The American Bar Association has called for a nationwide moratorium on executions, citing a three-year study of state death-penalty systems that found unfairness and other flaws.
“After carefully studying the way states across the spectrum handle executions, it has become crystal clear that the process is deeply flawed,” Stephen F. Hanlon of the ABA Death Penalty Moratorium Implementation Project said in a press release. “The death penalty system is rife with irregularity–supporting the need for a moratorium until states can ensure fairness and accuracy.”
Several states placed a moratorium on executions after the U.S. Supreme Court decided last month to review a case from Kentucky about whether death by lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. On Tuesday the high court stayed the execution of a Mississippi prisoner sentenced to die that way, pending that review.
The ABA studied capital punishment in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee and found “significant racial disparities” in imposing the death penalty.
Other problems included a lack of policies on use and retaining of DNA evidence, eyewitness misidentification and false confessions, mistakes in crime laboratories, lack of proper training for prosecutors, testimony by jailhouse “snitches,” inadequate public-defense lawyers and poorly written or conveyed instructions to juries.
The study also raised questions about whether judges who must seek election or appointment are unduly influenced by political pressures.
And even though the Supreme Court has held it is unconstitutional to execute offenders with mental retardation, each state is free to make its own rules about whether the defendant was mentally retarded at the time of the offense.
Every state in the study, the report said, “appears to have significant racial disparities in its capital system, particularly those associated with the race of the victim.”
Even in states with acknowledged racial disparities, it said, “Little, if anything, has been done to rectify the problem.”
States generally don’t keep enough data to quantify any problems with bias, “making the process of conducting analysis difficult, if not impossible,” the study said.
The 413,000-member lawyer group says it neither supports nor opposes capital punishment, but it has since 1997 urged states to put a moratorium on executions pending study about whether their systems meet legal standards for fairness and due process.
Three weeks ago death-penalty opponents called on the United Nations to adopt a General Assembly resolution on a universal moratorium on executions.
“The most basic human right–the right to life–is violated both by homicide and by execution,” Sister Helen Prejean, the nun whose ministry to death-row inmates was made famous by the movie “Dead Man Walking,” said in a New York press conference. “We call today for a consistent human rights ethic in response to violence.”
“The American people are not any more vengeful than people in Europe,” she said. “The death penalty is unreflected upon by people. They do not think about it. It is not one of the moral issues that touches most people personally.”
The Alliance of Baptists, American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. and Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America have all adopted statements opposing the death penalty.
The Southern Baptist Convention in 2000 passed a resolution supporting “the fair and equitable use of capital punishment by civil magistrates as a legitimate form of punishment for those guilty of murder or treasonous acts that result in death.”
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said Monday on his call-in radio show that the Bible supports the death penalty in both the Old and New Testaments.
Mohler said God’s covenant with Noah in Genesis establishes a principle that “it is necessary to underscore the sanctity of human life by making it clear that if you take a human life in a homicide your forfeit your own life.”
Romans 13, he continued, grants governments “the power of the sword.”
“The power of the sword is intended to be the ultimate sanction against lawbreaking and in particular against homicide as it’s now most commonly defined,” he said. “So you have both in the Old Testament and New a very clear sense that there are some crimes that justify death.”
A moderate Baptist ethicist said Mohler is “inexcusably wrong in his misuse of Romans 13 to justify the death penalty.”
Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics said the word translated as “sword” in the text does not refer a double-edged, 3-foot weapon used for decapitation.
“The word really means a police dagger, hardly the weapon for execution,” Parham said. Beside that, he said the Roman Empire’s method for the death penalty was not decapitation but crucifixion, the form of capital punishment used to kill Jesus.
“If the Old Testament is a justification for the American death penalty,” Parham said, “then our death penalty will need to be applied for Sabbath-breaking and parent-cursing, if we are to be faithful to the biblical practice. If the Old Testament is the model for the death penalty, then stoning will be the American method.”
“When we draw a straight and literal line from the Bible to 21st century public policy, we misuse God’s divine treasure chest,” Parham said. “The Bible is not a literal blueprint for the American justice system and should not be used to justify the death penalty.”
Mohler said while many conservative Christians understand that the Bible affirms the death penalty, many of them don’t understand why.
“It is not revenge. It is not retaliation,” he said. “It is the sense that once a person has committed a crime against the Imago Dei, against the image of God–that’s exactly the argument found in Genesis Chapter 9–once a person has insulted the image of God in another human being by killing that person and taking that life, then that person has forfeited his or her own right to live.”
“The argument in the Old Testament is that society can’t seriously say that it maintains the sanctity of human life if it not willing to administer the ultimate punishment,” Mohler said. “That seems to be very much what is in line with Paul’s thinking in Romans Chapter 13.”
While supporting the death penalty, Mohler said he shared concerns in the ABA report about unfairness and racial and economic disparity. “The Bible also says the justice is not to be sold in the streets,” he said. “It is not to be up for sale.”
“We seem as a nation to be somewhat squeamish about the death penalty,” Mohler said, “and I wonder if that’s just due to a lack of courage and moral conviction and the entire process, or if maybe we’re really worried that maybe we don’t know enough to apply the ultimate sanction. The argument there is once you’ve executed someone, it’s too late.”
“I wish Christians were more squeamish about the death penalty,” Parham said. “Maybe Mohler will show us his so-called courage by nailing to a cross or casting the first stone in his Bible-styled version of the death penalty.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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