On September 21, 2011, Troy Davis was executed in the U.S. state of Georgia for the 1989 murder of Mark MacPhail, an off-duty Savannah police officer. Davis maintained his innocence even as he was strapped to a gurney and prepped for a lethal injection. A global campaign had been launched against this execution given the lack of physical evidence in the case and the post-trial recantations of seven of nine eyewitnesses. Opponents of capital punishment argued that there was simply too much doubt for Georgia to kill Davis.
The Rev. Raphael Warnock, one of his supporters, said of the case:
"We did not want to lose Troy Davis as a casualty of this war, but I do think that his execution in a real sense will only add momentum to the movement of those of us who understand that the state really cannot be trusted with the ultimate punishment."
Former President Jimmy Carter said he hopes "this tragedy will spur us as a nation toward the total rejection of capital punishment." The New York Times published an editorial calling the death penalty grotesque and immoral, noting that 17 innocent people sentenced to death have been exonerated and released based on DNA evidence, and 112 other people based on other evidence. Journalist Amy Goodman, who was on the grounds of the prison when Davis was killed, filed a report on the demonstrations there and quoted Gandhi who, when asked what he thought of Western civilization, said, "I think it would be a good idea."
All but a few developed nations have already abolished the death penalty. Yet more than 3,200 inmates were on death row in U.S. prisons at the beginning of 2011, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. And public support for capital punishment remains strong at 60 percent of those interviewed in polls.
Antoinette Bosco, an award-winning journalist and strong opponent of the death penalty, has written:
"The death penalty puts us on the edge of a word. The uncertainty, confusion and anguish it generates offer strong testimony that the death penalty may be the most wrenching moral dilemma of our time. For the issue cannot be dealt with from our human perspective, but only through finding our higher selves."
When we launched this series of articles on "Spiritual Literacy in Wartime" in 2003 we said that "we mean wartime in the broad sense of the term" and we listed signs of separation in our times. Surely, the death penalty is an example of war against humanity and the morality and compassion we aspire to bring to the fore in our times. The following resources provide many perspectives on the implications and consequences of the death penalty. We encourage you to read them, see them, practice them, and invite your higher self to deal with what they say to you.
Sister Helen Prejean on the Death of Innocents
Sister Helen Prejean is a member of the Catholic Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille who travels extensively giving over 140 lectures a year seeking to ignite public discourse on the death penalty. As one who provides spiritual counsel to those on death row, she has vowed: "I know I will do this work until every gurney and electric chair and gas chamber sits behind velvet ropes in museums the way auction blocks, bills of sale, bullwhips and other memorabilia are on display in museums today." In our review of The Deaths of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, Prejean discusses why so many not guilty individuals end up on death row. In an excerpt from the book, she laments the fact that some Christian denominations (including the Catholic Church) have "blessed a state's right to kill individuals."
Dead Man Walking: Two Changed Lives in an Unforgettable Film about the Death Penalty
In 1982, Sister Helen Prejean started corresponding with Matthew Poncelet, a death row inmate in Angola Prison in Louisiana. The experience changed the direction of her ministry and propelled her into activism against the death penalty. The 1995 film Dead Man Walking presents a riveting look at her dealings with Matthew and with the parents of his victims. It exposes the cruelty of death by lethal injection and offers instead an alternate path based on love. Sister Prejean's final words to Matthew Poncelet are: "I want the last thing you see in this world to be the face of love. So you look at me when they do this thing. I'll be the face of love for you." Our Values & Visions Film Guide to Dead Man Walking includes discussion questions on the spiritual practices demonstrated in her ministry.
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh's Views on the Death Penalty
In his book Answers from the Heart: Practical Responses to Life's Burning Questions, Thich Nhat voices his opposition to the death penalty and gives some of the spiritual reasons behind his stand against killing a murderer: "Killing him won't help him and it won't help us. There are others like him in society, and looking at him deeply we know that something is wrong with our society that it can create people like that. Looking in the light of interbeing, we can see the other elements that have produced him. That is how understanding arises. That is how we see that this person needs help, not just punishment."
Documentary about What Happens When Prisoners Meditate
Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the transformation and healing that can take place in prisoners (even those on death row) when they learn to meditate, access their anger and grief, and deal with stress and impulses to violence. The Dhamma Brothers shows the positive effect meditation can have upon prisoners in an overcrowded maximum security prison in Alabama. This documentary proves the cathartic value of regular meditation practice and its ability to move inmates to experiences of inner peace and compassion.
John Dear on the Connection Between America's Addiction to Violence and the Legalized Murder of Capital Punishment
Peace activist and prolific author John Dear makes the case in Disarming the Heart: Toward a Year of Nonviolence that the United States is addicted to violence. The nation's history is filled with it, and it propels this era of endless war. Guns sales keep growing and the weapons trade is thriving as America peddles these tools of violence around the world. In addition, films and video games are riddled with gore and widely accepted. It is no wonder that many have no trouble whatsoever with what Dear calls "the legalized murder of capital punishment." In an excerpt he urges us to repent of violence and become people of nonviolence.
A Teaching Story about the Human Need to Care which Grows Out of Reverence
In Frederick Franck's book What Does It Mean to Be Human? thinkers and activists from around the world answer that question. Many of them are shocked by a growing contempt for life that can be seen in capital punishment, war, poverty, human rights violations, slavery, and the trashing of the environment. Sister Joan Chittister shares a teaching story about a woman who can only be true to her nature when she saves a life.
A Mother's Response: Saying No to the Death Penalty
In August 1993 Antoinette Bosco's son and daughter-in-law were murdered in their Montana home. When the killer was caught, Bosco was overcome with rage, desiring only his death. But then she took the road of forgiveness and found herself freed from the prison of anger and hatred. In an excerpt from her book Choosing Mercy: A Mother of Murder Victims Pleads to End the Death Penalty, she shares her experiences of forgiveness as a healing balm and as a stay against the erosion of our humanity.
Joseph Girzone on Why He Changed His Mind and Now Opposes Capital Punishment
Joseph Girzone retired from the priesthood in 1981 and embarked on a second career as a writer and international speaker. His Joshua series of books made quite a splash with their focus on the presence of a Jesus figure in the contemporary world. In My Struggle with Faith he talks about his spiritual journey as a Roman Catholic priest. In an excerpt he explains what realization made him an opponent of capital punishment: "When people execute someone, they are tearing that person out of God's hands and refusing to allow God to continue His unfinished work in that soul."
A Drama on the Inhumanity of the Death Penalty
This French film is set on an island off Newfoundland in 1850. A sailor named Neel kills a man and is sentenced to die, but the execution must be put off until a guillotine is sent to them. The prisoner is put into custody of the Captain whose wife takes him on as her protégé, teaching him to read, work in the garden with her, and perform odd jobs for the widows in the community. By the time the killing instrument arrives, Neel is a different man transformed by his new life and place in the community. The Widow of Saint-Pierre speaks volumes about the inhumanity of the death penalty especially since the person who is sentenced is rarely the same person by the time of the execution. The Captain and his wife refuse to temper their ardent belief in mercy and their keen sense of justice. We end our review with a quotation from Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron on the meaning of true compassion.
The View from San Quentin Village
In an article published at CommonDreams.org, which we summarize in our Spiritual Literacy blog, Stephen Zunes writes about his reactions to the execution of Stanley "Tookie" Williams in California. What moved him most were the letters from former gang members whose lives had been turned around by Williams' activism and writings. How many more lives could have been changed had he been allowed to live? The point is well taken: people can be spiritually transformed and become a force for good in the world: look at St. Paul.
A Documentary on the Amorality of Technique
Many people are involved in one way or another when the state deigns to execute a person. We can lament the complicity of these people and pray that they reassess the morality of their participation. Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. is a bizarre documentary directed by Errol Morris that profiles a successful American engineer who designs and repairs gas chambers, electric chairs, lethal injection systems, and gallows. Leuchter sees it as his mission to provide prisons with more efficient technology. His pride and worship of technique allow him to pay no attention to the fact that his machines kill human beings.
A Drama about the Dirty Business of Execution
Capital punishment always comes down to the dirty business of revenge, no matter what arguments are used to justify the state's executions. That point is made in Pierrepoint - The Last Hangman, an emotional drama about Albert Pierrepoint (1905 - 1992) who during his career executed over 600 individuals. The depictions of his approach, characterized by efficiency in determining the details of each execution and respect for the dead body, nevertheless makes a strong case against the death penalty.
What Followers of the Way of the Cross Can Do about Lockdown America
In The Executed God: The Way of the Cross in Lockdown America Mark Lewis Taylor offers a hard-hitting and morally rigorous criticism of American culture. This professor of Theology and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary spells out what he calls "the theatre of terror" within the corrections system — capital punishment, racism, the use of rape as a way to divide and subdue prisoners, and the closing down of programs designed to rehabilitate inmates. He shows how the entire prison system is essentially set up to protect the rich and the prosperous from "disposable" elements of the population. At the end of our review, we quote his discussion of what followers of the way of the cross can do in opposition to lockdown America.
A Buddhist's Solidarity with Death Row Inmates
Not Turning Away: The Practice of Engaged Buddhism edited by Susan Moon, is a collection of essays about Buddhists moving off the meditation cushion to apply what they've learned there to issues of war, poverty, homelessness, political aggression, and prison work. In an excerpt, Melody Ermachild Chavis shares a ritual she performs at the gate of San Quentin for each execution.
Jesus as a Convicted Felon and Death Row Prisoner
In The Convict Christ: What the Gospel Says About Criminal Justice, Jens Soering, who has been in prison himself for more than 18 years, challenges Christians to see Jesus as a condemned criminal who was executed beside two thieves. The fact that he died a cruel death on a cross should make every believer as adamant opponent of capital punishment. In an excerpt from the book, he muses on Jesus as a convicted felon.
Outbreaks of Divine Love on Death Row
Convicted murderer Dominique Green wrote Nobel Laureate Desmond Tutu after reading his book No Future without Forgiveness. The South African Episcopal Archbishop travelled to a Texas prison to meet with Green. Tutu's response after spending two hours with him: "He's a remarkable advertisement for God." Many similar stories are told in A Dream of the Tattered Man: Stories from Georgia's Death Row, by Randolph Loney, a minister has been visiting men awaiting execution by the state since 1985. With patience and an exquisite sense of compassion and empathy, he identifies with their loneliness, desperation, susceptibility to rage, and yearning for love. He feels intimations of God's grace there and concludes "I saw Divine love breaking into view regardless of our efforts to edge it out of the world."
True Stories of Innocent Men Who Were Almost Executed
Try to imagine being in prison for many years for a crime you did not commit. The loss of the best years of your life would weigh heavily on you. Anger and frustration would accompany the knowledge that the criminal justice system has let you and those closest to you down. After Innocence is a incredibly informative documentary by Jessican Sands that tells the true stories of innocent men wrongfully imprisoned and then released after DNA evidence proved their innocence. One of them, Nicholas Yarris, spent 25 years on death row and has become a crusader against capital punishment in Pennsylvania.
A Prayer To Abolish the Death Penalty by Sister Helen Prejean
This prayer expresses the hopes of all who yearn for the end of violence and revenge and the establishment of justice and peace. It is from Prayers for the New Social Awakening: Inspired by the New Social Creed edited by Christian Iosso and Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty.
God of compassion,
You let your rain fall on the just and the unjust. Expand and deepen our hearts so that we may love as you love, even those among us who have caused the greatest pain by taking life. For there is in our land a great cry for vengeance as we fill up death rows and kill the killers in the name of justice, in the name of peace. Jesus, our brother, you suffered execution at the hands of that state, but you did not let hatred overcome you.
Help us reach out to victims of violence so that our enduring love may help them heal. Holy Spirit of God, you strengthen us in the struggle for justice. Help us to work tirelessly for the abolition of state-sanctioned death and to renew our society in its very heart so that violence will be no more.