by Ryan Gear with Greg Parzych, Esq.
In the most recent Democratic debate, Rachel Maddow asked Hillary and Bernie if they support the death penalty. Each, an agnostic and a Methodist, presented thoughtful but differing answers. As we approach the season of Lent, Americans who desire to practice a Jesus-inspired spirituality are once again presented with the opportunity to consider whether or not we should support the death penalty.
The U.S. is among the last countries on earth to retain the death penalty. Of the 195 countries in the world, the United States is one of only 36 countries (18 percent) still enforcing the death penalty in law and practice. In 2013, the U.S. was the only country in the western hemisphere to carry out an execution. Pharmaceutical companies in the European Union are no longer supplying U.S. states with certain chemicals after they discovered their medicines were being used to put inmates to death.
We are known by the company we keep, and the list of 10 countries executing the most persons annually is one many Americans are not proud to make. The U.S ranked fifth in the number of executions worldwide in 2013, behind China, Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia. The other countries rounding out the top 10 are Pakistan, Yemen, North Korea, Vietnam, and Libya.
The majority of executions in the U.S. take place within a small number of states. In 2014, U.S. states executed 35 persons, with 80 percent of these executions taking place in Missouri, Texas, and Florida. Texas has executed, by far, more inmates than any other state (522 since 1976), comprising 37 percent of all executions in the U.S. Since 1976, 81 percent of all U.S. executions have taken place in the South.
It is worth noting that the Catholic Church opposes the death penalty, as do most mainline Protestant denominations. Evangelicals, not so much. The National Association of Evangelicals continues to support capital punishment.
There is a difference between denominations and the people in the pews, however. As of November 2014, 67 percent of white evangelicals and 64 percent of white mainline Protestants support capital punishment, compared to 36 percent of Black Protestants. While only 13 percent of the U.S. population, African Americans make up 41 percent of death row inmates, calling into question the racial fairness of the entire justice system.
Among U.S. Christians who support the death penalty, however, there is a startling disconnect. When asked, “Would Jesus support the death penalty?” only five percent of Americans said He would. This means that a significant portion of Christians in the U.S. approve of doing something they don’t think Jesus would do.
In addition to this, there is one other glaring reason Christians should ask serious questions about the death penalty —
Jesus, Himself, was executed.
The cross was the Roman equivalent of our electric chair or lethal injection. Rome wanted to be tough on crime, and Jesus was a poor man from a nowhere town who noisily cleansed the Temple as an act of protest against religious corruption. Pontius Pilate viewed Jesus as a disruption of his iron-fisted order and quickly handed down the sentence of death. What killed Jesus was a lethal cocktail of politics and religion.
My friend Greg Parzych is a criminal defense attorney in Arizona. Greg regularly feels the weight of another human being’s life in his hands, as he often represents clients who are facing the death penalty. He feels the burden of knowing that a jury will decide whether his client lives or dies based (hopefully) on the evidence and mitigating circumstances he presents to them. Therefore he has a unique, up-close-and-personal view that many of us will never experience.
I asked Greg to share his thoughts about capital punishment, and I’m thankful that he obliged:
Renewed discussion regarding the death penalty is occurring in the United States after the botched executions of Clayton Darrell Locket on April 29, 2014 in Oklahoma and Joseph Rudolph Wood III on July 23, 2014 in Arizona. Death Penalty discussion often focuses on the possibility of the execution of the innocent, or the method of execution, or the pain and suffering of the condemned vs. the pain and suffering of the victim.
However, any discussion of the death penalty cannot ignore two factors that have always been involved in the imposition of the death penalty — politics and religion. Both play a major role, and both present inherent dangers.
In 1972 the United States Supreme Court, in effect, suspended the death penalty in Furman v. Georgia. The Supreme Court held that the imposition of the death penalty was wantonly and freakishly imposed, comparing it to being struck by lightning. The suspension of the death penalty was short-lived, however.
In 1976 the Supreme Court, in Gregg v. Georgia, held that the state of Georgia’s new death penalty scheme was constitutional. Since Gregg v. Georgia, the United States has executed over 1,400 individuals. Georgia’s revised state statute in Gregg legislated objective criteria to direct and limit the imposition of death and allowed consideration of the character and record of the defendant. It is in this consideration of the character of the defendant where the inherent danger of religion and politics is most prevalent.
In a normal guilt or innocence phase of a jury trial, jurors are to determine facts, and, from those facts, determine if the state has proven a defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. In the sentencing phase of a death penalty case, however, jurors are to determine life or death.
In doing so, jurors are instructed to consider aspects of a defendant’s character to determine if there are any factors in fairness or mercy that may reduce the defendant’s moral culpability.
Determining who should live and who should die is a moral decision, an individual and personal moral decision. And as such, religion plays a major part. Unlike a guilt or innocence phase of a jury trial, in the sentencing phase, jurors are told that they should not change their individual personal beliefs solely because of the opinions of the fellow jurors. Each individual juror must make his or her own moral decision. Terms and phrases such as fairness or mercy and moral culpability inevitably invite religion into the life or death consideration.
The problem in death penalty cases is that a person whose moral and religious beliefs forbid them from imposing a death sentence cannot serve on a death penalty case. Yet those whose religious and moral beliefs allow for the imposition of death routinely sit on death juries. “Death qualification” as it is called, stacks the deck for death. “An eye for an eye” may not necessarily prohibit you from serving on a capital case but a belief in the sanctity of all human life most certainly will.
Despite the use of objective criteria in determining who should live or die, the decision of who lives and who dies is obviously subjective. The question becomes, “Should we as a society be making the decision of who lives and who dies?” Who is smart enough to not only decide life or death, but to decide what should be considered in making that determination?
Research is actually being conducted to determine a “Depravity Standard” in an effort to give jurors “guidelines” to help them make the life or death decision. Researchers are actually trying to quantify and qualify “evil” to aid jurors in imposing death sentences. In effect, they are trying to give scientific validity in death sentences and thereby add a level of comfort to those who impose a death sentence knowing “science” backs their moral decision.
Politics, of course, also plays a major role. The death penalty has and always will be politicized. It can certainly be argued that the higher the media attention in a murder case, the greater chance the state or federal prosecutor will seek the death penalty. “Tough on crime” wins elections, from local elections to presidential elections. In 1992, then-Governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas returned to his home state in the middle of his presidential election campaign to make sure the execution of Ricky Ray Rector took place.
Many in Arkansas opposed the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, not because of what he did, but because of who he had become. Ricky Ray Rector was convicted of killing two men, one of whom was a police officer. Before being apprehended, Rector shot himself in the temple. He survived his self-inflicted gunshot wound, which in effect destroyed his frontal lobe and severely impaired his mental capacity.
For his last meal, Rector put his dessert, pecan pie, aside, telling guards he was saving it for later. Despite Rector’s clear impaired intellectual mental capacity, he was executed on January 4, 1992. Then Governor Clinton used the publicity of the execution to show he was not “soft on crime.” Many believe that this may have been a turning point in the presidential election.
The debate and discussion of the death penalty must continue as long as the United States continues to execute its citizens. But the debate and discussion must be an informed one. The debate must include the practical effects that politics and religion play in the imposition of the death penalty — and the inherent danger of both.
As we approach Lent, Americans who claim the Name of Jesus must ask ourselves how the crucified Lord views capital punishment. When considering the use of the death penalty, perhaps the question is not, “Does the convicted deserve to die?” Perhaps the question is, “Are followers of Jesus the kind of people who will put someone to death?”
Gregory T. Parzych, Esq. is a graduate of Marquette Law School and has practiced criminal defense in Arizona since 1992, representing capital defendants for two decades.