Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sobering Truths in the Death Penalty

Before the Internet age, I used to subscribe to Christianity Today magazine.

Then they ran an editorial musing about whether the United States should reconsider its allowance of capital punishment.

And I realized the rumors I'd been hearing might actually be true: the venerable evangelical periodical founded by Billy Graham was going liberal.

I cancelled my subscription, and even today, only occasionally check out their website. Mostly out of curiosity, to see how far they might be straying from the straight-and-narrow.

And some conservatives think I'm a left-wing radical!

Granted, among people of faith, our country's debate over the death penalty doesn't rank up there with the heady doctrinal and theological hair-splitting that likely divides most readers of Christianity Today. But over the past couple of days, as the international furor over the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia has proven, the issue of punishment by death has yet to be settled.

Both Christians and secularists in America and around the world have been either horrified that multiple attempts at resolving Davis' sentence ultimately failed to stop his execution, or satisfied that justice had finally been served.

To be certain, we should never marginalize life, nor death. Which means those who are found guilty of doing either by committing murder can morally face a punishment designed to enshrine the sanctity of life.

Not that vigilante justice is the appropriate way of securing this recognition. God has vested the responsibility for punishing murderers with human governments, and just as death in warfare is not murder, neither is administering the sentence of death as recompense for taking someone else's life.

Trail of Crimes Topped by Killing a Cop

None of us should forget the travesty of a police officer being gunned down in the line of duty. In this case, it all started when Mark MacPhail, a Savannah cop, investigated the beating of a homeless man outside a convenience store. Davis, who'd just shot another man in the face at a pool party moments earlier, was pistol-whipping his second victim with an accomplice when MacPhail tried to intervene. It ended with officer MacPhail dead with bullet wounds to his chest and face.

To this day, no forensic evidence irrefutably linking Davis to MacPhail's death has been found. We have no physical proof that Davis pulled the trigger and shot MacPhail. Could the gun have accidentally discharged multiple times during the melee with such accuracy? Are the assertions that the gun appears to be the same one that was used in both shootings that evening, and that Davis was the shooter both times, sufficient to sentence Davis to death?

Putting the Trial on Trial

Apparently, the bullets used to injure the first shooting victim and kill MacPhail were not the same, but could have been fired from the same gun. The other participant implicated in the scuffle waffled on whether he, too, had a gun. And the plausible discrepancies began to pile up from there.

A crucial piece of evidence was ruled inadmissible because it had been obtained without a search warrant. At least one witness testified under oath that he had been intimidated by the police. Eventually, seven of nine witnesses had their identifications of Davis as MacPhail's shooter disqualified as Davis' appeals wound through the legal system. Even an unusual review of Davis' trial by none other than the Supreme Court failed to uncover any crucial evidence that hadn't already been vetted for the original jury.

Davis' lawyers insisted their client wasn't guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but even though America's justice system appears to have bent over backwards during the past twenty years for them, they haven't been able to prove it.

Last night, Davis' case could go no further, and he was pronounced dead at 11:08 pm EST, at the age of 42. His last words were these:

"I want to address the members of the MacPhail family. Despite the situation we are all in, you think I’ve killed your father, your brother, your husband, I’m not the person, I’m innocent, what happened was not my fault, I did not have a gun that night, I did not shoot your family member. I’m so sorry for your loss, I really am. I hope you will finally see the truth and others will, too. To my family and supporters, thank you for your prayers and continue to pray. For those about to take my life, I forgive you. God bless you all."

Death Penalty Caught in the Crossfire

Undoubtedly, this legal drama will be debated for years to come in law schools and human rights conferences around the country.

Not only does it encapsulate the tensions that can arise when a white police officer attempts to protect a relatively poor black community, but it involves the myriad social dysfunctions that can exist in that community. Rumor had it, for example, that neighborhood drug gangs wanted somebody - anybody - to get arrested and hauled off to jail for the officer's killing, because the sweep by police looking for suspects was hurting their business.

It also characterizes the crucial problems which arise from ineffective defense attorneys. Some of Davis' appeals were denied because his legal team hadn't presented new evidence properly.

Personally, I agree with MacPhail's widow, who said Davis had two decades to prove his innocence, and he hadn't been able to. Georgia's pardon and parole board spent a year picking over the case before corroborating the jury's verdict. Even the Supreme Court weighed in on this matter, and the ACLU had been pleading with President Barak Obama's office, since he could issue a stay of execution if he so chose.

He didn't.

Granted, there's the whole thing about presidents sticking their noses in Judicial Branch procedures, a tactic that can get messy quickly. But do you think that with his tepid popularity among liberals - his support base - Obama isn't looking for every opportunity to turn the tide of discontent and play superhero to legions of death penalty opponents? What are the chances that his Attorney General's staff wasn't pouring over the case this past week, trying to find just one point of order around which they could drape reasonable doubt? If the Oval Office couldn't find anything to save Davis' case, then chances seem pretty good that nobody else could, either.

Would I have personally been more comfortable with seeing more forensic evidence? Sure. But remember, this crime took place in 1989, in a smallish southern town, before the technology commonly available to crime scene investigators today had been invented. Besides, reasonable doubt is still reasonable doubt. And plenty of experts have concluded that the jury had sufficient information to decide Davis' case beyond this linchpin of jurisprudence.

The Purpose of Capital Punishment

We can't forget somebody committed officer MacPhail to his eternal destiny that tragic night in Savannah. And for the past twenty years, at least two witnesses have remained adamant that Davis was the somebody.

The Bible teaches in the Old Testament that for capital punishment to be rendered, at least two witnesses need to attest to the guilt of the accused. And those witnesses will be held accountable for their crucial testimony.  The New Testament contains numerous passages regarding adherence to the two-witness rule, including indirect references when the woman accused of adultery was brought before Christ, and when somebody wants to bring charges against a church elder.

Some scholars like to take the lack of any definitive New Testament endorsement of capital punishment as proof that it's an expired Old Testament relic of pre-grace days.  However, the fact that Christ was framed by a whole class of religious leaders and crucified without any legal recourse because of it - even though He'd never murdered anyone - actually lends credibility to the permanence of capital punishment's Biblical validity.

Having Christ die from a prosecution whose governmental authority for capital punishment the apostles never contested - although they did point out the illegality of the charges and testimony against Jesus - hardly seems to portray the actual use of capital punishment itself as immoral.

Does it?

If the state of Georgia has been led to an erroneous conclusion in the Davis case, God will judge appropriately those who have born false witness against the accused.

If that sounds like a cop-out, don't worry: God promises that revenge is His. By way of contrast, capital punishment is not revenge; it's an affirmation of life.

Because meanwhile, while crowds of protesters decried Davis' execution in Georgia last night, here in Texas, another execution took place.

Self-avowed white supremacist Lawrence Russell Brewer died by lethal injection at about 6:20pm CST for the infamously horrific dragging death of James Byrd, Jr., in the rural east Texas town of Jasper.

No crowds of anxious death penalty foes mourned Brewer's passing. Instead, our local media recounted the life of his victim, and interviewed his family, trying to find consolation in justice.

Justice that isn't revenge, but an advocate for what is right.

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