I was disturbed by the enthusiastic applause, at the Reagan Library Republican debate, of the Texas death penalty and executions resulting from it. It was even worse, in my opinion, than the bitter and hateful and ignorant comments on this posting of the video from that event (no longer available). Both sides of this argument are dragging us down.
Some Christians look to the Bible for justification of the death penalty, and some anti-Christians ridicule them for doing so. I think the anti-Christians have the upper hand here since the Bible seems to advocate the death penalty, not only for murder, but for such crimes as touching Mt Sinai, striking or cursing one’s mother or father, kidnapping, owning an ox that does a second goring after being warned, lying with an animal, and failing to keep the Sabbath. And, I think we all know what Jesus, who came that we might have life, who commands us to turn the other cheek, and who suffered the death penalty is likely to say about it. Even the Old Testament gives us clear guidance on who is responsible for vengeance.
I have wavered some over the years on suitability of the death penalty but, on serious reflection, have usually come to the point of considering whether I could be the one to pull the switch or inject the poison. Almost always that answer has been negative, and that is a pretty strong argument that it is not right for me to pay somebody else to do it for me.
I lean positive, however, when I consider serial killers and mass murderers who are guilty beyond a shadow of a doubt and are unrepentant and have stopped killing only because they are incarcerated. And there is the famous case of Pee Wee Gaskins whom even incarceration could not stop. A convicted serial killer, he killed twice in prison and was finally executed at the Central Correctional Institution in Columbia, SC, September 6, 1991. Maybe I could have done the job thinking I was doing him a favor by putting him out of his misery.
But whether a person favors or opposes the death penalty, it seems to me we should be able to reach agreement on at least these three principles:
- Nobody should be put to death for a single murder. There must be a pattern of killing to justify that penalty because it is final and irreversible. Besides, life in prison is no piece of cake.
- Nobody should ever be put to death based only on eye-witness accounts. The case must be proven, not beyond a reasonable doubt, but beyond a shadow of doubt.
- Nobody should ever be put to death more than five years after the crime for which they are being executed. The recent case of Troy Davis, executed 22 years after the crime of which he was convicted primarily on eye witness testimony, is absurd. If the state cannot bring the case to a successful completion in five years, lock them up, throw away the key, and work on something else.
An earlier blog posting, Sevier County Tennessee Taliban, recounted the public hanging, more than a century ago, of two men in Sevier County TN. Their crime was committed in December, 1896, the trial began July, 1897, and, delayed by the escape and recapture of one of the convicted, the execution was held July 1899. I understand my great granddaddy was present. I hope he didn’t cheer.
You can read about the Sevier County execution in a University of Tennessee Master’s Thesis by William Joseph Cummings here.