November 26, 2010

To Kill or Not to Kill?

In 2000, Claude Howard Jones was executed by the State of Texas for the murder of Allen Hilzendager during a liquor store robbery in 1989. 

Recently, he was (almost) exonerated through a DNA test on a single strand of hair found at the crime scene.


A little background: Jones was convicted on the basis of testimony from his admitted accomplice, plus a primitive forensic test on that hair.  But accomplice testimony alone is never sufficient to sustain a felony charge (wouldn’t any defendant love to beat the rap by blaming someone else?), and conclusive DNA testing wasn’t available at the time.

Plus, when Jones petitioned Governor George Bush for a stay of execution pending a (then-available) DNA test of the hair, the governor’s staff never brought it to his attention.  (This is significant because, in other cases, Bush showed himself sympathetic to such requests.)  Hence, Jones was executed on schedule.

By all accounts Claude Jones was a menace to society, a career criminal with a rap sheet as long as your arm.  And this new development doesn’t truly absolve him of anything; it simply means the prosecutor didn’t meet his constitutionally required burden of proof.  Hence, I doubt that many people are crying for Jones today.  The citizens of the Lone Star State just might be better off without him. 

Still his case goes to show, once again, that our criminal justice system – while the finest and fairest in the world – nonetheless can break down when left to the subjective judgment of us fallible humans.  A jury of his peers convicted Jones on the basis of flawed evidence, and the governor’s staff denied him a final opportunity to save himself.

Which leads me to my first reason for opposing the death penalty, a practical premise.  We’ve seen it happen again and again: Guilty verdicts can be wrong.  An innocent man dies, while the real culprit remains at large.  But if the court instead opts to prescribe a life sentence without parole – and some type of evidence later surfaces to prove the guy’s innocence – then at least you can offer a partial remedy and let the innocent man go free.

Second: Assuming the verdict is just, is it morally proper to execute a convicted felon?  Many sincere Christians will shout an emphatic “yes!,” appealing to biblical imperatives such as “an eye for an eye,” or “Whoever sheds the blood of a man, by man shall their blood be shed.”  But is it really that simple?

As with any article of faith, we must consider the whole record.  If we claim Bible authority to execute rapists and murderers, where shall we stop?  After all, the holy writ also commands us to render the ultimate penalty for adultery, kidnapping, blasphemy, human sacrifice, idolatry, incest, witchcraft, rape, false prophecy, bestiality, cursing your parents, and a dozen or so other crimes.  With this vast ruthless litany of capital crimes, I once assumed that they must have had a brutally efficient system of death chambers in old Israel.

But now I’m not so sure.

Have you ever known anyone who is not guilty of at least one of these crimes?  (In all candor, I must plead guilty to several myself.) Or shall we carry out the law only halfway?  We can’t just pick-and-choose the proof texts we like, and disregard the inconvenient truths.

Third: DNA testing, fingerprints, and all the forensic evidence in the world won’t do.  Scripture requires at least two eyewitnesses to testify in open court, for all the world to see.  There’s no provision for hiding your identity, and no witness protection program. If you’re truly eager to defend the honor of God in this way, then you willingly accept the reprisals as the natural consequence of doing the right thing.

Lastly: As a witness, you can’t just sit back in a comfy armchair and watch the state executioner carry out the punishment.  After your damning testimony, you must get your hands dirty and put the offender to death yourself; can you handle that?  If you think about it, this only makes sense.  It’s a safeguard against spiteful false witnesses.  You really think this guy is guilty, and he deserves to die?  Fine.  You may be right. So here, take this rock.  Here’s a gun, a rope, a knife. 

You first.           

1 comment:

  1. Agree. Life is God's to create and God's to take. Mercy triumphs over judgement.