News Articles

FIRST-PERSON: Death penalty underscores sanctity of human life

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)–The sacredness and intrinsic value of human life demands that a moral society protect the unborn and execute its most heinous murderers. Opposition to abortion and support for the death penalty are not only ethically consistent, they are both required by a biblical worldview.

January’s 30th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s infamous Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion on demand and the indiscriminate commutation of death sentences of more than 160 murderers on Illinois’ death row bring attention to America’s great moral confusion about the value of life.

In the waning hours of his scandal-plagued term, Gov. George Ryan commuted the death sentences of 164 murderers to life in prison, pardoned four and lessened the sentences of three others after he concluded the system is “broken.”

The sweeping commutations came even though the Illinois Prisoner Review Board recommended clemency in only 10 cases after marathon hearings for 140 murderers. The commutations even included 20 who declined the governor’s invitation to seek clemency.

“I know some of those people are guilty,” Ryan said. “But you can’t pick and choose. That’s what drove us to mass commutations.”

Reactions from victims’ families and prosecutors were fierce. Nancy Small, whose husband died after being buried alive in a wooden box and who was a family friend of Ryan, said she felt betrayed, calling his action “a real slap in the face.” Cook County State’s Attorney Richard Devine called the decision “stunningly disrespectful to the hundreds of families who lost their loved ones to these death row murderers.”

The Criminal Justice Legal Foundation described two of the murderers who were spared execution: “Anthony Brown, who raped and murdered Felicia Lewis and killed her boyfriend in 1994, was convicted by DNA evidence. There is no doubt about DeWayne Britz kidnapping, raping and killing Andrea Covert. He confessed to these crimes and led the police to her body. These are typical examples of the cases that took thousands of hours to investigate and prosecute. Jurors unanimously agreed that every one of these murderers deserved the death sentence.”

Driving much of the recent debate in America about legitimacy of capital punishment are claims that innocent persons have been put on death row and that the criminal justice system is biased against racial minorities and the poor.

A widely cited study by Columbia University Law School professor James Liebman claims to have found a 68 percent error rate in capital cases. The Liebman study claims that 73 percent of Florida death penalty cases are “fraught with error.” The study, released in 2000, is not, however, all it is claimed to be, according to University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell.

In a June 16, 2000, Wall Street Journal op-ed Cassell argued, “The 68 percent factoid is quite deceptive. For starters, it has nothing to do with … cases in which an innocent person is convicted for a murder he did not commit. Indeed, missing from the media coverage was the most critical statistic: After reviewing 23 years of capital sentences, the study’s authors (like other researchers) were unable to find a single case in which an innocent person was executed. Thus, the most important error rate — the rate of mistaken executions — is zero.”

Further, Cassell notes the Liebman study fails to distinguish between reversal of death sentences based on evidence and those based on ideological opposition to capital punishment, as in the 40 convictions overturned by the California Supreme Court during the era of liberal activist jurist Rose Bird.

Does the death penalty act as a deterrent? Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land recently cited a January 2002 Emory University study which found the death penalty does act as a deterrent.

Whether capital punishment is a deterrent, whether it satisfies victims’ desire for justice or even whether it is consistent with public opinion (which still overwhelmingly supports the death penalty, see www.PollingReport.com) are not the most important issues when Christians consider the ethical validity of capital punishment. For Christians the controlling question is always: What does the Bible say?

Two of the most important passages with respect to the Bible’s position on capital punishment are Genesis 9:1-7 and Romans 13:1-7. In the first, God commands the use of the death penalty in his post-flood covenant with Noah, on the basis of the fact that man is made in God’s image. In the second, the apostle Paul explicitly affirms the responsibility of the state to punish evildoers.

In “Toward Old Testament Ethics,” Walter Kaiser comments on the importance on the reference to God’s image in Gen. 9:6 and the continuing validity of the command to enforce the death penalty: “It was because humans are made in the image of God that capital punishment for first degree murder became a perpetual obligation. To kill a person was tantamount to killing God in effigy. That murderer’s life was owed to God; not to society, not to the grieving loved ones, and not even as a preventative measure for more crimes of a similar nature.”

In his commentary on Romans, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Tom Schreiner ties Romans 13 with the Genesis passage in discussing the word “sword” in verse 4. His writes that the reference “is to the broader judicial function of the state, particularly its right to deprive of life those who had committed crimes worthy of death. Paul would not have flinched in endorsing the right of ruling authorities to practice capital punishment since Gen. 9:6 supports it by appealing to the fact that human beings are made in God’s image.”

Some Christians may object that Jesus’ model of love and nonviolence is inconsistent with the death penalty. In “Evangelical Ethics,” John Jefferson Davis answers, “God ordains punishment in time of those whom he may in fact pardon in eternity. The Bible affirms the legitimacy of both ‘horizontal’ (civic) and ‘vertical’ (saving) righteousness. The two are not identical, and neither should displace the other.”

Davis adds: “While the civil laws of Israel regarding capital punishment are no longer binding in the New Testament age, the mandate given through Noah (Gen. 9:6) is still valid and sanctions the capital penalty for the crime of murder. The New Testament, including the teaching of Jesus, does not overturn this basic mandate, but presupposes its continuing validity for nontheocratic societies.”

The 2001 execution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh took on a circus-like atmosphere with hordes of news media watching as “souvenirs” were hawked and some people gathered to celebrate the state-sanctioned killing. It’s no wonder some are uncomfortable with the death penalty.

The biblical endorsement of capital punishment is no license to celebrate the execution of any imager-bearer of God, no matter how notorious. Such spectacles also contribute to the stark reality that the sanctity of human life is under assault in America. Nevertheless, a society that refuses to extend this most serious punishment to those who “kill God in effigy” is one that God will eventually judge.

“If we are to prevent the very ground itself from vomiting forth its inhabitants in order to cleanse its defilement with innocent blood [Leviticus 18:25], then there had better be a godly exercise of capital punishment against all murderers,” Kaiser writes. “To extend love or mercy in exchange for justice at this level is to despise both the image of God in the one who has been suddenly felled (Gen. 9:6) and, more importantly, to despise the very basis by which we received new life in Christ by the death of the Lamb of God.”
Smith is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness.

    About the Author

  • James A. Smith Sr.