The death penalty has gotten a taste of its own medicine over the last two decades. Last year there were 39 executions in the U.S., down from a peak of 98 in 1999.
But it isn’t just a matter of a more compassionate judicial system. In the last six years, legislators in Maryland, Connecticut, Illinois, New Jersey, New Mexico and New York abandoned the death penalty.
However, there are still places where wild-west philosophies resonate, where a “peacemaker” is a firearm and “justice” is defined in retribution. Such calculations should have ended with Christ’s new kingdom.
“Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deut. 19:21). You have heard it said there is another method of responding to evil that errs on the side of grace — a gift even the most devout among us will accept with gratitude at our own time of judging.
I have a keen interest in the matter, as a member of the End Death Penalty Task Force of Mennonite Church USA’s Western District Conference. In Kansas, those wishing to kill the death penalty have an ally in state representative Steven Becker, a member of Buhler Mennonite Church. He is introducing a bill to replace the death penalty with a life sentence without parole.
“In American jurisprudence, there is no such thing as absolute certainty,” said Becker, a retired district court judge. “How can we impose the irreversible absolute certainty of death when we do not require the absolute certainty of guilt? There continues to be exonerations of death row inmates. As long as there exists even the possibility of execution of an innocent, there must be no executions.”
The death penalty carries a patina of logical and fiscal prudence enticing to politicians eager to burnish conservative credentials. However, the appeals process and other expenses actually end up costing more than a bed and three meals a day. A Kansas audit found a death sentence costs about double life in prison. The Palm Beach Post estimates Florida would save $51 million per year by going to life without parole.
The death penalty is applied unequally. Half of murder victims are white, but 79 percent of capital cases involve white victims. Women commit 10 percent of murders but only represent 1 percent of executions.
Further, the death penalty does not have value as a deterrent. The U.S. murder rate dropped in the 1990s but has since held level, with identical decreases in states without the death penalty and those that use it. The Death Penalty Information Center reports the murder rates in death penalty states continue to be routinely higher than in those without it.
Lawmakers need to hear from those who do not want anyone killed in their name. Western District may have made a task force, but this is a task for anyone in the 32 states that still kill in the name of justice.