The Death Penalty: Just Deserts or Justice Deserted?

barsIn Texas yesterday another life ended in the USA’s most-used death chamber.

Khristian Oliver was 32 years old. He was declared dead 8 minutes after administration of a lethal injection.

In 1999 Oliver had been convicted of  a murder carried out in the course of a burglary. His victim was shot and beaten to death with the butt of a rifle. He accepted he carried out the shooting.

Texas is one of several US States to retain the death penalty for such cases. However, the decision to impose it on Oliver courted controversy. It was reported that during deliberations on sentencing, the jury brought biblical rather than purely state law into consideration. A juror allegedly read this aloud:

And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death.” (Numbers 35:16)

Another juror later reported that about 80% of the jurors had brought scripture into their considerations, considering that if civil law and biblical law were at odds, biblical law should prevail. He’s reported to have said that if he had been told he could not consult the bible, “I would have left the courtroom.” Another said jurors looked to and took comfort from the bible in making their decision.

Oliver’s lawyers appealed on the basis that the Jury ought exclusively to have considered state law in reaching their decision, and that accordingly there had not been a fair trial. They were unsuccessful because although it was established that impermissible information (biblical law) had been taken into consideration, no prejudice had resulted given it had been established that a murder, for which the death penalty was open to the Jury under state law, had been committed.

The death penalty is something that seems to escape our attention much of the time in the UK. It’s not something we think about very much. According to Washington’s Death Penalty Information Centre, there were 3297 convicts on Death Row in January 2009. Between January and October, 42 people were executed. Forty two human lives ended at the hand of the state.

Reflecting on Oliver’s death I’m troubled. I have questions.

How does a “Christian” state justify the death penalty? Can it?

Anyone can pick and verse from the Old Testament to justify a position, but what does Jesus have to say about this situation? What’s the effect of the new covenant on this Old Testament teaching? And what of Jesus teaching here:

Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously. (Matt 5:38-42)

Where is the interface of justice and mercy here? We’re exhorted “to act justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with God“. Is this the face of doing so?

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7 responses to “The Death Penalty: Just Deserts or Justice Deserted?

  1. Which translation is that?

  2. LeisureGuy > Thanks for stopping by. The Matthew verses are from the Message paraphrase.

  3. I agree with the Matt 5 quotation on a personal level (at least in theory; practice is somewhat harder…). But can that really be applied to the policy of a state, even if it claims to be Christian? Wouldn’t that result in everyone just “standing there and taking” all kinds of crime? Sure, you can adjust where the line is drawn, but I don’t thing we can expect a society, corporately, to follow that.

    Does the jury decide the sentence as well as the verdict in the US? (I’m in the UK too.) While it seems that the murder verdict wasn’t in doubt, it’s a worrying development if the OT law swayed them towards a death sentence.

  4. Big Dan > I completely agree with your second point – worrying and a derogation from the rule of law. But from a legal perspective (my day job) the appeal decision seems correct.

    As to the question of state policy, interesting, thank you. But if the Matt 5 isn’t a good reference point, what is?

    I do think that justice is an integral part of the Christian faith (cf Micah 6:8), but (on the assumption of living in a Christian state – and yes, I realise that’s a whole other can of worms!) how should biblical principles influence societal rule-making?

  5. I’m no scripture expert, but I think that OT law was largely based on restorative justice – setting right that which had been done wrong. I think Jesus overturned that on a personal level – no more tit for tat, as the Message so nicely puts it – but should that extend to society as well?

    I think that if we love our neighbours, we should:

    – protect our neighbours with a penal system severe enough to deter a lot of wrongdoing
    – see that those who are wronged are properly supported and compensated (but not avenged)
    – treat those who have done wrong (and yes we’ve all done wrong, but I mean overstepping a certain line) compassionately but firmly (as I hope we would expect to be treated) with the objective of avoiding reoffending

    So I’d say that my reference point would be the Golden Rule. The trouble with that is that it takes you right back to basics, and you have to build the details of your philosophy from scratch.

  6. From what I’ve read, the deterrence effect of severe punishment is minimal and its main effect is to brutalize society. It’s much better if the goal of the prison system is rehabilitation rather than punishment. Some minority of those imprisoned are more or less hopeless cases, and those should be segregated but still not mistreated.

  7. Pingback: Christian Carnival CCCII « who am i?

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