Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

How America's Death Penalty Ends

"Lethal Injection (Barbie Jail Fun Series)" by Isabelle Heitzmann, Paris, France, Feb. 2007
"Lethal Injection (Barbie Jail Fun Series)" by  artist Isabelle Heitzmann,
Paris, France, Feb. 2007
Nebraska marks an important new milestone in the abolition of capital punishment.

The decision Wednesday by the state of Nebraska to abolish the death penalty suggests that what seemed unimaginable as recently as a decade ago - namely that the United States would join most of the rest of the world in abolishing capital punishment - now seems well within the horizon of possibility.

The surprise move by the Nebraska legislature - overriding a gubernatorial veto with a bipartisan and sweeping 30-to-19 vote - galvanized and focused public's attention on America's death penalty for the 2nd time in just a month. On May 17, Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was sentenced to death. That headline though, as dramatic as it was, tells us little about the future of capital punishment in the United States; Tsarnaev's case reminds us that even in liberal Massachusetts jurors can be persuaded that death is an appropriate punishment for an unusually gruesome crime and a particularly unsympathetic defendant whose guilt was never in doubt. Yet it should not distract us from a clear headed appraisal of the present condition and likely future of America's death penalty.

Nebraska's decision, though, represents a true milestone on the road to abolition of the death penalty - a sweeping reversal of the 1990s tough-on-crime era that saw governors almost bragging about the number of death warrants they signed. The factors that led to abolition in staunchly conservative Nebraska are the very same factors now finding receptive audiences across the country: Put simply, conversation about capital punishment today is less about those we seek to punish and more about the damage the death penalty does to some our nation's most cherished values, to our beliefs in due process and equal treatment and to our commitment to insuring that no innocent person pays with his life for a crime he did not commit.

These concerns have, since 2007, led elected officials in New Jersey, New Mexico, Illinois, Connecticut, Maryland and now Nebraska to end the death penalty in those states. In each of them political leaders focused less on abstract, moral arguments about who does or does not deserve to die and more on the realities of a death penalty system that seems in many ways to be irreparably broken. Thus, in December 2007 when he signed a bill making New Jersey the first state in a generation to abolish capital punishment, then Governor Jon Corzine said, "There are many reasons to ban the death penalty in New Jersey. None is more important," Corzine continued, "than the fact that it is difficult, if not impossible, to develop a foolproof system that precludes the possibility of executing the innocent."

18 months later, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson signed a bill ending that state's death penalty. Richardson - who once supported capital punishment - noted that at that time 130 death-row prisoners had been exonerated across the nation, four of them in New Mexico. He observed, "Regardless of my personal opinion about the death penalty, I do not have confidence in the criminal justice system as it currently operates to be the final arbiter when it comes to who lives and who dies for their crime." 4 years after Richardson's statement, Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois echoed these same concerns when he signed his state's abolition of the death penalty. "Since our experience has shown that there is no way to design a perfect death penalty system, free from the numerous flaws that can lead to wrongful convictions or discriminatory treatment, I have concluded that the proper course of action is to abolish it."

When Connecticut's Governor Daniel Malloy ended his state's death penalty he noted that he came to oppose capital punishment while working as a prosecutor. "I learned firsthand that our system of justice is very imperfect," he said. "I came to believe that doing away with the death penalty was the only way to ensure it would not be unfairly imposed."

Similar sentiments were heard in Nebraska. "Lawmakers and Nebraska residents," Stacy Anderson, executive director of Nebraskans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty noted, "recognize the realities of an error-prone system that risks executing innocent people and harms murder victim family members. Conservatives like me want to see policies that are fiscally responsible, limit the size and scope of government, and value life. The death penalty fails on all counts."

Source: Austin Sarat, associate dean of the faculty and William Nelson Cromwell professor of jurisprudence and political science at Amherst College, is author of Gruesome Spectacles: Botched executions and America's Death Penalty, politico.com, May 29, 2015

Why Conservatives are Now 2nd-Guessing the Death Penalty

For decades, conservatives have generally supported the death penalty as a way of maintaining law and order. The nation itself has gone back and forth on the issue, seriously curtailing it in several court cases and affirming it in Gregg vs. Georgia in 1976. Since that time it has been the craze in a few states (with Texas and Florida as the most obvious examples) and not practiced at all by others (18 to be exact).

Social conservatives -- still one of the largest political blocs on the right -- point to the Bible as a basis for the death penalty. Between an "eye for an eye" in the Old Testament law, or the government's right to "bear a sword" in the New, the Bible definitely deals with the topic. For most Christian religions the New Testament is considered the basis of Christian theology, since the "new law" fulfilled the old. In the New Testament, the scripture says the death penalty is allowed but not required. Increasingly, social conservatives have become comfortable with that reality.

In a conservative dominated Nebraska Legislature, there was an overwhelming vote against the death penalty. So strong was the vote that it even survived a veto attempt by the governor with a solid override. A coalition of strange bedfellows -- individuals who would never support each other on most issues came together to vote for the end of the death penalty. It was an impressive political feat.

So what has led to such strange voting behavior in Nebraska and the rise of groups such as Conservatives Concerned about the Death Penalty?

For years, people of all political persuasions have been concerned about the incredible number of Americans that have found themselves incarcerated. Former U.S. Senator Jim Webb, has stated that the U.S. has "5 % of the world's population..." and "25 % of the world's known prison population." This statement has been verified by PolitiFact and others. It is increasingly obvious that governments are in the conviction business rather than in the justice business. This has certainly made a case for caution.

Over the last few decades there has been a dramatic increase in the use of DNA in convicting individuals of crimes. Often these convictions were proven false and overturned. For many of those, the overturning of those cases came too late. It is bad enough when governments warehouse people who are not guilty, but it is unconscionable for anyone to die for a crime they did not do. Sloppy crime scene investigations, disorganized labs, and innocent human error alone make a powerful case of stopping short of the death penalty. Life without parole makes so much more sense.

Many who are part of the modern conservative movement are actually, "conservaterians." This group is often described as individuals who "feel like libertarians around conservatives and like conservatives around libertarians." Many are libertarians who simply are looking to develop some political clout by working in the conservative movement. Others, like myself, are conservatives who have simply become more libertarian over time. Regardless of how they fell into the conservatarian numbers, they all have a healthy suspicion of government.

For years, as a foot soldier in the conservative movement, I long advocated support for the death penalty. Like millions of other Americans, I became suspicious of a government that has an inconsistent track record when it comes to crime, punishment and liberty itself.

What conservatives of all types have become uncomfortable with is the fact that the government has become abusive and intrusive altogether. In recent years the numbers of conservatives that blindly support the U.S. as the world police force has narrowed to a swath called neoconservatives, and that group is shrinking in numbers.

Richard Viguerie, the godfather of the modern conservative movement, may of put the conservative position against the death penalty best, stating: "The fact is, I don't understand why more conservatives don't oppose the death penalty." He continued saying that the death penalty "is, after all, a system set up under laws established by politicians (too many of whom lack principles); enforced by prosecutors (many of whom want to become politicians--perhaps a character flaw? -- and who prefer wins over justice); and adjudicated by judges (too many of whom administer personal preference rather than the law)." He goes on to say that "conservatives have every reason to believe the death penalty system is no different from any politicized, costly, inefficient, bureaucratic, government-run operation, which we conservatives know are rife with injustice."

The conservative movement against the death penalty is not reaction or illogical. It actually makes perfect sense for a people that fundamentally claim to distrust government.

Source: Kevin Price, Publisher and Editor in Chief, US Daily Review, Huffington Post, May 29, 2015

Death penalty debate stirred by Boston sentence

The death sentence of convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, combined with 4 allegedly botched executions in the U.S. last year and an anticipated Supreme Court ruling on the death penalty this summer, has fueled debate among evangelicals regarding the legitimacy of capital punishment.

Nebraska became the 19th state to ban the death penalty, when lawmakers overrode Gov. Pete Ricketts' veto of a capital punishment ban May 27.

Whether taking a convicted murderer's life is just, whether the death penalty is applied fairly across all races and economic classes and whether the common execution method of lethal injection is humane are among the issues under consideration. Some states have experienced difficulty obtaining lethal injection drugs because European manufacturers have refused to sell them based on moral objections to the death penalty.

A federal jury's May 15 decision to sentence Tsarnaev to death for killing 3 people and injuring hundreds more in a 2013 terrorist attack at the Boston Marathon provoked a variety of responses among Southern Baptists.

"I certainly know many people who believe that in certain circumstances the death penalty, as a legal function of the state and as a deterrent to crime, is justified," Neal Davidson, pastor of the Boston-area Hope Chapel in Sterling, Mass., told Baptist Press. "But I don't believe there's been any momentum in our state to try to reinstate the death penalty. It's really quite interesting: you had a federal trial with the death penalty on the table taking place in a state that does not have the death penalty." Massachusetts is among the states that have abolished the death penalty for cases tried in state courts, according to deathpenaltyinfo.org. Individuals convicted of federal crimes in those states may still be sentenced to capital punishment.

On one side of the debate, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary's Daniel Heimbach told BP "it would violate the biblical ethic if our government did not apply the death penalty" in Tsarnaev's case. On the other side, New Orleans pastor David Crosby said he would suspend capital punishment if he could and noted that death row inmates he ministered to said the term "capital punishment" derives from the fact that people with no capital receive the punishment more often than people of means who commit similar crimes.

Other evangelicals endorse the death penalty in a highly qualified manner or are undecided about it. Davidson told BP he is "not categorically opposed [to] or in favor" of capital punishment. He believes there is biblical warrant for employing it as a means of just punishment and a deterrent to crime. But he worries about the possibility of human error in death penalty cases and wants to "err on the side of grace."

A 2000 Southern Baptist Convention resolution supported "the fair and equitable use of capital punishment by civil magistrates as a legitimate form of punishment for those guilty of murder or treasonous acts that result in death."

Other Christian groups that have affirmed capital punishment include the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and the National Association of Evangelicals. The Assemblies of God has posted on its website a defense of capital punishment that acknowledges disagreement among members of Assemblies of God churches. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the National Council of Churches, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops all have opposed the death penalty.

A 2014 Gallup poll found that 61 % of Americans believe the death penalty is morally acceptable. Support has dropped below 60 % only once in the past 13 years, according to a ReligionLink report. Most other developed nations have abolished the death penalty.

Whether lethal injection is humane has been one focus of debate during the past year, with four allegedly botched lethal injections in the U.S. in 2014, according to NPR. In Oklahoma, convicted murderer Clayton Lockett appeared to twist on the gurney after death chamber staff failed to place his intravenous line properly, Reuters reported.

In Arizona, convicted double murderer Joseph Wood took nearly two hours to die and had to be administered 15 doses of the lethal drug, according to USA Today. The Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of the current term on a case challenging Oklahoma's method of lethal injection as a breach of the Constitution's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment.

Biblical arguments

Heimbach, senior professor of Christian ethics at Southeastern, offered 2 reasons for "believing the Bible requires government to execute persons proven guilty of premeditated murder," though he noted there are additional reasons.

"The 1st is because in Genesis 9:5 the Creator says that anyone guilty of murder forfeits his own life by doing so," Heimbach said in written comments. "And, since the sanctity of life ethic comes from God, and derives from the Creator-creature relationship, this is a very strong argument. The 2nd comes from the last part of Ezekiel 13:19 where God says sparing the lives of murderers is a moral lie contrary to the sanctity of life ethic He requires."

Heimbach cautioned that governments should "never rush to judgment," "never place retribution in the hands of private citizens" and "never demand killing anyone based on feeling self-righteous anger, hate or fear." As with all humans, the debt murderers owe "can be truly satisfied only by the death penalty Jesus paid," he said.

The Boston Marathon bomber's trial illustrates how love and justice should both be considered during sentencing in a murder case, Heimbach said.

"Biblical love never lessens what biblical justice requires, and it is love for those whose lives were lost that demands the bomber forfeit his. Taking the bomber's life cannot possibly pay for what he stole and should not be taken this way. But what it can do, and should do, is tell the world and God that the people the bomber murdered were deeply and truly loved, and that what he did was irretrievably wrong," Heimbach said.

For Crosby, pastor of First Baptist Church in New Orleans, ministering to death row inmates in Texas helped solidify a developing conviction that the U.S. should abolish capital punishment. As a pastor in Texas, he led a weekly Bible study for death row inmates for six years at the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville. Among the inmates he baptized and discipled was Karla Faye Tucker, a convicted double murderer whose highly publicized conversion to faith in Christ occurred just before she met Crosby.

Tucker's 1998 execution by lethal injection marked the first time a woman in the U.S. had been executed since 1984.

"I remember the moment that I knew she was dead, but I did not witness the execution," said Crosby, who discipled Tucker 4 years and moved to New Orleans shortly before her execution.

Crosby told First Baptist the following Sunday, "I am a citizen of this republic. This is participatory government -- government of the people, by the people and for the people. And here's one of the people who doesn't want to kill these other people anymore."

The death penalty, Crosby told BP, too often is unjustly administered and does not serve as a deterrent to crime.

"It's pretty evident that given the same charges [and] the same conviction, poor people are more likely to be executed than wealthy people," Crosby said. "Black people are more likely to be executed than white people. That's just true statistically. It's undeniable."

The death penalty may be just in individual cases, Crosby said, but the racial and economic disparities of the system should provoke objections among believers.

During his doctoral studies at Baylor University, Crosby researched the death penalty as a deterrent to crime and found lower murder rates in jurisdictions without capital punishment. He also told BP it costs considerably less by most accounts to imprison a person for life than it does to fund extended court proceedings and the execution itself.

Though Scripture allows capital punishment, it is unclear how often it was administered in the Old Testament, and we no longer employ it, as Israelites were permitted to do, for offenses like adultery and rebellion against parents, Crosby said. Additionally, God's decision to spare Cain's life demonstrates that murder does not require the death penalty, he said.

Crosby cited the unjust executions of Jesus and Stephen in the New Testament as illustrations that systems of government can fail in the process of administering capital punishment.

The Gospel on death row

Regardless of their stances on the death penalty, Southern Baptists agree on the necessity of sharing the Gospel with death row inmates -- an emphasis highlighted by the 2000 resolution. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary's program in the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's extension program in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Darrington Unit carry out such a ministry.

Ben Phillips, director of Southwestern's Darrington extension, told BP 2 recent graduates with bachelor's degrees in biblical studies were on death row before having their sentences reduced to life in prison. Though Phillips believes the death penalty is a just punishment for willfully taking an innocent, defenseless life, he says Christians should love mercy and take the Gospel to prisoners sentenced to death.

One Southwestern graduate who used to be on death row hopes to return to minister to inmates there, Phillips said.

"Rather than celebrate the application of the death penalty in general or any particular case," Phillips said, "we need to love mercy and not only in a general sense hope that 'those people' will come to Christ, but actively work to share the Gospel with them in a way that speaks to them."

Source: David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service, The Baptist Press, May 29, 2015

Report an error, an omission: deathpenaltynews@gmail.com

Most Viewed (Last 7 Days)

Nevada law says chief medical officer must advise on executions despite ethical clash

Russian who joined ISIS in Iraq sentenced to hanging

20 Minutes to Death: Record of the Last Execution in France

Ohio executes Gary Otte

Iran: Prisoners Hanged in Public While Crowd Watched

Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

Poorly executed - Indiana inmate challenges state's lethal cocktail change

Arkansas death-row inmate tries to drop appeal blocking execution; request denied

Nevada inmate asks how he should mentally prepare for execution

"I cannot execute convicted murderers," Tanzania's president declares