Capital Punishment: A Religious Socialist Perspective

By Barry Levis

Recently, Pope Francis altered the Catholic Catechism’s teaching on capital punishment to denounce without exception any form of execution. The Roman Catholic Church now joins many other Christian denominations—Episcopal, Presbyterians, Methodists, Quaker, Mennonites, United Church of Christ, Unitarians, American Baptists, to name a few—in condemning the practice. The American Jewish Committee, an advocacy group supported by all Jewish branches, also condemns the use of capital punishment.

On the other hand, some Christian denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, support the death penalty. They point to the biblical injunction of “eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Exodus 21:24), which they clearly misunderstand, because, derived from the Code of Hammurabi, it implies letting the punishment fit the crime and rejecting excessive penalties. Over the years, the number of capital crimes has diminished, from 222 under English law in the 19th century to 41 in the United States today. No members of the European Union are allowed to have the death penalty. When Socialist Party leader Francois Mitterrand was elected president of France in 1981, he immediately abolished the death penalty.

Christian opponents of the death penalty generally refer to the story of Jesus intervening in the stoning of a woman caught in adultery. Yet most Christian challengers take a broader view in their opposition, citing Jesus’ larger message of love and redemption. They believe that capital punishment “degrades and brutalizes society,” “that the taking of a human life falls within the providence of Almighty God and not within the right of Man,” and that “the Holy Scriptures clearly mandate that we are not to kill, we are not to render evil for evil, and that we are not to seek retribution with vengeance with vengeance for the evil done to us,” according to various denominational statements on the death penalty.

There is a long and largely forgotten history of efforts against capital punishment. Cesare Beccaria speculated in his 1764 volume On Crimes and Punishment that life in prison would be a greater deterrent and argued that capital punishment brutalized society. He thought it would encourage violence rather than prevent it. His speculation has been proven true, although the living death sentence of life without parole should also concern religious socialists. In studies conducted in the 1950s and 1960s, the murder rate rose immediately following an execution rather than serving as a deterrent. States without capital punishment have lower murder rates than those that do. Proponents of capital punishment assume that murderers think in the same way as others in society and if confronted with the ultimate punishment for their crimes, they would think twice about perpetrating it. In fact, the vast majority of those who commit murder are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Others come from violent backgrounds that prompt them to respond in ways to which they had become accustomed. Some have suffered violent brain injuries. Moreover, the availability of guns in the United States makes the taking of a life much easier compared to other countries with strict gun control laws. They are not necessarily thinking “rationally” when they kill someone.

Perhaps even more telling, the application of capital punishment is clearly discriminatory. Though the number of whites and blacks convicted of murder is approximately the same, 80% of those executed since the reestablishment in 1977 of capital punishment have been African Americans. Moreover, blacks are far more likely to be executed for killing a white person than the opposite. Another factor is where the murder occurs. Convicted murderers are far more likely to be executed in southern states than anywhere else in the country. Oklahoma, Texas, Florida, Virginia, and George lead the pack. Another biased method is the effort by prosecuting attorneys to restrict potential jurors who might be more sympathetic to the defense (generally that means excluding black persons from a trial involving a black defendant). An individual who would not apply the death penalty under any circumstance is automatically excluded from the jury in a capital case. Both prosecutors and defense attorneys generally seek jurors whom they believe will be pliable. Because many of the defendants are indigent, the court supplies them with a public defender. While many public defenders work conscientiously to represent their clients, the number of incompetent defenses is staggering, as shown by the number of capital cases overturned. Those of a higher socio-economic status are far less likely to receive the sentence of death. Moreover, a person who commits murder against someone of a higher social status is six times more likely to get the death penalty than if the victim is of a lower social status. These facts must be of particular concern to socialists.

Even more alarming, the Innocence Project, a non-profit organization founded by Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University that is committed to freeing those who have been wrongly convicted, has successfully overturned a significant number of convictions, primarily through DNA testing. Convicts have gained release based on faulty witness identifications or the unreliable testimony of jailhouse snitches. Remarkably, some prosecutors have fought retrials where incontrovertible evidence of a miscarriage of justice exists, presumably because they do not want to admit making a mistake, even though their carelessness and callousness could be fatal.

Although many religious institutions have clearly articulated their opposition to capital punishment, to reach a broader audience, not necessarily attuned to their spiritual arguments, they need to emphasize the basic unfairness of the application of capital punishment. They must combine their theology with the social sciences if they want to convert the majority of Americans that still support this brutality.

Barry Levis is professor emeritus of history, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida, and a congregant of The Church of the Good Shepherd (Episcopal), Rosemont, Pennsylvania.

Image: Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, via Wikipedia