New Conversations about the Death Penalty (September, 2012)


Children's Story: Ed Young, “Seven Blind Mice”

Reading: Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Network of Mutuality”


I’ve heard it said that most people take a position on capital punishment at a very young age, maybe as young as seven or eight, and that they rarely change their minds. This is true in my case. I’ve been opposed to the death penalty for as long as I can remember. I don’t even recall exactly when it was that my point of view took shape. When I was still a child, I struggled with the question of the moral validity of killing someone as punishment, given that there is biblical support for this form of justice. I will return to this question later.

As I pondered the morality of killing for any reason, it was clear to me it could never be okay to execute an innocent person. At the same time, I recognized that there would always be a possibility of human error in the administration of justice. And so, very early on I realized I could not accept even a very small risk of wrongful conviction, and that made all the other arguments about the death penalty superfluous—for me.

When I speak with people who hold a different view, I’m sometimes asked how I would feel if a child of mine were murdered. I will concede that I do not claim the authority of someone with first-hand experience of the death penalty. I am not related to a murder victim. Nobody I love has been executed. Nobody in my family has been convicted—rightly or wrongly—of a capital crime. I have not served as a police officer, prosecutor, defense attorney, prison guard, death row chaplain, or warden. I have met people in many of these categories working together to end state executions. I feel humbled by their willingness to use the moral authority they have earned by painful experience to promote their vision of justice.

My first encounter with a victim’s family member working against the death penalty was twelve or thirteen years ago, when Bud Welch spoke at a national meeting in San Francisco. Bud’s twenty-three year old daughter, Julie Marie, had died in the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. He devoted much of his talk to remembering Julie’s special qualities and her plans for the future, so tragically cut short.

Then he described how for several months, he hoped for the death of the killers, and would have put them to death with his own hands. He talked about his grief and rage and pain and hate. One day, while listening to a song Julie had liked on the car radio, he suddenly remembered how she had felt about capital punishment. This flash of memory began to transform his grief, his anger diminished, and he turned his energy toward honoring her memory by working to get the death penalty abolished.

Bud described paying a call on the father of Timothy McVeigh, just to let him know he bore the family no ill will. On the Forgiveness Project website he writes about this experience:

As I walked away from the house I realized that until that moment I had walked alone, but now a tremendous weight had lifted from my shoulders. I had found someone who was a bigger victim of the Oklahoma bombing than I was, because while I can speak in front of thousands of people and say wonderful things about Julie, if Bill McVeigh meets a stranger he probably doesn’t even say he had a son....

Last week, Alicia talked about Unitarian Universalist minister Cathy Harrington, whose daughter Leslie was murdered in 2004. When I served as guest speaker at our UU congregation in Napa a couple of months ago, I met another victim's mother, Margaret Kelso; her daughter, Ruth, was raped and murdered in 1992. She came up to me after the service and said “I just want people to know we don't all want revenge.” She shared an article with me she had written called “Capital Punishment: the Application of Religious Principles in Tough Situations.” The man who killed Ruth was named, ironically, “Love.” Margaret wrote

I knew that the execution of Mr. Love would not just be eliminating the world of a very flawed human, but would also have a destructive ripple effect on innocent people around him. The UU phrase “interdependent web” kept haunting me....

Margaret goes on to explain how in order to sustain a capital prosecution, victims' family members must remain stuck in the anger stage of grief for a debilitating period of time. She describes how violent crime produces waves of harm, extending from the victim and the victim’s loved ones to the witnesses, police officers, detectives, attorneys, courtroom staff, judges, juries, offenders’ family members, and ultimately, the public. Much of this harm could be mitigated by renouncing the pursuit of capital convictions.

There were large numbers of murder victims’ family members present at the annual meeting of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty in Harrisburg, PA, which I attended in 2009. They tell their stories to transform their grief and anger as they work to transform the world. Margaret alluded to the psychological injury to civil servants who work within the criminal justice system. We heard direct witness from Ron McAndrew, a retired prison warden from Florida who still feels haunted by the men whose execution teams he served on. He explained how a warden has to deal personally with the condemned, take the order for his last meal, record his last words, watch him die. Ron did all of these things as part of his job. Even when it is sanctioned by the state, killing is violence, and we ought to consider the spiritual and psychological cost to individuals charged with carrying out death sentences—in our name. Although he worked many years in this position as a believer in capital punishment, Ron McAndrew now spends much of his time working to get it abolished. Closer to home, former San Quentin warden Jeanne Woodford has been in the news lately. She supports the SAFE California initiative—Prop. 34—and serves as executive director of Death Penalty Focus, an abolitionist organization based in San Francisco.

At the meeting in Harrisburg, in addition to victims' family members and law enforcement representatives, I also heard the testimony of death row exonerees—survivors of wrongful convictions. Curtis McCarty, who has been out for just a few years after serving twenty-one years in prison—nineteen of them on death row—for a murder he did not commit. All this time, he pointed out, the person who actually committed the murder was still out on the street. Curtis was the 124th death row inmate to be exonerated since 1973 [Furman v Georgia, 1972]. There were several failed appeals, then he was finally cleared on the basis of DNA evidence. His was a textbook case of prosecutorial misconduct. Curtis speaks with quiet intensity of his history of crime and drug addiction; he does not claim to be virtuous. He tells about his belief in the legal system, how for the first several years, he was confident that the truth of his innocence in the case would come to light. As time went on, Curtis became more and more discouraged. Now he appreciates the opportunity to tell his story as a way to heal the bitter anger that built up, year by year. I found his loss of faith in the system almost as heartbreaking as the twenty-one years he wasted in prison. One hundred forty-one death row inmates have been exonerated since 1973, and as many as ten have been executed despite strong evidence of innocence.

The stories I’ve heard move me profoundly, and they do strengthen my stance against capital punishment. So also does the convincing evidence that it fails to deter crime, diverts funds away from more constructive solutions to social problems, and perpetuates racial discrimination. These conclusions are well documented and readily available. But what about the moral case for the death penalty: that some crimes are so heinous, so monstrous, so evil, that justice demands retribution?

I offer two points of view on this question, both from voices I regard as prophetic. The first is that of Martin Buber, a twentieth-century Jewish philosopher known for his “I-thou” philosophy. Buber categorically opposed capital punishment, even for Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, saying, “I do not accept the state’s right to take the life of any man.” It wasn’t a matter of forgiveness or reconciliation, but that

For crimes such as the Nazis had committed a death penalty was meaningless. The legal concept of punishment could not be logically applied, and man’s imagination could not conceive a fit penalty for such a man, as it could scarcely conceive his crimes themselves….Here the world of man-made law and retribution failed ….

Pressed to say what, then, should be done with him, Buber came up with an imaginative idea for the punishment of Eichmann: that he should be put to work on a kibbutz, to witness every day that the Jewish people had survived his plans for them.

We should apply justice tempered with imagination. And this would serve a far greater moral and historical purpose than killing him. That is too facile and commonplace a way out of this unique dilemma.

(Hodes, Martin Buber: An Intimate Portrait, pp. 111-114). (Eichmann was executed in 1962.)

The other prophetic voice I will invoke is that of Bill Sinkford, former UUA President. He issued a statement after visiting the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville following the attack on July 27, 2008. A man had entered the sanctuary with a gun in a guitar case during a children’s pageant; two people had been killed, and six others were wounded. Sinkford wrote:

The shootings here in Knoxville have shocked and grieved us all. …. This crime was the action of one man who clearly must have lost the battle with his personal demons. When I was asked if the shooter would go to hell, I replied that he must have been living in his own private hell for years.

Theologically, the universalist view holds that God condemns no one: all souls, either immediately or eventually, ascend to heaven. [David Adkisson pled guilty to two counts of murder and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.]

I take my stand with Martin Buber, that the state does not have the right to take the life of any person, even one judged deserving of the most severe punishment. With Bill Sinkford, I regard hell as a human phenomenon, one that people of faith and goodwill work together to overcome.

I do not believe that capital punishment was originally proposed as a rational remedy to any of the problems it is supposed to address. Human beings have been killing each other for revenge since long before there were laws, and we’ve managed to find ways to justify and codify it. The late Kay McCann, a longtime social activist and a member of this congregation, echoed Martin Buber when she used to say that the persistence of the death penalty represents a “failure of the imagination.”

So let’s imagine: what if we opened our minds and hearts to new ideas and new voices. Let's imagine: what if we, as a society, went back to the drawing board, and considered what would be the most effective approaches to ensuring public safety, discouraging violence, enforcing laws, and responding to the needs of victims and victims’ families? Let’s imagine: how might we achieve these goals without adding to the violence of an offender’s act by engaging in more killing? Let’s imagine: what might justice look like in a community where truth and reconciliation take the place of revenge? Let’s imagine: how might justice prevail, order and tranquility be maintained, innocence and trust be allowed to flourish? There will we find affirmation and celebration of life, at the crossroads of justice and healing.