Are death penalty moratoriums a good thing? David Gushee, in a February 2007 article (http://countercultureblog.com), argues that Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen's temporary suspension of all executions is indeed a good move. In fact, Gushee wants a longer moratorium in Tennessee and nationwide.
Gushee says, "When the Supreme Court ruled in 1976 that states could resume executions, they mandated that any state doing so must apply this ultimate penalty in a fair and consistent, rather than arbitrary and capricious, manner." Certainly, if a state can make the process better, they should. But is a long moratorium the only answer?
Gushee claims, "Tennessee's death penalty sentencing is rife with error. Half of all death sentences in our state are overturned on appeal due to serious constitutional error, according to a study by The Tennessean." But overturned cases don't mean these prisoners were innocent. And Gushee's statement, "That number does not include those sitting on death row who are, in all likelihood, innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted," assumes, without much basis, their innocence.
If people like Paul House are truly innocent, then they should be released. But if his case is so open and shut, why is he still in prison? DNA testing, often used as an argument against capital punishment, can make cases like House's easier to deal with, not establish a reason to stop executions.
While some innocent people probably do get caught in the system, the risk is worth the injustice of the guilty living on death row for 20-plus years. Besides, the innocents who die at the hand of those still on death row are probably far more numerous than those innocent people actually on death row. (See two articles by Dennis Prager: Capital Punishment -- Another Argument For It and George Will and Capital Punishment.)
Race and Economics
Gushee then brings up the race issue by saying, "National studies repeatedly find both race-of-perpetrator and race-of-victim bias in death penalty sentencing. In Tennessee, racial/ethnic minorities are vastly overrepresented on death row, and a full quarter of African Americans on Tennessee's death row were sentenced by all-white juries." The issue is never, how many blacks versus whites are on death row, or how many whites versus Hispanics. The question is, who commits more death-row-deserving crimes? If the statistics show that blacks commit more heinous crimes than whites, then there should be more blacks than whites on death row. And is it really that hard to make sure cases don't end up with all-white juries?
Not all studies confirm the often used racist theory: "A 1991 Rand Corporation study by Stephen Klein found that white murderers received the death penalty slightly more often (32%) than non-white murderers (27%). And while the study found murderers of white victims received the death penalty more often (32%) than murderers of non-white victims (23%), when controlled for variables such as severity and number of crimes committed, there is no disparity between those sentenced to death for killing white or black victims" (Wesley Lowe).
Gushee moves on to social and economic inequities, "In Tennessee, nearly every one of the 102 people on death row could not afford an attorney at trial." Can Tennessee provide better public defenders? If so, this would solve many of their problems.
We need to think clearly, as Gushee cautions, "It is not logical to respond to this evidence by affirming one's visceral support for the principle of life-for-life." But the assumption to stop an already slow moving system isn't the answer to justice.
He continues, "Would not such a passion for justice also require the fair application of this penalty?" So why can't Tennessee, in the spirit of equal opportunity, start executing all people on death row? The state could even give everyone on death row a two-year heads up. Anyone still on death row after two years would be executed promptly according to a fast moving system that started with all white male prisoners.
Then Gushee pulls out the old insanity argument to mount sympathy for his case: "Would we also want to be sure that the people we are executing are morally responsible for their actions, rather than clinically insane, as are a number of our death row inmates?" Should we always assume that everyone classified as insane needs to escape the death penalty? Even if the answer ends up being yes, this problem could be solved by testing and then putting those who qualify in asylums. (I wonder how many death row inmates would love the opportunity to test, or shall we say, audition?)
If Gushee is right in his statement, "Nationally, and in this state, the application of the death penalty is about as rational and orderly as who wins the lottery," surely a bit of ingenuity could be pulled off the shelf to make the system rational and orderly. (See previous paragraphs.)
He admits that, "In the end, a small percentage of convicted murderers get the death penalty, and an even smaller group is actually executed." But he uses this fact to point out the supposed randomness and inconsistencies of executions. According to Gushee's admission, we're not talking about a fast moving conveyor belt in a slaughter house. As best as I can tell, Tennessee has only executed a little more than 130 people since 1909. It's a slow moving process, like the brain cells of Al Gore trying to think of something other than global warming. So make the system more consistent, as I suggested above, but don't stop executions long term to do it.
Gushee then stands on the shoulders of DNA and asks, "How many innocent executed persons is too many?" We obviously don't want to kill innocent people. That's why we should work for a better justice system, rather than disable it altogether. A little more than 1,000 people have been executed since 1976 in the United States, so again, we're not talking about a large number, let alone a plethora of innocent people. My question is, how many innocent people die as a result of letting so many guilty live? (Again, see Prager's articles.)
Fair Systems and the Bible
By referring to Deuteronomy 17:6, Gushee hopes to show how unfair our justice system is today. But the point of the eyewitnesses in the Old Testament is overwhelming evidence to convict. Our justice system requires evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. So our system is fair. Gushee refers to the New Testament's focus of mercy in hopes of persuading readers to his view. But his passing comments on mercy could mislead. Mercy can also be shown to the majority of citizen by making sure that true perpetrators of vicious crimes die swiftly for their acts, rather than outlive their victims' family members. And let's not forget what the New Testament says about a government's role in justice. Was the Roman justice system always fair? (I can think of at least one famous innocent person who died at its hand.) Yet, in Romans 13, God approved of governments carrying out capital punishment.
Gushee's goal is noble-a fair justice system. I commend him for this aim. But his call for a prolonged moratorium on executions is the wrong approach. If Tennessee's system is unfair, it can be corrected without a long moratorium. And when it's improved, it can be cranked up to breakneck speed-in the name of true justice ( See Ecclesiastes 8:11).
May the people of Tennessee review their current justice system and improve it, if need be. But hopefully this act will not be another liberal move that uses a moratorium as a knife plunged in the back of Lady Justice.
For articles on why Christians should support capital punishment, click here