On the death penalty, as on so many issues, Will D. Campbell has been out in front of many of us. Perhaps you have heard the story about a debate he had on this subject. His opponent made a case for capital punishment that was reasoned, balanced and thorough. The moderator of the debate then turned to Campbell and said, “Mr. Campbell, why are you opposed to the death penalty?” He replied, “It’s tacky.”
You can never top Campbell, but my answer to the moderator’s question would be almost as brief as his. I would say, “I oppose the death penalty because Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the merciful.'”
I believe Jesus meant what he said, and I want my nation and my state to be blessed. Refusing to execute people who deserve to die is an act of mercy and so is blessed.
For me, Jesus’ teaching is a sufficient reason to support the abolition of the death penalty, but I realize that this isn’t a sufficient reason for everyone, so I’ll mention two others.
One is that apparently it is impossible to administer capital punishment in a way that is just. For example, since 1973, 139 people have been released from death row after having provided evidence of their innocence. It is unjust to imprison someone who is innocent but at least, when that is done, it is possible to offer the person an apology and some compensation, which obviously isn’t the case with those whom we execute.
Another example of injustice concerns economics and race. People who are poor or non-white are more likely to be sentenced to death than people with financial resources or who are white. People who are poor cannot afford the most effective attorneys, and people who are non-white are at a disadvantage both in the selection of juries and at sentencing.
I am not alone in thinking it is impossible to execute justly. The American Law Institute (ALI) comprises more than 4,000 law professors, judges and lawyers. In 1962, the ALI created a “model statute” to help states achieve some consistency in their death penalty laws, and in 1976 the Supreme Court largely adopted the ALI’s framework when it re-instituted capital punishment after a decade without executions. But last year the ALI pronounced its own project a failure and abandoned it.
Earlier this month, Michael Traynor, president emeritus of ALI, wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “It is impossible to administer the death penalty consistently and fairly, and it therefore should not remain a punishment option in this country. The institute could no longer play a role in legitimizing a failed system. How much longer can any of us?”
How long, indeed?
Another reason I’m against the death penalty is that it’s expensive. Many people assume that it’s cheaper to execute criminals than it is to keep them in prison, but that’s wildly inaccurate.
For a variety of reasons, keeping people on death row is much more expensive than keeping them in the general prison population. Death row inmates must be kept in special cells and guarded by special guards, and they must be provided special arrangements for dining, exercising, showering and medical care. The greatest costs are legal. Death row inmates must be provided special legal counsel because some appeals for death-row inmates are automatic. Usually death-row inmates are effectively given a second trial (in which they are no longer presumed to be innocent), and of course the government must pay its own attorneys to prosecute these appeals cases.
According to the Death Penalty Information Center, California spends in excess of $100 million a year more to keep people on death row than it would have to spend to keep the same prisoners in the general prison population. Florida spends $51 million a year more to keep people on death row than it would spend to imprison its death-row inmates for life. The federal government and the 35 states that still have capital punishment could save themselves a lot of real taxpayer money just by commuting all death penalty sentences to life sentences.
In summary, I am against the death penalty because it is unjust and a waste of taxpayer money, but mostly because Jesus said, “Blessed are the merciful.”
Fisher Humphreys is a retired professor of divinity at Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.
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Fisher Humphreys is emeritus professor of divinity at Samford University.