intractable institutional and structural obstacles to ensuring a minimally adequate system for administering capital punishment’.” (xxx) TCP’s policy recommendations then go through a long list of policy changes needed to “safeguard innocence and prevent wrongful executions.” Some of these policy changes have been implemented by the federal government and some states; many of them have not yet been implemented by some states and by the federal government. These have to do, for example, with convicted defendants’ right to challenge death sentences based on inadequate defense, lack of access to exculpatory evidence, prima facie racial prejudice in the process, and denial of right to appeal based on unreasonable deadlines.

These policy recommendations are being put forward by TCP’s Death Penalty Committee which includes both Republicans and Democrats.

Together with other evangelical leaders I was briefed on these recommendations at the roundtable discussion in Washington, D.C. earlier this year. The consensus of the evangelical leaders, with which I agreed and agree now, was that the recommendations are minimally necessary to safeguard the process from executing innocent individuals. We were shocked at some of the case studies we were shown and told about. Many of us expressed that we were surprised these policies were not already in place in every state (and in the federal system). At the same time, many (I would say most) of us also expressed the opinion that if these policies changes were to be made in every state executions would dwindle to almost none. We (most of us) also expressed the opinion that it would be better for TCP simply to oppose capital punishment as indefensible in an ethical, civilized society, but TCP explained that these are realistic proposals agreed to by many jurists, elected officials (attorneys general, etc.), and ethics experts who support the death penalty. In other words, “better this than what we have now given that abolishing capital punishment altogether does not seem likely” (my paraphrase of what I thought I heard from TCP).

I want to add my voice, as I added my signature to the statement by evangelical leaders (which is available at TCP’s web site), to support these policy recommendations. They are reasonable and necessary insofar as governments really do not want to execute innocent people. Since capital punishment was reinstated by the U.S. Supreme Court twenty-some years ago, the TCP knows of over one hundred exonerations of death row inmates. But that may only be the tip of the iceberg in terms of how many innocent people are actually on death row.

I now want to repeat my long-standing opinion, expressed here several times, that Christians ought to oppose capital punishment as theologically and ethically wrong. Given some recent events, it is not a stretch to say it is also barbaric—evidence of a lack of civilization (humane society). I have given my reasons here before. I will only repeat two of them. First, it is simply not possible ever to know with absolute certainty that a person committed the crime of which he or she is accused. An individual eye witness may “know” with ninety-nine percent certainty, but it is impossible for a jury or a judge (not eyewitnesses) to know with one hundred percent certainty. Second, from a specifically Christian perspective, unnecessary killing is simply always wrong. And capital punishment today is always unnecessary. We have prisons fully capable of keeping violent people off the streets and away from potential victims.

I will go so far as to say, as a Christian theologian, that, in my opinion, a person who participates in an execution is sinning. I do not know how God deals with that, but all sin is serious and killing especially so. (I do believe there are degrees of sin in God’s eyes and killing is certainly very serious.) I would warn a person who participates in an execution at any point in the process—from mixing the chemicals to be used to actually pushing down the plunger that sends the chemicals into the convicted person’s body—that he or she is grievously sinning and needs to repent and stop that activity.

P.S.—to those who wish to respond with a comment: I will only post comments (and questions) that further the discussion. I will no longer post comments (or questions) that misrepresent what I actually wrote or that attempt to hijack my blog for the purpose of using it to promote a different agenda. The purpose of this blog is for me to express my views and engage in civil, respectful dialogue with those who have questions, agree, or disagree.

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