16 September 2007

Dead Man Walking


So, last week I got an email asking me to speak at Perspectives, an EU event where professors come and talk about "hot" issues in our society. I was invited to speak about capital punishment, which was a dead giveaway that I was not the first person invited to speak! No, I imagine that several other professors passed up the invitation before the ball bounced down to me. Nevertheless, whatever the circumstances, I'm glad to do it. The death penalty, in my mind, is a travesty of justice and a sign that America's little experiment with Enlightened forms of governance is far from perfect, far from completely successful.

At any rate, as part of my preparation, I decided to re-watch the 1995 film, Dead Man Walking (dir. Tim Robbins; writ. Tim Robbins, based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean; starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn). I had remembered that it was a good movie, period--quite apart from any value it may have as an "issue" film. And I was right. Dead Man Walking is well-written, well-directed, and well-acted. It tells the story of Sister Helen Prejean and her first experience with serving as a friend and spiritual advisor for a death-row inmate, Matthew Poncelet (Penn). It is probably the most intensely and deeply "Christian" movie I've ever seen in my life. Yes, more Christian than Gibson's Passion of the Christ. More Christian than, oh, I don't know, Ben-Hur or The Greatest Story Ever Told because Dead Man Walking shows us a vivid and heart-wrenching example of what it means to follow Christ today.

Perhaps because I'm thinking of the movie in the context of this upcoming lecture/discussion event, one thought that is forefront in my mind is that I appreciate this movie especially because it is not propaganda. To talk about this, I guess I need to define "propaganda." To me, propaganda is the deliberate and often skillful use of overwhelming emotional techniques to compel audiences to adopt a given viewpoint, attitude, idea, or behavior that, if contemplated quietly and rationally, they may or may not adopt. "Brainwashing" is the rather loaded and extreme synonym, and indoctrination is a very similar notion. I think some very good things can be "pushed" through propaganda: seat belt safety, abstinence from sex and drugs, salvation, etc. The thing is that propaganda can be used to push anything--it is a communication medium that cares nothing for its own content. Adolf Hitler and Billy Graham can both use propaganda to push their agendas, and it can be just as effective (as far as that goes) for both.

My problem with propaganda is that I think good ideas should be accepted because of their merits, not because I use propaganda to compel you to accept them without giving them careful and prayerful consideration. If you want to see a great case study of propaganda (indoctrination, brainwashing) at work, rent the documentary Jesus Camp, which shows some ways in which a particular breed of fundamentalist, evangelical Christians inculcates their specific set of beliefs, attitudes, opinions, and values into young children.

I am a teacher, and sometimes teachers cross the line from teaching to propaganda, but there is actually a significant difference between the two practices. Namely, teaching, when it is persuasive (and not all teaching is!), makes plain its persuasive agenda, forefronting it so that students can scrutinize it in relatively pressure-free circumstances and decide how much of it (if any) they choose to accept as their own. I like to think that teaching is putting a variety of foods out on a table, discussing the merits of each, and, perhaps, recommending a good menu, while propaganda is more like finding out what your audience's favorite food is and then somehow disguising the food you want them to eat as the food they most like to eat (kind of like soy turkey or something).

Dead Man Walking is a teaching film, not a propaganda film. While it focuses on Helen Prejean's decision to walk alongside Matthew Poncelet, it does so without making Poncelet into a criminal with a heart of gold or explaining away his evil deeds, it does so without ignoring the deep grief and anger of his victims' families, it does so without turning Prejean into a saint or an angel, and it does so without dictating the "correct" position on the death penalty. I'll have to show the movie to a group of students sometime, but I have a feeling that a pro-death penalty person could watch this movie and feel unchallenged in his opinion, and that an anti-death penalty person could watch it and feel some doubts, just as easily as the movie could raise hard questions for death penalty advocates or affirm the position of abolitionists.

That said, the movie definitely presents a deeply Christian, restorative, redemptive vision of justice and love. Prejean does argue that the state has no right to take a human life (as does Poncelet, whose concurring opinion might act as an argument in favor of capital punishment). She claims that one of the lessons of Jesus Christ was that a person is more than the worst thing s/he ever did. She asserts that while the Old Testament calls for retributive justice, it also mandates the death penalty for adultery, breaking the Sabbath, trespassing, and many other offenses. She identifies redemption and grace as the heart of Christ's teachings. I guess that, to the extent that one identifies with Prejean, it would be hard to feel strong pro-execution feelings during the movie. Still... the film refuses to soft-pedal the heinous nature of Poncelet's crime or to argue that his mitigating circumstances (a childhood with little love, a life of poverty, etc.) absolve him of responsibility.

Most of all, the movie shows that Christianity demands that we love the unlovable. It's not hard to love the good, the innocent, the gentle and kind. It is nearly impossible to love a murderer and rapist who espouses neo-Nazi, white supremacist ideologies and spews hatred toward blacks and toward the parents of his victims. But Prejean does. Not with a doe-eyed, Hallmark love that survives by ignoring the monstrous in Poncelet's life, but a deeply Christian love that sees that the monstrous deed he's done are not the man--that the murderer is, in fact, a human being, a "son of God" and that there is no better reason than that to love any person on earth.

This movie is often called a film about the death penalty, and it is that to a great extent. But today, I think that it's much more a movie about loving "the least of these," and, as such, it is a movie that Christians should see as a routine part of their Christian education. It won't indoctrinate anyone, but it will put some very rare and expensive food items on the table.



For more information, not on the film, but on the death penalty, please start with Bryan Stevenson's heroic organization, the Equal Justice Initiative. Bryan Stevenson is, and mean this in all love and sincerity, my hero. http://eji.org/eji/

13 comments:

dudleysharp said...

Dead Man Walking and Sr. Prejean's Death Penalty Disinformation:
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters

I. Dead Family Walking: The Bourque Family Story of Dead Man Walking , by D. D. deVinci, Goldlamp Publishing, 2006

" . . .makes you realize the Dead Man Walking truly belongs on the shelf in the library in the Fiction category."

"Being devout Catholics, 'the norm' would be to look to the church for support and healing. Again, this need for spiritual stability was stolen by Sister Prejean."

The book alleges whole cloth fabrications by Sister Prejean within her book "Dead Man Walking".

"On November 5, 1977, the Bourque's teenage daughter, Loretta, was found murdered in a trash pile near the city of New Iberia, Louisiana lying side by side near her boyfriend–with three well-placed bullet holes behind each head. "

www(dot)deadfamilywalking.com/

contact T.J. Edler, 337-967-0840, infogoldlamp(at)aol.com


II. The Victims of Dead Man Walking
by Michael L. Varnado, Daniel P. Smith

comment -- A very different story than that written by Sister Helen Prejean. Detective Varnado was the investigating officer in the murder of Faith Hathaway. 2003

Detective Varnado writes: "For those who believe in the teachings of Sister Helen Prejean as her journey continues in her effort to abolish the death penalty. 'For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And, no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. 2 Corinthians 11:13 & 14' " -- From Detective Varnado's new book Soft Targets; A Women's Guide To Survival


III. Death Of Truth: Sister Prejean's new book Death Of Innocents

For some years, there has existed a consistent pattern, from death penalty opponents, to declare certain death row inmates to be actually innocent. Those claims have, consistently, been 70-83% in error. ("ALL INNOCENCE ISSUES -- THE DEATH PENALTY")

Keep that in mind with "Death of Innocents".

Readers should be very careful, as they have no way of knowing if any of the fact issues in either of the two cases, as presented by Sister Prejean, are true. Readers would have to conduct their own thorough, independent examination to make that determination. You can start here.

Four articles

(a) "FOR GOOD REASON, JOE O'DELL IS ON DEATH ROW"
scholar(DOT)lib.vt.edu/VA-news/VA-Pilot/issues/1995/vp950728/07210224.htm

quote: "The DNA report commissioned by O'Dell and his lawyers actually corroborates O'Dell's guilt. There is a three-probe DNA match indicating that the bloodstains on O'Dell's clothing is indeed consistent with the victim Helen Schartner's DNA as well as her blood type and enzyme factors." "There is certainly no truth to O'Dell's accusation that evidence was suppressed or witnesses intimidated by the prosecution."

(b) "Sabine district attorney disputes author's claims in book"
www(DOT)shreveporttimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20050124/NEWS01/501240328/1060

quote: "I don't know whether she is deliberately trying to mislead the public or if she's being mislead by others. But she's wrong,"
District Atty. Burkett, dburkett(AT)cp-tel.net

(c) Book Review: "Sister Prejean's Lack of Credibility: Review of "The Death of Innocents", by Thomas M. McKenna (New Oxford Review, 12/05).

"The book is moreover riddled with factual errors and misrepresentations."

"Williams had confessed to repeatedly stabbing his victim, Sonya Knippers."

"This DNA test was performed by an independent lab in Dallas, which concluded that there was a one in nearly four billion chance that the blood could have been someone's other than Williams's."

" . . . despite repeated claims that (Prejean) cares about crime victims, implies that the victim's husband was a more likely suspect but was overlooked because the authorities wanted to convict a black man."

" . . . a Federal District Court . . . stated that 'the evidence against Williams was overwhelming.' " "The same court also did "not find any evidence of racial bias specific to this case."

"(Prejean's) broad brush strokes paint individual jurors, prosecutors, and judges with the term "racist" with no facts, no evidence, and, in most cases, without so much as having spoken with the people she accuses."

"Sr. Prejean also claims that Dobie Williams was mentally retarded. But the same federal judge who thought he deserved a new sentencing hearing also upheld the finding of the state Sanity Commission report on Williams, which concluded that he had a "low-average I.Q.," and did not suffer from schizophrenia or other major affective disorders. Indeed, Williams's own expert at trial concluded that Williams's intelligence fell within the "normal" range. Prejean mentions none of these facts."

"In addition to lying to the police about how he came to have blood on his clothes, the best evidence of O'Dell's guilt was that Schartner's (the rape/murder vicitim's) blood was on his jacket. Testing showed that only three of every thousand people share the same blood characteristics as Schartner. Also, a cellmate of O'Dell's testified that O'Dell told him he killed Schartner because she would not have sex with him."

"After the trial, LifeCodes, a DNA lab that O'Dell himself praised as having "an impeccable reputation," tested the blood on O'Dell's jacket -- and found that it was a genetic match to Schartner. When the results were not to his liking, O'Dell, and of course Sr. Prejean, attacked the reliability of the lab O'Dell had earlier praised. Again, as with Williams's conviction, the federal court reviewing the case characterized the evidence against O'Dell as 'vast' and
'overwhelming.' "

Sr. Prejean again sees nefarious forces at work. Not racism this time, for O'Dell was white. Rather, she charges that the prosecutors were motivated to convict by desire for advancement and judgeships. Yet she never contacted the prosecutors to interview them or anyone who might substantiate such a charge.

"(Prejean) omits the most damning portion of (O'Dell's criminal) record: an abduction charge in Florida where O'Dell struck the victim on the head with a gun and told her that he was going to rape her. This very similar crime helped the jury conclude that O'Dell would be a future threat to society. It supports the other evidence of his guilt and thus undermines Prejean's claim of innocence."

"There is thus a moral equivalence for Prejean between the family of an innocent victim and the newfound girlfriend of a convicted rapist and murderer."

"This curious definition of "the victims" suggests that her concern for "victims" seems to be more window-dressing for her cause than true concern."

(d) Hardly The Death Of Innocents: Sister Prejean tells it like it wasn't -- Joseph O'Dell
by Anonymous, at author's request

In lionizing convicted murderer Joseph O'Dell as being an innocent man railroaded to his 1997 execution by Virginia prosecutors, Sister Helen Prejean presents a skewed summary of the case to bolster her anti-death penalty agenda. While she is a gifted speaker, she is out of her element when it comes to "telling it as it was" in these cases.

Prejean got to walk with O'Dell into the death chamber at Greensville Correctional Center on July 22, 1997. However, she wasn't in Virginia Beach some 12 years earlier when he committed the crime for which he was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death. That is where the real demon was evident, not the sweet talking condemned con-man that she met behind bars. O'Dell was, in the words of then Virginia Beach Deputy Commonwealth's Attorney Albert Alberi (case prosecutor), one of the most savage, dangerous criminals he had encountered in a two decade career.

Indeed,O'Dell had spent most of his adult life incarcerated for various crimes since the age of 13 in the mid-1950's. At the time of the Schartner murder in Virginia, O'Dell had been recently paroled from Florida where he had been serving a 99 year sentence for a 1976 Jacksonville abduction that almost ended in a murder of the female victim (had not police arrived) in the back of his car.

The circumstances of that crime were almost identical to those surrounding Schartner's murder. The victim of the Florida case even showed up in Virginia to testify at the trial. Scarcely a mention of this case is made in the Prejean book.

Briefly, let me outline some of the facts about the case: Victim Helen Schartner's blood was found on the passenger seat of Joseph O'Dell's vehicle. Tire tracks matching those on O'Dell's vehicle were found at the scene where Miss Schartner's body was found. The tire tread design on O'Dell's vehicle wheels were so unique, an expert in tire design couldn't match them in a manual of thousands of other tire treads. The seminal fluids found on the victim's body matched those of Mr. O'Dell and pubic hairs of the victim were found on the floor of his car.

The claims that O'Dell was "denied" his opportunity to present new DNA evidence on appeals were frivolous. In fact, he had every opportunity to come forward with this evidence, but his lawyers refused to reveal to the court the full findings of the tests which they had arranged to be done on a shirt with blood stains, which O'Dell's counsel claimed might show did not have the blood marks from the defendant or the victim.

Manipulative defense lawyer tactics were overlooked by Prejean in her narrative. O'Dell was far from a victim of poor counsel. As matter of fact, the city of Virginia Beach and state government gave O'Dell an estimated $100,000 for his defense team at trial. This unprecedented amount nearly bankrupted the entire indigent defense fund for the state. He had great lawyers, expert forensic investigators and every point at the trial was contested two to five times.

There was no "rush to justice" in this case.

O'Dell's alibi for the night of Schartner's murder was that he had gotten thrown out of the bar where he encountered Schartner following a brawl. However, none of the several dozen individuals supported his contention - there weren't any fights that night. Rather, several saw Miss Schartner getting into O'Dell's car on what would be her last ride.

But Prejean would want us to believe the claims of felon Joseph O'Dell.He had three trips to the United States Supreme Court and the "procedural error" which Prejean claims ultimately doomed him was the result of simple ignorance of basic appeals rules by his lawyers.

Nothing in the record ever suggested that Joseph O'Dell, two time killer and rapist, was anything but guilty of the murder of Helen Schartner.

Justice was properly served.


IV. Sister Helen Prejean on the death penalty

"It is abundantly clear that the Bible depicts murder as a capital crime for which death is considered the appropriate punishment, and one is hard pressed to find a biblical ‘proof text’ in either the Hebrew Testament or the New Testament which unequivocally refutes this. Even Jesus’ admonition ‘Let him without sin cast the first stone,’ when He was asked the appropriate punishment for an adulteress (John 8:7) - the Mosaic Law prescribed death - should be read in its proper context. This passage is an ‘entrapment’ story, which sought to show Jesus’ wisdom in besting His adversaries. It is not an ethical pronouncement about capital punishment .” Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking.

The sister’s analysis is consistent with much theological scholarship. Also, much scholarship questions the authenticity of John 8:7.

From here, the sister states that “ . . . more and more I find myself steering away from such futile discussions (of Biblical text). Instead, I try to articulate what I personally believe . . . ” The sister has never shied away from any argument, futile or otherwise, which opposed the death penalty. She has abandoned biblical text for only one reason: the text conflicts with her personal beliefs.

Sister Prejean rightly cautions: "Many people sift through the Scriptures and select truth according to their own templates." (Progressive, 1/96). Sadly, Sister Prejean appears to do much worse. The sister now uses that very same biblical text “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone” as proof of Jesus’ “unequivocal” rejection of capital punishment as “revenge and unholy retribution”! (see Sister Prejean’s 12/12/96 fundraising letter on behalf of the Saga Of Shame book project for Quixote Center/Equal Justice USA)


V. Redemption and the death penalty

The movie Dead Man Walking reveals a perfect example of how just punishment and redemption can work together. Had rapist/murderer Matthew Poncelet not been properly sentenced to death by the civil authority, he would not have met Sister Prejean, he would not have received spiritual instruction, he would not have taken responsibility for his crimes and he would not have reconciled with God. Had Poncelet never been caught or had he only been given a prison sentence, his character makes it VERY clear that those elements would not have come together. Indeed, for the entire film and up until those last moments, prior to his execution, Poncelet was not truthful with Sister Prejean. His lying and manipulative nature was fully exposed at that crucial time. It was not at all surprising, then, that it was just prior to his execution that all of the spiritual elements may have come together for his salvation. It was now, or never. Truly, just as St. Aquinas stated, it was Poncelet's pending execution which may have led to his repentance. For Christians, the most crucial concerns of Dead Man Walking must be and are redemption and eternal salvation. And, for that reason, it may well be, for Christians, the most important pro-death penalty movie ever made.

A real life example of this may be the case of Dennis Gentry, executed April 16, 1997, for the premeditated murder of his friend Jimmy Don Ham. During his final statement, Gentry said, "I’d like to thank the Lord for the past 14 years (on death row) to grow as a man and mature enough to accept what’s happening here tonight. To my family, I’m happy. I’m going home to Jesus." As the lethal drugs began to flow, Gentry cried out, "Sweet Jesus, here I come. Take me home. I’m going that way to see the Lord." (Michael Gracyk, Associated Press, Houston Chronicle, 4/17/97). We cannot know if Gentry or the fictitious Poncelet or the two real murderers from the DMW book really did repent and receive salvation.

But, we do know that St. Aquinas advises us that murderers should not be given the benefit of the doubt. We should err on the side of caution and not give murderers the opportunity to harm again.

"The fact that the evil, as long as they live, can be corrected from their errors does not prohibit the fact that they may be justly executed, for the danger which threatens from their way of life is greater and more certain than the good which may be expected from their improvement. They also have at that critical point of death the opportunity to be converted to God through repentance. And if they are so stubborn that even at the point of death their heart does not draw back from evil, it is possible to make a highly probable judgement that they would never come away from evil to the right use of their powers." St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, Book III, 146.


VI. On God and the death penalty

It is not uncommon for persons of faith to create a god in their own image, to give to that god their values, instead of accepting those values which are inherent to the deity. For example, death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean (Dead Man Walking) states, in reference to the death penalty, that "I couldn’t worship a god who is less compassionate than I am."(Progressive, 1/96). She has, thereby, established her standard of compassion as the basis for God’s being deserving of her devotion. If God’s level of compassion does not rise to the level of her own, God couldn’t receive her worship. Director Tim Robbins (Death Man Walking) follows that same path: "(I) don’t believe in that kind of (g)od (that would support capital punishment and, therefore, would be the kind of god who tortures people into their redemption)." ("Opposing The Death Penalty", AMERICA, 11/9/96, p 12). Robbins, hereby, establishes his standard for his God’s deserving of his belief. God’s standards do not seem to be relevant. His sophomoric comparison of capital punishment and torture is typical of the ignorance in this debate and such comments reflect no biblical relevancy. Perhaps they should review Matthew 5:17-22 and 15:1-9. Be cautious, for as the ancient rabbis warned, "Do not seek to be more righteous than your creator." (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7.33)

-------------------------------------------------------------------

Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
e-mail sharpjfa(AT)aol.com, 713-622-5491,
Houston, Texas

Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-Span, Court TV, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.

A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.

Pro death penalty sites

homicidesurvivors(dot)com/categories/Dudley%20Sharp%20-%20Justice%20Matters.aspx

www(dot)dpinfo.com
www(dot)cjlf.org/deathpenalty/DPinformation.htm
www(dot)clarkprosecutor.org/html/links/dplinks.htm
joshmarquis(dot)blogspot.com/
www(dot)lexingtonprosecutor.com/death_penalty_debate.htm
www(dot)prodeathpenalty.com
www(dot)yesdeathpenalty.com/deathpenalty_contents.htm (Sweden)

Permission for distribution of this document is approved as long as it is distributed in its entirety, without changes, inclusive of this statement.

Bro K'Mansky said...

I guess I worry just a little bit about people who devote so much passion, time, and work to making sure other people get killed. It's truly disturbing when people do that in a criminal fashion (murderers), but it may be even more horrible when people do it in the name of morality, justice, and virtue.

As far as argument, goes, I can't help but notice that Mr. Sharp's refutations consist of pitting Sister Prejean's opinions, narratives, and experiences against the opinions, narratives, and experiences of other people, and then claiming that Prejean's testimony is thereby disproved. I think it's incredibly valuable for people to share their stories and feelings, but when that sort of communication is mistaken for "getting at" the hard, cold truth, all manner of confusion follows.

(I'll be honest, though, I stopped reading this closely when Mr. Sharp included the quote implying that Sister Prejean is a satan-like false prophet. Come on--if you're interested in dialogue, don't use rhetoric calculated to shut down the conversation.)

dudleysharp said...

Dear Bro:

You write:

(I'll be honest, though, I stopped reading this closely when Mr. Sharp included the quote implying that Sister Prejean is a satan-like false prophet. Come on--if you're interested in dialogue, don't use rhetoric calculated to shut down the conversation.)

I have heard this complaint before and it has merit. Please note that
Officer Varnado investigated one of the murders, knows the victim survivors and the facts and knows, very well, of Sr. Prejeans involvement in the DMW cases.

He is speaking of his specific impressions. Yes, it is very strong and I have considered removing it or moving it, both of which may be disingenuous, while Varnado's comment is anything but.

The best result would be if you read those two books, to see why he says it.

Thank you for your comments. Maybe I will reconsider.

Not only do I find the death penalty just and appropriate for some crimes, I also find that is t spares additonal innocent lives.

Bro K'Mansky said...

Dear Mr. Sharp,

I find the complexity of death penalty arguments--especially the philosophical cases for and against--almost overwhelming at times. There is certainly tremendous room for people of compassion and conscience to disagree.

So much of the contention seems to reside in the various definitions of "justice." People tend to use the word in debates as if they were talking about the same thing, when they are simply not.

Many people are speaking of retributive justice, and I gravitate away from this definition, partly because of my Christianity. "An eye for an eye" seems to be the Judeo-Christian proof text for retributive justice, but it's one of few Old Testament verses that Jesus very explicitly revised in the New Testament. Moreover, it seems pure common sense that retributive justice does not require an exact revisitation of the crime on the perpetrator (we don't rape rapists, for instance). I guess I see some value in retributive punishment, but I don't think that killing must be paid with killing.

You mention that the death penalty is necessary to save additional lives. Perhaps you're referring to the argument that the death penalty is a deterrent, which is a highly contentious claim, if not a completely discredited one. Or, perhaps you're referring to the death penalty as a cure for recidivism, in which case, you have me there! There can be no argument that the death penalty is the absolute most certain means at our disposal for preventing repeat crimes. I believe, though, that it behooves us, as enlightened human beings, to seek the least extreme means possible to prevent further harm--recognizing that, even if the capital criminal acted in a drastically unenlightened way, the measure of our humanity is our ability to repay evil with good (insofar as we are able to do so).

When others speak of justice, they refer to rehabilitation. Just as the death penalty is a 100% prevention for recidivism, it's also a 100% repudiation of the idea that the criminal justice system might rehabilitate criminals. Believe me, I know that some criminals are almost (if not completely) beyond earthy rehabilitation, but it seems that we should exhaust all possible opportunities for rehabilitation before admitting defeat. Surely that's the treatment we expect when we do wrong (granted, most people's "wrong" is not as violently harmful as the crimes of those on death row).

Finally, there is restorative and transformative justice. I find myself, perhaps idealistically, longing to see these models of justice given more of a role to play in our criminal justice system. Just what that would look like, though, I'm not sure. I do maintain, though, that these practices are worth further consideration.

But, you know what, Mr. Sharp? At the end of the day, I find that some of the most compelling arguments against the death penalty are practical, not philosophical. Even if I could be convinced that the death penalty were just "in theory," I am not at all convinced that the death penalty is just in practice.

Yes, some death row inmates are surely innocent. But, I'm more concerned at the arbitrariness of the death penalty. No matter the philosophical definitions of justice, it simply seems unfair, on its face, that a criminal's chances of the death penalty depend so obviously and powerfully on: race (of the victim and of the perpetrator), poverty, geographical region, the political affiliation of the sentencing judges, the quality (or availability) of court appointed defense lawyers, etc. The death penalty is such an extreme punishment that I find myself unable to countenance it if even one condemned person is innocent or received less than the best treatment in the criminal justice system.

As a final word, I'll make public pronouncement that Bryan Stevenson is absolutely my hero. You have your key figures who seem to express powerfully your own perspective on the death penalty. Mr. Stevenson is the man whose stories I hope I'm capable of retelling. You can find his Equal Justice Initiative online at http://eji.org/eji/. In addition to describing EJI's work, the site provides links to other death penalty-related sites.

Thanks for good conversation, Mr. Sharp!

dudleysharp said...

Dear Bro:

I know of Bryan Stevenson, quite well. Over the years, I think we have done a few media gigs together, at least 1 or 2.

Regarding the basics of the death penalty, please see the Death Penalty in the US, to follow.

For some Christian perspectives, please go to:

http://homicidesurvivors.com/2006/10/12/catholic-and-other-christian-references-support-for-the-death-penalty.aspx

There are, at least, three ways that the death penalty is a better protector of innocent lives than are lesser sentences.

Because innocents are at risk of executions, some wrongly presume that innocents are better protected implementing a life without parole sentence, instead.
 
What many forget to do is weigh the risk to innocents within a life sentence. When doing that, we find that innocents are more at risk with a life sentence.
 
First, we all know that living murderers, in prison, after escape or after our failures to incarcerate them, are much more likely to harm and murder, again, than are executed murderers. 
 
Secondly, no knowledgeable party questions that the death penalty has the most extensive due process protections in US criminal law.

Therefore, it is logically conclusive, that actual innocents are more likely to be sentenced to life imprisonment and more likely to die in prison serving under that sentence, that it is that an actual innocent will be executed.
 
Thirdly, 16 recent studies, inclusive of their defenses,  find for death penalty deterrence. Some believe that all studies with contrary findings negate those studies. They don't. Studies which don't find for deterrence don't say no one is deterred, but that they cannot measure those deterred.
 
Ask yourself: "What prospect of a negative outcome doesn't deter some?" There isn't one, although committed anti death penalty folk may say the death penalty is the only one. However, the premier anti death penalty scholar accepts it as a given that the death penalty is a deterrent, but does not believe it to be a greater deterrent than a life sentence. I find the evidence compelling that death is feared more than life - even in prison.

In choosing to end the death penalty, or in choosing not implement it, some have chosen to put more innocents at risk.
 
--------
 
Furthermore, possibly we have sentenced 20-25 actually innocent people to death since 1973, or 0.3% of those so sentenced. Those have been released upon post conviction review.

There is no proof of an innocent executed in the US since 1900.  There is speculation.  Rational considerations tell me that innocents have been executed.
 
However, there is much proof, un contradicted, that living murderers harm and murder, again. In addition, we can also speculate as to how much higher those numbers really are.
 
Rational considerations, tell me that innocents are more at risk without the death penalty.
 
Even without deterrence, the proof supports that innocents are more at risk without the death penalty

Of all the governments programs in the world, that put innocents at risk, is there one with a safer record? Unlikely.

dudleysharp said...

The Death Penalty in the US: A Review
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters, contact info below
 
NOTE: Detailed review of any of the below topics, or others, is available upon request
 
In this brief format, the reality of the death penalty in the United States, is presented, with the hope that the media, public policy makers and others will make an effort to present a balanced view on this sanction.
 

Innocence Issues
 
Death Penalty opponents have proclaimed that 124 inmates have been "released from death row with evidence of their innocence", in the US, since the modern death penalty era began, post Furman v Georgia (1972).
 
That number is a fraud.
 
Those opponents have intentionally included both the factually innocent (the "I truly had nothing to do with the murder" cases) and the legally innocent (the "I got off because of legal errors" cases), thereby fraudulently raising the "innocent" numbers.
 
Death penalty opponents claim that 24 such innocence cases are in Florida. The Florida Commission on Capital Cases found that 4 of those 24 MIGHT be innocent -- an 83% error rate in death penalty opponents claims. If that error rate is consistent, nationally, that would indicate that 21 of the alleged 124 innocents MIGHT be actually innocent -- a 0.3% actual guilt error rate for the 7800 sentenced to death since 1973. 
 
It is often claimed that 23 innocents have been executed in the US since 1900.  Nonsense.  Even the authors of that "23 innocents executed" study proclaimed "We agree with our critics, we never proved those (23) executed to be innocent; we never claimed that we had."  While no one would claim that an innocent has never been executed, there is no proof of an innocent executed in the US, at least since 1900.
 
No one disputes that innocents are found guilty, within all countries.  However, when scrutinizing death penalty opponents claims, we find that when reviewing the accuracy of verdicts and the post conviction thoroughness of discovering those actually innocent incarcerated, that the US death penalty process may be the most accurate criminal justice sanction in the world.  Under real world scenarios, not executing murderers will always put many more innocents at risk, than will ever be put at risk of execution.
 

Deterrence Issues
 
16 recent US studies, inclusive of strong defenses of the studies,  find a deterrent effect of the death penalty.
 
All the studies which have not found a deterrent effect of the death penalty have refused to say that it does not deter some.  The studies finding for deterrence state such.  Confusion arises when people think that a simple comparison of murder rates and executions, or the lack thereof, can tell the tale of deterrence.  It cannot. 
 
Both high and low murder rates are found within death penalty and non death penalty jurisdictions, be it Singapore, South Africa, Sweden or Japan, or the US states of Michigan and Delaware.  Many factors are involved in such evaluations.  Reason and common sense tell us that it would be remarkable to find that the most severe criminal sanction -- execution -- deterred none.  No one is foolish enough to suggest that the potential for negative consequences does not deter the behavior of some.  Therefore, regardless of jurisdiction, having the death penalty will always be an added deterrent to murders, over and above any lesser punishments.
 

Racial issues
 
White murderers are twice as likely to be executed in the US as are black murderers and are executed, on average, 12 months more quickly than are black death row inmates.
 
It is often stated that it is the race of the victim which decides who is prosecuted in death penalty cases.  Although blacks and whites make up about an equal number of murder victims, capital cases are 6 times more likely to involve white victim murders than black victim murders.  This, so the logic goes, is proof that the US only cares about white victims.
 
Hardly.  Only capital murders, not all murders, are subject to a capital indictment.  Generally, a capital murder is limited to murders plus secondary aggravating factors, such as murders involving burglary, carjacking, rape, and additional murders, such as police murders, serial and multiple murders.  White victims are, overwhelmingly, the victims under those circumstances, in ratios nearly identical to the cases found on death row.
 
Any other racial combinations of defendants and/or their victims in death penalty cases, is a reflection of the crimes committed and not any racial bias within the system, as confirmed by studies from the Rand Corporation (1991), Smith College (1994), U of Maryland (2002), New Jersey Supreme Court (2003) and by a view of criminal justice statistics, within a framework of the secondary aggravating factors necessary for capital indictments.
 

Class issues
 
No one disputes that wealthier defendants can hire better lawyers and, therefore, should have a legal advantage over their poorer counterparts.  The US has executed about 0.15% of all murderers since new death penalty statutes were enacted in 1973.  Is there evidence that wealthier capital murderers are less likely to be executed than their poorer ilk, based upon the proportion of capital murders committed by different those different economic groups?
 

Arbitrary and capricious
 
About 10% of all murders within the US might qualify for a death penalty eligible trial.  That would be about 60,000 murders since 1973.  We have sentenced 7800 murderers to death since then, or 13% of those eligible.  I doubt that there is any other crime which receives a higher percentage of maximum sentences, when mandatory sentences are not available.  Based upon that, as well as pre trial, trial, appellate and clemency/commutation realities, the US death penalty is likely the least arbitrary and capricious criminal sanctions in the world.  
 

Christianity and the death penalty
 
The two most authoritative New Testament scholars, Saints Augustine and Aquinas, provide substantial biblical and theological support for the death penalty. Even the most well known anti death penalty personality in the US, Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, states that "It is abundantly clear that the Bible depicts murder as a capital crime for which death is considered the appropriate punishment, and one is hard pressed to find a biblical 'proof text' in either the Hebrew Testament or the New Testament which unequivocally refutes this.  Even Jesus' admonition 'Let him without sin cast the first stone,' when He was asked the appropriate punishment for an adulteress (John 8:7) -- the Mosaic Law prescribed death -- should be read in its proper context.  This passage is an 'entrapment' story, which sought to show Jesus' wisdom in besting His adversaries.  It is not an ethical pronouncement about capital punishment."  A thorough review of Pope John Paul II's current position, reflects a reasoning that should be recommending more executions.
 

Cost Issues
 
All studies finding the death penalty to be more expensive than life without parole exclude important factors, such as (1) geriatric care costs, recently found to be $69,0000/yr/inmate, (2) the death penalty cost benefit of providing for plea bargains to a maximum life sentence, a huge cost savings to the state, (3) the death penalty cost benefit of both enhanced deterrence and enhanced incapacitation, at $5 million per innocent life spared, and, furthermore, (4) many of the alleged cost comparison studies are highly deceptive.
 

Polling data
 
76% of Americans find that we should impose the death penalty more or that we impose it about right (Gallup, May 2006 - 51% that we should impose it more, 25% that we impose it about right)
 
71%  find capital punishment morally acceptable - that was the highest percentage answer for all questions (Gallup, April 2006, moral values poll).
 
81% of the American people supported the execution of Timothy McVeigh, with only 16% opposed. "(T)his view appears to be the consensus of all major groups in society, including men, women, whites, nonwhites, "liberals" and "conservatives."  (Gallup 5/2/01).
 
85% of Connecticut citizens supported the execution of serial rapist/murderer Michael Ross (Jan 2005).
 
While 81% gave specific case support for Timothy McVeigh's execution, Gallup also showed a 65% support AT THE SAME TIME when asked a general "do you support capital punishment for murderers?" question. (Gallup, 6/10/01).
 
22% of those supporting McVeigh's execution are, generally, against the death penalty (Gallup 5/02/01). That means that about half of those who say they oppose the death penalty, with the general question,  actually support the death penalty under specific circumstances, just as it is imposed, judicially.
 
Further supporting the higher rates for specific cases, is this, from the French daily Le Monde December 2006 (1): Percentage of respondents in favor of executing Saddam Hussein:USA: 82%; Great Britain: 69%; France: 58%; Germany: 53%; Spain: 51%; Italy: 46%
 
Death penalty support is much deeper and much wider than we are often led to believe, with 50% of those who say they, generally, oppose the death penalty actually supporting it under specific circumstances, resulting in 80% death penalty support in the US, as recently as December 2006.
 
--------------------------------
 
Whatever your feelings are toward the death penalty, a fair accounting of how it is applied should be demanded.
 
copyright 1998-2007 Dudley Sharp
 
Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters
e-mail  sharpjfa@aol.com,  713-622-5491,
Houston, Texas
 
Mr. Sharp has appeared on ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, C-Span, FOX, NBC, NPR, PBS and many other TV and radio networks, on such programs as Nightline, The News Hour with Jim Lehrer, The O'Reilly Factor, etc., has been quoted in newspapers throughout the world and is a published author.
 
A former opponent of capital punishment, he has written and granted interviews about, testified on and debated the subject of the death penalty, extensively and internationally.
 
Pro death penalty sites 
homicidesurvivors(dot)com/categories/Dudley%20Sharp%20-%20Justice%20Matters.aspx

www(dot)dpinfo.com
www(dot)cjlf.org/deathpenalty/DPinformation.htm
www(dot)clarkprosecutor.org/html/links/dplinks.htm
joshmarquis(dot)blogspot.com/
www(dot)lexingtonprosecutor.com/death_penalty_debate.htm
www(dot)prodeathpenalty.com
www(dot)yesdeathpenalty.com/deathpenalty_contents.htm  (Sweden)
www(dot)wesleylowe.com/cp.html

Permission for distribution of this document is approved as long as it is distributed in its entirety, without changes, inclusive of this statement.

Bro K'Mansky said...

Dear Mr. Sharp,

I guess one thing I'm trying to avoid doing is getting into an interchange with you that consists of competing statistics and quotes from experts. On an issue like this, that could last forever and remain inconclusive. Because of our philosophical differences about the death penalty and, perhaps even more divisive, about the nature of the society in which we live, we each find our own statistics and testimonials utterly convincing and the statistics and testimonials of "the other side" deeply flawed, at best.

I do not believe in killing as a response to killing.

I am a Quaker, a pacifist, so my stance on this matter goes beyond the singular and highly-politicized issue of the death penalty. I believe, with the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, that "the deliberate taking of human life by the state, under any circumstances, is an absolute and irrevocable denial that there is that of God in everyone." I don't think violence is ever the right thing to do

That said, I am sad to say that suspect there are cases in which it might be the least wrong thing to do. For instance, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I might have been willing to say that assassinating Adolf Hitler was less wrong than allowing Hitler to operate unchecked. In the classic "pacifist test," I might have to admit that I would be willing to exercise violence on a person about to perform some unspeakable act on my mother or my sister (it's always the mother and sister, isn't it?), if my violence would be sure to prevent that violence. Even in this case, though, I wouldn't call my violence "right," I would just call the wrong I could tolerate best.

With the death penalty, it comes down to this, perhaps: you are convinced that it is the best we can do, and I am not.

I believe that if we were serious about ending the death penalty, we would need to invest time, effort, and funds in massive social reform effecting every part of our society from parenting classes and early childhood education to safe and affordable housing, and from job training to localization of production, and from the courts to the prisons. As long as our society offers infinitely many good opportunities for the wealthy and such miserably few good opportunities for the poor, and as long as our criminal justice system offers acquittals, mistrials, and symbolic sentences for the rich while condemning the poor to death, torture, and misery in prison, then I don't think it's right, or even "least wrong," to kill people when they commit crimes. I cannot countenance our decision, in America, to accept a certain level of discrimination in the administration of justice, especially when I do not believe we've done everything we can to root it out.

Mr. Sharp, I hate to be this cynical, but when it comes right down to it, I think the death penalty is, for most people, the punishment that satisfies their sense of outrage and their thirst for vengeance. It's the only action that seems to match the towering passion we feel when someone deeply wrongs us or those we care about. All our scripture quoting and social science research and fancy theoretical language seems, in the end, a veneer that we use to cover over the fact that we want someone to die because he (and it's nearly always a "he") has hurt us, frightened us, or threatened our fragile sense of how fair and good the world is.

There are times when I feel that someone needs to die, too. Mr. Sharp. The difference between you and me, then, is that I think I'm wrong when I feel that way.

dudleysharp said...

Dear Bro:

Quaker biblical scholar Dr. Gervas A. Carey. A Professor of Bible and past President of George Fox College, wrote a landmark essay on the death penalty entitled "A Bible Study". Here is a synopsis of his analysis: " . . . the decree of Genesis 9:5-6 is equally enduring and cannot be separated from the other pledges and instructions of its immediate context, Genesis 8:20-9:17; . . . that is true unless specific Biblical authority can be cited for the deletion, of which there appears to be none. It seems strange that any opponents of capital punishment who professes to recognize the authority of the Bible either overlook or disregard the divine decree in this covenant with Noah; . . . capital punishment should be recognized . . . as the divinely instituted penalty for murder; The basis of this decree . . . is as enduring as God; . . . murder not only deprives a man of a portion of his earthly life . . . it is a further sin against him as a creature made in the image of God and against God Himself whose image the murderer does not respect." (p. 111-113) Carey agrees with Saints Augustine and Aquinas, that executions represent mercy to the wrongdoer: ". . . a secondary measure of the love of God may be said to appear. For capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet his God. It is as if God thus providentially granted him a special inducement to repentance out of consideration of the enormity of his crime . . . the law grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the opportunity to prepare to meet his God. Even divine justice here may be said to be tempered with mercy." (p. 116). Essays on the Death Penalty, T. Robert Ingram, ed., St. Thomas Press, Houston, 1963, 1992.

Bro K'Mansky said...

Dear Mr. Sharp,

I see your strategy: in each of my comments, you look for a word, phrase, or catchphrase that allows you to cut and paste a prefabricated argument from your considerable database of ready-made arguments. At times, I feel a bit like I'm engaged in dialogue with a computer rather than with a person using one (which makes me question the usefulness of continuing this conversation).

In my last message, you saw "Quaker" and responded according to your comprehension of that label. Pardon me for pointing out that you have an outsider's understanding of Quakerism, which translates to a very limited understanding indeed. Within the Religious Society of Friends, there exists a broad spectrum of approaches to the bible. Some are very conservative and regard the bible the way that most evangelical or fundamentalist, Protestant Christians do. Others are so liberal that they see little value in the Judeo-Christian scriptures at all!

For myself, I do believe that the scriptures have authority and I cherish them above any other sacred text, but I do not reverence them the way you seem to assume all people of faith do. To me, the Word of God is Christ, and the bible is a very good but very human attempt to express that Word.

More important to me and to most liberal Quakers is an experiential faith, a relationship with God in which God still speaks and we (as individuals and as a dynamic community of faith) still listen. Confining a living God to a dead book seems the height of foolishness.

I urge you to be careful about your use of scripture as part of your arguments in favor of the death penalty. Our contemporary adherence to the scriptures is complicated enough that, again, it seems that people can and will find that the bible prohibits what they want prohibited and allows what they want allowed.

And, for the record, people still read and study the bible, and as wise as Augustine and Aquinas were, they are not the final authority on biblical interpretation, though your frequent citation of their work would seem to suggest otherwise.

Chris said...

Dear Mr. Sharp:

In three sentences or less, could you please state why you support the death penalty?

dudleysharp said...

Dear Bro:

It isn't a strategy, but a necessity. I debate this topic extnsively and have though about and researched the topic and subtopics of the death penalty, extensively and have created white papers for most of them. I have read each one of your posts, completely.

A computer isn't communicating with you. I am. I have just been thinking about this sissues for some time and have put pen to paper on many of the topics.

dudleysharp said...

Dear Bro:

It isn't a strategy, so much as a necessity. You are not speaking to a computer. I read your full posts and then I respond.

I am very busy with many things and am very active in correcting many of the anti death penalty deceptions. I have addressed nearly all of the major topics and subtopics within the death penalty, having researched them extensively. The white papers that I have produced usually include far more detailed responses than I could possibly give, if I had to newly write them each time.

I am aware of the basics of faith within Quakerism. I didn't wtrite my full understanding of Quakerism, because that wasn't the issue. But, of course I am an outsider, with regarding to being a Quaker, I am not one.

Nevertheless, I hope you can find and read Carey's full essay.

you write: "Confining a living God to a dead book seems the height of foolishness."

That is a very odd statement from a person that says they place reverence for the bible. The most fundamental belief is that the bible is the wrod of God. God is eternal, therefore his word is eternal. However, you call it dead. Interesting.


you write: "I urge you to be careful about your use of scripture as part of your arguments in favor of the death penalty."

I am very careful. I review biblical and theological works regarding the texts and consult with a number of scholars and knowledgeable layman, to make sure that my understanding is not improper.

You write: "as wise as Augustine and Aquinas were, they are not the final authority on biblical interpretation, though your frequent citation of their work would seem to suggest otherwise."

Regardless of denomination, those two, are considered the greatest thinkers of faith, intellectually, philosophically and biblically. Undoubtedly, there are those, individually, who may disagree. But, collectively, the major Christian faiths would agree.

However, I intentionally, addeed the voices of many more thinkers, from many additonal denominations, as an illustration, that the current social trent within denominations, against the death penalty, is pushing against a very large tide of Christian history which supported the death penalty with very robust biblical and theological foundations.

dudleysharp said...

Chris:

The death penalty is a just and appriopriate sanction, which, in addition, spares innocent lives in three ways: enhanced deterrence, enhanced incapacitation and enhanced due process.

One sentnece.