When the Pharisees brought a woman to Jesus who was caught in the act of adultery and asked him if she should be stoned, Jesus replied, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). This was one of the first stories from the Bible that was discussed on Nov. 6, at the Death Penalty Forum. The event, co-sponsored by Prison Ministries, Center for Applied Christian Ethics and Equal Justice USA, explored the many complexities and challenges of implementing the death penalty.
The main question on the table that night was how Christians committed to justice and truth should view the death penalty. The panelists included Kirk Bloodsworth, a man who was falsely accused of murder charges and spent eight years on death row; associate professor of theology and director of CACE, Vincent Bacote; and president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and a pastor in New York City, Gabriel Salguero. Also present was former superintendent of the Oregon State Penitentiary, Frank Thompson.
The stories panelists shared were raw and hinted at the psychological torment prisoners go through while they await their lengthy trials. Bloodsworth shared a glimpse into the true human toll of wrongful conviction revealing the lasting wounds it inflicts upon one who found himself arrested in time; forever trapped in a moment, a case, and a crime that, though it had nothing to do with him, has fundamentally and permanently re-shaped the course of his life. Dressed in his signature tie with a DNA double helix strand, Bloodsworth explained, “DNA is God’s sign and he doesn’t write bad checks,” in reference to the fact that God used DNA evidence to save his life.
Thompson described his Saul-to-Paul moment when he finally was awakened to the injustices of the legal system. The large number of inmates who are later found innocent of their crimes and the mental issues that crop up in prison wards after participating in an execution is shocking. “Sometimes we’re so confident of our ability to determine who’s guilty and who’s innocent — to divide the wheat from the tares,” Thomson said of the lack of understanding he perceived in the system.
Thompson and the other panelists consistently repeated New Testament passages, with some reference to the Old Testament. They concluded that the angle a Christian takes on the topic usually boils down to which Testament scriptures they emphasize. The Bible offers many examples of both the sparing of God’s people and the death of others. The panelists cited Romans 13, the Beatitudes, Jesus’ execution, and the gospel of Matthew as stories that support the abolition of the death penalty.
After the panel, there was a time for questions and answers. Professor of politics and law director of the Hastert Center, David Iglesias asked whether or not the victim’s family should have the right to request a death sentence if DNA evidence proves the perpetrator of the crime is convicted beyond a reasonable doubt.
Iglesias said, “If the death penalty is abolished, then family members will lose the right to be heard if they support the death penalty, since it would be off the table. I don’t believe there is majority support to abolish the death penalty.” He voiced the concern that the panel “failed to adequately address the rights of the victim and victim’s family.”
Another student asked about the economic effects of abolishing the death penalty. Citing a figure of $400,000 per year as the cost to hold a prisoner in a jail cell at the state level, Thompson, the former Superintendent, claimed that the death penalty is significantly more expensive than a lifetime sentence to prison.
Senior Rebecca Cooper, who attended the event, said, “We as a country need to look more carefully at the administration of the death penalty because it is a drain on our resources, does not provide help or true closure to the families of victims, and poses a serious risk to people on death row who may have been wrongfully convicted.” However, she voiced her surprise that the other perspective was not more represented in the discussion as fully.
Senior Justin Massey, also present at the panel, said, “My biggest takeaway was in realizing the importance of thinking about such moral topics practically and considering how they affect people. As Christians we can often consider issues of morality in a very abstract and distanced manner. However, theology does not happen in a vacuum. Rather, what we believe about God’s world has a profound impact on the way we interact and engage. Therefore, we cannot simply discuss whether or not the death penalty is moral. Instead we must consider the complexities: How can we have certainty as to who is guilty? What is a humane practice of execution? On whom should the moral burden of committing the execution fall?”
Bloodsworth is currently working on a documentary about his story. The movie, titled “Bloodsworth: An Innocent Man” is a documentary memoir recounting his remarkable journey through the criminal justice system.