Religion

Louisiana Legislature Considers Bipartisan Measure to Abolish Death Penalty

Three Louisiana legislators, all of them former law enforcement officials, have proposed legislation to abolish the state's death penalty. Sen. Dan Claitor (R-Baton Rouge, pictured), a former New Orleans prosecutor who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, is the primary author of Senate Bill 142, which would eliminate the death penalty for offenses committed on or after August 1, 2017. The bill's counterpart in the House of Representatives, House Bill 101, is sponsored by Rep. Terry Landry (D-Lafayette), a former state police superintendent, with support from Rep. Steven Pylant (R-Winnsboro), a former sheriff. Both bills would replace the death penalty with a sentence of life without parole. In urging repeal, Sen. Claitor said he was "well aware of the need to create an environment that is hostile to violent crime and criminals. Yet," he said, "the death penalty has failed as deterrence to such horrendous criminal activity. Moreover, the death penalty is rarely utilized in Louisiana, and, when it is, the costs of appeals in these cases are extraordinarily burdensome to our law-abiding taxpayers.” Landry, who led the Louisiana State Police portion of the investigation that led to the murder conviction and death sentencing of Derrick Todd Lee, also expressed concerns about the cost and public safety value of the death penalty. "I've evolved to where I am today," he said. "I think it may be a process that is past its time." Louisiana's last execution was in 2010, but the Department of Corrections estimates that housing death row inmates costs $1.52 million per year, and the Louisiana Public Defender Board spends about 28% of its annual budget on capital cases, totaling about $9.5 million last fiscal year. That cost has also contributed to Louisiana's chronic underfunding of public defender services for non-capital cases across the state. The Catholic Church's opposition to the death penalty is also a factor in the heavily Catholic state. Sen. Claitor said his Catholic faith brought about a change of heart on the issue, and Sen. Fred Mills (R-Parks), said a statement of support for repeal, expected to be released by the Louisiana Catholic bishops, "would weigh heavy on me and on the vast majority of my constituents."

Bishops Ask Georgia Prosecutor to Respect Wishes of Murdered Priest, Drop Death Penalty

Prosecutors in Augusta, Georgia are seeking the death penalty against a man accused of murdering the Rev. Rene Robert (pictured), despite their knowledge that the Franciscan priest had requested that the death penalty not be used "under any circumstances" if he were killed. On January 31, Catholic Bishops from Georgia and Florida traveled to Augusta to meet with Hank Sims, the acting district attorney for the Augusta Judicial Circuit, asking him to respect Reverend Robert's wishes and to withdraw capital charges against Steven Murray. They also delivered a petition signed by more than 7,400 people from Rev. Robert's diocese in St. Augustine, Florida, asking that the Reverend's wishes be honored. In his work as a Catholic priest, Rev. Robert had devoted his life to serving people convicted of crimes and those struggling with addiction and mental health problems. He had worked with Murray through his ministry. Twenty years before he was killed, Rev. Robert signed a "Declaration of Life" that stated: "I hereby declare that should I die as a result of a violent crime, I request that the person or persons found guilty of homicide for my killing not be subject to or put in jeopardy of the death penalty under any circumstances, no matter how heinous their crime, or how much I have suffered." His declaration also requested that the Declaration of Life be admitted as evidence at trial if the prosecution sought the death penalty for his murder, and asked that the Governor “take whatever action is necessary” to prevent any person convicted of his murder from being executed. “During my life," he wrote, "I want to feel confident that under no circumstances whatsoever will my death result in the capital punishment of another human being.” At a press conference before the meeting, St. Augustine Diocese's Bishop Felipe Estevez expressed the bishops' opposition to capital punishment. "Imposing a death sentence as a consequence of killing wrongly perpetuates a cycle of violence in our community," he said. "The death penalty only contributes to an ever-growing disrespect for the sacredness of human life. … Societies remain safe when violent criminals are in prison for life without parole." The views of Rev. Robert and the bishops reflect the Catholic Church's longstanding opposition to the death penalty, which Pope Francis reiterated in an address to Congress in 2015.

Alabama Faith Leaders Hold Panel on Death Penalty, Spotlight 'Rocky' Myers' Case of Possible Innocence

Inspired by the case of Robin "Rocky" Myers (pictured), an intellectually disabled and possibly innocent Alabama death row prisoner whom an elected state judge sentenced to death despite a 9-3 jury recommendation for life, a panel of faith leaders gathered in Montgomery, Alabama to discuss religious views on the death penalty and the intersection of faith and justice. Before the discussion began, the faith leaders and the audience viewed a screening of a new documentary on Myers' case describing why his lawyers believe he is innocent. The documentary explained that no forensic evidence links Myers to the crime and that the prosecution witness who identified him has since recanted his testimony. Myers' case also highlights other problems in the death penalty system. A neuropsychologist who evaluated Myers diagnosed him with intellectual disability, a condition that would make him ineligible for execution, but courts have not granted him relief. His disability hindered Myers' opportunities to have his appeals heard. His attorney abandoned him without notice, and Myers, who cannot read, did not know his appeal deadlines had expired until a fellow inmate read him a notification letter from the state. Finally, Myers' jury voted 9-3 that he should be sentenced to life, but—in a practice no state other than Alabama still allows— the trial judge overrode the jury's recommendation and sentenced Myers to death. After the film presented Myers' story, leaders from a variety of faith traditions led a discussion about justice and capital punishment. The multi-faith panel included representatives of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam and featured Rabbi Elliot Stevens, Sister Gilda Marie Bell, a Catholic nun of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, and Aya Zaied, a youth leader for the East Montgomery Islamic Society. Zaied summarized Islamic views on the issue, saying, "If you claim Islam, … then justice is your responsibility. We try to teach that to our children really young so they understand if (someone is) hurting, then I’m hurting. We’re all in this together."

MLK Day 2017: The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Death Penalty

On Martin Luther King Day, DPIC looks at the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King's views on capital punishment. In a November 1957 article in Ebony, Dr. King was asked "Do you think God approves the death penalty for crimes like rape and murder?" He responded, "I do not think that God approves the death penalty for any crime, rape and murder included.... Capital punishment is against the better judgment of modern criminology, and, above all, against the highest expression of love in the nature of God."  Several months later, Alabama executed Jeremiah Reeves, a young black man who was 16 years old when he was charged with raping a white woman. Tried before an all-white jury, Reeves was convicted and sentenced to death. In April 1958, Dr. King stood on the state capitol steps during a prayer pilgrimage protesting what he called "a tragic and unsavory injustice." Dr. King said: "A young man, Jeremiah Reeves, who was little more than a child when he was first arrested, died in the electric chair for the charge of rape. Whether or not he was guilty of this crime is a question that none of us can answer. But the issue before us now is not the innocence or guilt of Jeremiah Reeves. Even if he were guilty, it is the severity and inequality of the penalty that constitutes the injustice. Full grown white men committing comparable crimes against Negro girls are rare ever punished, and are never given the death penalty or even a life sentence. It was the severity of Jeremiah Reeves penalty that aroused the Negro community, not the question of his guilt or innocence." Later, in his sermon "Loving Your Enemies," Dr. King preached a philosophy that had no room for capital retribution: "Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction."

NEW VOICES: Regretting Execution, Murder Victim's Family Urges Governor to Commute Missouri's Death Row

When Missouri executed Jeff Ferguson in 2014 for the rape and murder of Kelli Hall, her father said the Hall family "believed the myth that Ferguson’s execution would close our emotional wounds." At that time, Jim Hall told reporters "It's over, thank God." But, he now says, it wasn't. In an op-ed in the Columbia Daily Tribune, Mr. Hall writes that his family has "come to deeply regret [Ferguson's] execution" and appeals to Governor Jay Nixon to commute the death sentences of the 25 men remaining on the state's death row. Hall says that several weeks after Ferguson was executed, his family viewed a documentary film that featured comments from Ferguson that "conveyed such genuine remore for the pain he caused both our family and his because of his horrible actions." A few months later, the Halls also learned that Ferguson had been a leader in the prison's hospice, GED, and restorative justice programs, including one in which prisoners listened to victims share the devastating impact the crimes had on their lives.The Hall family was able to forgive Ferguson as soon as they saw the film, and Mr. Hall says "my family wishes we had known of his involvement in these programs and been invited to participate. ... I'm convinced significant healing would have occurred for us all if our family had engaged in a frank conversation with him at the prison. I wish I had had the chance -- consistent with my Christian beliefs -- to have told him in person that I forgave him for what he did to our innocent and precious daughter." While applauding Governor Nixon for "his strong advocacy of restorative justice," Mr. Hall writes "[t]he death penalty ... stands as the concept's polar opposite." Commuting all of Missouri's death sentences to life in prison without parole, he says, "would be a true gesture of restorative justice."

Editorial Boards, Oklahoma Conference of Churches Oppose Death Penalty Ballot Measure

The editorial boards of Oklahoma's two major newspapers and the leadership of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches are all urging voters to vote no on State Question 776, which would enshrine the death penalty in the Oklahoma constitution and remove from state courts the power to declare the death penalty cruel and unusual punishment. The Oklahoman called SQ 776 "unnecesary," saying it, "should be rejected by Oklahoma voters on Nov. 8." The Tulsa World also encouraged a no vote on 776, saying, "It’s intended effect is to allow supporters of the death penalty to feel as if they have done something, even if they haven’t. But there’s a problem with such symbolic votes. The measure has no intended consequences, but the nature of unintended consequences is that they are unintended, and sometimes unpredictable." Both editorials emphasize that the measure adds to the state constitution powers that the Legislature already has, including designating a new method of execution if the current method is ruled unconstitutional. The Oklahoma Conference of Churches joined the two editorial boards in discouraging passage of the measure. In an op-ed for the Tulsa World, the group's executive director, Rev. Dr. William Tabbernee (pictured), drew on a recent SoonerPoll survey that found, "a majority of Oklahomans (52.5 percent) favor abolishing the death penalty, if replaced by life without parole. Only 27 percent of Oklahoma’s population remains strongly in favor of capital punishment." He describes the recent problems with Oklahoma's administration of the death penalty, including the use of the wrong drug in the execution of Charles Warner. In response to those problems, the Oklahoma Death Penalty Review Commission was formed to examine the capital punishment system, and is expected to release a report early in 2017. "This measure pre-empts the work of the commission and, if passed, would permit execution by virtually any means if lethal injection drugs are unavailable," Tabbernee said. "Rather than enshrining the death penalty in the state’s Constitution now, we should let the commission finish its work and offer its recommendations on the way to proceed in the future." In an opinion piece in the Guthrie News Leader, Republican Logan County Commissioner Marven Goodman called the ballot question "a huge step in the wrong direction," noting that Oklahoma, while executing 112 people, has had 10 death-row exonerees. Goodman said, "as a conservative, I wouldn't trust the government to regulate shoe laces, let alone administer a program that kills its citizens, but that's exactly what we have."

NEW VOICES: Latino Evangelical Leaders Call For End to Capital Punishment

Leaders of national Latino evangelical groups are calling for an end to the death penalty, citing both religious convictions and practical concerns about the fairness of capital punishment. Reverend Gabriel Salguero (pictured), founder of the Latino Evangelical Coalition, said, “Given studies on how the death penalty is meted out, particularly for people of color, if it’s not a level playing field, we need to speak out. ... The needle has moved for Latinos and evangelicals." According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, Latinos comprise a growing portion of the nation's death rows, increasing from 11% in 2000 to 13.5% in 2010, with half of the new Latino death row inmates coming from California. A 2014 study of California jurors found that white jurors were more likely to impose death sentences if defendants were Latino and poor. Another California study found that the odds that a capital defendant would be sentenced to death were were more than triple for those convicted of killing whites than for those convicted of killing blacks and more than 4 times greater than for defendants convicted of killing Latinos. "There’s been a shift, not just attributed to religion, but a heightened understanding of the death penalty and its implicit bias in the criminal justice system," said Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. Salguero summarized the religious backing for opposition to the death penalty, saying, "The gospel teaches us that crime has a place, but God has the last word....Christ was an innocent man who was executed. If there’s a possibility that we execute one innocent person we should have pause."

BOOKS: "Executing Grace"

In his new book, Executing Grace, evangelical Christian speaker, activist, and author Shane Claiborne weaves together personal narratives, theology, and research to make a Christian case against the death penalty. Claiborne says "[t]he death penalty did not flourish in America in spite of Christians but because of us." Arguing that "[w]e can't make death penalty history until we make death penalty personal," he tells the stories of people affected by the death penalty in a variety of ways: family members of murder victims, executioners and corrections officers, death row exonerees, and death row inmates. Each chapter closes with an individual story he calls "Faces of Grace." Claiborne also explores biblical history and the Bible's teachings on capital punishment, forgiveness, and mercy. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, "In these pages, Shane Claiborne exposes the harm that the death penalty does to us as humans–to executioners, judges, governors, to the convicted and the exonerated, and to all of us as citizens. Here is an invitation to build a world where we reject all forms of killing, both legal and illegal. It is a call to join a movement where grace gets the last word. Shane Claiborne’s brilliant book reminds us that without forgiveness, there is no future.”

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