EDITOR’S NOTE: The death penalty, in some form, has been around for centuries in Western society. Even as methods and numbers have changed recently, the death penalty is a fixture in the American penal system. It is also a controversial topic among Christians who will both claim that their arguments are supported biblically. Dr. Kevin Brown is Associate Professor of Social Work at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and a Fellow at the Restoration Institute. Dr. Brown writes an article as to why the death penalty is inconsistent with Evangelical Christianity. Evangelicals have long held the notion they are “pro-life,” but in most cases still support the death penalty. Dr. Brown’s article challenges us to think through some of the dynamics of the death penalty to see if it is really accomplishing what it was established to do. More than that, Dr. Brown seeks to have a coherent worldview among Evangelicals concerning the value of life during all phases of it. The Institute is running his article in two parts. In this first part, Dr. Brown asks us the question if the death penalty really is accomplishing what it was intended to do. Even if one believes the death penalty is biblical and in line with Christian tradition, is the current form of death penalty in the United States fair and just?

On April 13, 2015, Kia Stewart aged 27 was released after almost 10 years of imprisonment when his conviction was overturned for insufficient evidence.[1] In a 2016 study by the University of North Carolina researchers found that 127 of the 155 death penalty cases resolved in Louisiana between 1976 and 2015 concluded with reversals of the sentences an 82% reversal rate that was 10 points above the national average (6% were exonerations).[2] Since 2000, seven people on death row have been exonerated while only two have been executed.[3] These statistics force a serious reconsideration of the death penalty by those who believe in biblical justice.

Currently in Louisiana there are 71 people on death row,[4] but the state has not been able to execute anyone since 2000.[5] Legally, the state has only one method of execution, lethal injection, but cannot obtain the drugs to perform them, reports Natalie LaBorde, Deputy Secretary of the Louisiana Department of Corrections, as drug companies have refused to sell them to the state for executions.[6] Other states have considered alternatives including asphyxiation by nitrogen gas, resuming use of the electric chair, and death by firing squad.[7]

In the interim, costs are mounting. Louisiana citizens pay approximately $1.52 million per year to house condemned inmates on Louisiana’s death row, according to the Department of Corrections, costs which are exacerbated by the expenses of additional lawyers, court time and security for legally required judicial reviews pursuant to execution, not to mention post-conviction appeals, all of which can run into tens of millions of dollars per case, paid for by Louisiana’s taxpayers.[8] The financial costs, coupled with the human capital required to enact the sentence, are prohibitive in a state with limited resources. Furthermore, the challenge of legally executing those sentenced with capital crimes, suggest the state might better consider other sentencing structures beyond execution.

As stated earlier, a significant number of reversals have been enacted on behalf of those sentenced to execution. Nationwide one person is exonerated for every 10 that are executed.[9] Furthermore, execution is irrevocable, “forever depriving an individual of the opportunity to benefit from new evidence or new laws that might warrant the reversal of a conviction, or the setting aside of a death sentence.”[10] As was the case with Kia Stewart and others, juries sometimes arrive at the sentence of death based upon faulty information, something that can only be corrected if a falsely convicted citizen is given time and opportunity. With an 82% reversal rate, above the national average, Louisiana appears to have made some significant mistakes, ones that become irreversible once sentence is enacted.

Wide racial disparities exist as well. Black males are 30 times more likely to face the death penalty if his victim is a white woman as opposed to a black man.[11] Michelle Alexander, in The New Jim Crow, argues that carceral policies are unequally enacted upon the black community. She writes, “the economic collapse of inner-city black neighborhoods…coincided with the conservative backlash against the Civil Rights movement” (p. 218), adding, “it is fair to say that we have witnessed an evolution in the United States from a racial caste system based entirely upon exploitation (slavery), to one based largely upon subordination (Jim Crow), to one defined by marginalization (mass incarceration)” (p. 219).[12] The prison construction boom in America requires a steady stream of incarcerated citizens to effectively operate, which has relied heavily upon unequal policing and carceral strategies which have targeted people of color, suggest Hattery and Smith.[13] When one considers the budgetary policies in New Orleans, where the District Attorney’s office which prosecutes crime received almost $6.7 million[14] and the Public Defender’s office who defends the indigent received $1.8 million from the 2019 city budget, a gross inequity becomes obvious.[15] Clearly there are racial disparities that are being enacted in our carceral system, rendering them unfair, with the burden being unduly borne by poor people of color. The death penalty, therefore, unfairly impacts one segment of our population.

In addition, those with mental illness who cannot adequately comprehend or defend their situation are inequitably impacted. According to Amnesty International and the National Association on Mental Illness, one out of every ten executed prisoners in the United States since 1977 has a mental illness. Their impairment negatively impacts their ability to participate in their trials, they may appear unengaged, cold, or unfeeling in the jury’s eyes. Others are forcefully medicated to make them appear more competent and thus eligible for the death penalty.[16] The National Alliance on Mental Illness opposes execution of persons with serious mental illness or mental disabilities, especially when it is “severe enough that they have significantly impaired ability to appreciate the consequences or wrongfulness of their actions, exercise rational judgment or control their conduct in conformance with the law.[17] This vulnerable population, especially in light of the retrenchment of social and psychological services in American society, should give Christians pause when the death penalty is being considered.

Classical Criminological Theory is predicated upon the notion that punishment’s purpose is deterrence, designed to prevent individuals from committing crimes and by making examples of them so that others will not engage in criminal conduct.[18] Thus, the point of the death penalty would be deterring American society from engaging in capital crimes. According to Frank Friel, Former Head of Philadelphia’s Organized Crime Homicide Task Force, however, “the death penalty does little to prevent crime. It’s the fear of apprehension and the likely prospect of swift and certain punishment that provides the largest deterrent to crime.”[19] Robert Morgenthau, Manhattan District Attorney, stated, “take it from someone who has spent a career in Federal and state law enforcement, enacting the death penalty…would be a grave mistake. Prosecutors must reveal the dirty little secret they too often share only among themselves: the death penalty actually hinders the fight against crime.”[20] Willie Williams, a former Los Angeles Police Chief, added “I am not convinced that capital punishment, in and of itself, is a deterrent to crime because most people do not think about the death penalty before they commit a violent or capital crime.”[21] If the death penalty does not deter violent crime then it does not suit the purposes for which it was intended.

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NOTES

[1] Jarvis DeBerry, “Louisiana makes it too easy to imprison people for life,” New Orleans Times Picayune, May 6, 2015, p. B-6.

[2] Grace Reinke & Jan Moller, “Is Louisiana’s death penalty worth the price?” May 6, 2016, Louisiana Budget Project, https://www.labudget.org/2016/05/is-louisianas-death-penalty-worth-the-price-3/.

[3] ibid

[4] Death Penalty Information Center, 2019, https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/state_by_state,

[5] Julia O’Donoghue, “Three reasons why executions are on hold in Louisiana,” July 24, 2018, NOLA Times Picayune, https://expo.nola.com/news/erry-2018/07/52b2715a414476/3-reasons-why-executions-are-o.html.

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8] Mark Ballard, “Bury the death penalty in Louisiana? Lawmakers file bills aimed to do just that,” March 31, 2017. The New Orleans Advocate, https://www.theadvocate.com/baton_rouge/news/politics/legislature/article_2d23981a-166c-11e7-bd1b-2b1dcdb4921a.html.

[9] Hugo A. Bedau, “The case against the death penalty,” American Civil Liberties Union, 2012, https://www.aclu.org/other/case-against-death-penalty.

[10] ibid

[11] Grace Reinke & Jan Moller, “Is Louisiana’s death penalty worth the price?” May 6, 2016, Louisiana Budget Project, https://www.labudget.org/2016/05/is-louisianas-death-penalty-worth-the-price-3/.

[12] Michelle Alexander, “The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness,” 2012, New York: The New Press.

[13] Angela J. Hattery & Earl Smith, “Policing black bodies: How black lives are surveilled and how to work for change,”2017, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

[14] 2019 Annual Operating Budget City of New Orleans.

[15] Jeff Adelson, “New Orleans City Council passes 2019 budget with several changes from Cantrell’s proposal,” The New Orleans Advocate, November 29, 2018, https://www.theadvocate.com/new_orleans/news/article_f702b514-f3f9-11e8-b8ec-4b1f92d9849a.html.

[16] Oregonians for Alternative to the Death Penalty, “The facts: 13 reasons to oppose the death penalty, 2018, https://oadp.org/facts/13-reasons.

[17] National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Death penalty: Where NAMI stands,” 2019, https://www.nami.org/Learn-More/Mental-Health-Public-Policy/Death-Penalty.

[18] Robert M. Bohm & Brenda L. Vogel, “A primer on crime & delinquency theory (3rd Ed.),” Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

[19] Press Release, Death Penalty Information Center, October 27, 1992.

[20] ibid

[21] ibid