A controversy is raging over capital punishment in Texas — a state that executes upwards of 30 to 35 people (almost all men and disproportionately African-American and poor) annually. Most Texas Christians favor capital punishment even though it has been shown repeatedly not to be a deterrent to crime. Life in prison serves just as well for that.
In 1991 a house fire killed three children in a small Texas town. The father, Cameron Todd Willingham, by most accounts not a particularly good citizen, was arrested and convicted of murder. A major contributing factor to his conviction was the testimony of three Texas “experts” who testified the fire was most definitely arson.
Willingham, age 36, was executed by lethal injection years later. He denied playing any role in his children’s deaths to his dying day.
Long after Willingham’s execution, the Innocence Project brought forth the top arson experts in America who declared the evidence against Willingham flawed. In fact, they all agreed the fire that killed his children was not arson. The testimony used against him at trial was, they say, “junk science.” Within the last year Dateline aired an episode about this phenomenon — people being convicted of arson and murder based on what is now known to be junk science.
The Texas Forensic Science Commission took up the case and has been studying the evidence and testimony for over a year. Just as they began their deliberations, the governor fired the chairman and replaced him with a well-known pro-capital punishment district attorney who, by some accounts, has hampered the investigation.
The commission’s final decision is not yet published, but it appears it will issue no definitive ruling about Willingham’s guilt or innocence. The Attorney General of the State of Texas will probably say the commission does not have that authority.
However, the commission has issued new guidelines for forensic testimony regarding arson, and they are a slap in the face of many previous arson investigators’ methods. In other words, this is an indirect way of saying that Willingham was probably innocent.
Capital punishment defenders, many who treat it like a sacrament, are bound and determined to claim that no innocent person has been executed in Texas. That seems highly unlikely — especially as numerous African-American men are being exonerated of rape charges and convictions by DNA evidence and released from prisons, some after serving many years.
The problem is that after someone is executed evidence is often discarded and destroyed, which makes the task of exonerating them nearly impossible.
A few years ago a man was executed in Texas after his final appeal was denied. The appeals court declared there was no evidence he might have been acquitted even though his court-appointed attorney fell asleep during the trial.
A few years ago a 19-year-old man was convicted and sentenced to death because he shot and killed a man who was shooting at him. The teenager and his friends burglarized the man’s home. When the homeowner returned and caught them in his house he grabbed a gun and started chasing them through the house firing at them. He cornered them in a bedroom and shot at them repeatedly, clearly intending to kill them. One of them had a pistol and fired back at that point. The homeowner died and the 19-year-old was convicted and sentenced to die. He was executed less than a decade later.
These and other cases are written up in the new book The Autobiography of an Execution by David R. Dow, who served as attorney for numerous men on death row. According to Dow, by the time the young man was executed, he was completely rehabilitated and would never have done anything like that again.
There are several theological and ethical problems with capital punishment.
First, it ends a person’s opportunity to exonerate himself or herself.
Second, it ends a person’s opportunity to accept Christ and live a God-honoring life in prison ministering to other inmates and guards.
Third, it usurps God’s place and assumes a God-like right and power to take the life of a person created in God’s image and likeness.
Fourth, it has no social benefit. It only serves a blood thirst for vengeance.
Fifth, no modern, Western country still has capital punishment.
Sixth, capital punishment is barbaric and cruel — if not to the person being executed (and who can know for sure?), to his or her family.
Seventh, innocent people are executed. A few years ago Ethel Rosenberg’s brother came forward and admitted publicly that he knew she was not complicit in the plot to steal American nuclear secrets and deliver them to the Soviet Union. He fingered her to help himself. She was electrocuted in 1953 leaving behind two small, traumatized boys.
For these and other reasons, capital punishment needs to be abolished and Christians ought to be in the forefront of that effort.
Most Christians who support capital punishment rely entirely on Old Testament material which was transcended by Jesus.