The events of yesterday (the execution of Troy Davis) have unsettled me in a way I did not think was possible. Let me try to explain.
A few years back there was a TV show called “In the Heat of the Night”. It was a spin-off of the movie by the same name. The TV series starred Carroll O’Connor as Chief William O. “Bill” Gillespie and Howard E. Rollins Jr. as Chief of Detectives Virgil Tibbs.
In one of the episodes titled “A Trip Upstate” (1989), George Brownlow sends word to Bill Gillespie that he wants to see the Chief at Parchman prison on the day of his execution. George had been the driver in a bank holdup where two robbers killed a guard and a customer before Bill killed them in return. As an accomplice, George was sentenced to die.
At Parchman, Bill sees George, who persuades Gillespie to stay until he is gone. The execution is devastating to the Chief.
When the Chief returns, he and Detective Tibbs have a conversation about capital punishment and whether it’s the right thing to do. Tibbs points out the U.S. Constitution makes reference that no cruel or unusual punishment should be administered. It’s at this point that the Chief relates his experience with the person who was executed. After hours of listening and watching the condemned man, he comes to the conclusion there is no way to invoke the death penalty and have it not be cruel or unusual.
He then gives this example (I couldn’t find the script, so this is from memory):
You take the man who is about to be executed for his crime and you sit him in a chair in front of you. You then tell him he is forgiven and that he is free to go. Then in the moment you see in his face the relief, the happiness at such good fortune, you tell him he is free to leave and go home. As he stands and turns to leave for his newfound freedom, you step up behind him and shoot him in the back of the head.
To say the least, I was stunned. In that bit of TV writing I recognized there is no way to kill another human being without being cruel or unusual.
At 6:30pm last night on CNN it was announced that the execution of Troy Davis had been put on hold as the U.S. Supreme Court took a final look at it. According to the experts, Mr. Davis would have already been in the “death room” with the I.V. in his arm and preparing to receive a sedative to calm him. Then suddenly everything stopped. I don’t know if they left him on the gurney or took him someplace close by; but his final hours were exactly what torture is all about. The really sad thing about it is the state of Georgia was really trying to do the right thing by waiting. According to Georgia state law they didn’t have to wait, they could have proceeded.
So now I sit here and think that damn, this was indeed a cruel execution.
Thanks to Amnesty International for some basic facts about the death penalty:
Since 1973, over 130 people have been released from death rows throughout the country due to evidence of their wrongful convictions. In 2003 alone, 10 wrongfully convicted defendants were released from death row.
Factors leading to wrongful convictions include:
- Inadequate legal representation
- Police and prosecutorial misconduct
- Perjured testimony and mistaken eyewitness testimony
- Racial prejudice
- Jailhouse “snitch” testimony
- Suppression and/or misinterpretation of mitigating evidence
- Community/political pressure to solve a case
So how on earth can we continue to fight for a system of such a final solution if it has been wrong 130 times – and maybe 131 times, if you count Mr. Davis? How can “We the People” allow the government to kill even one person if the system is that broken? Are you telling me that those who are constantly harping about us being a Christian nation do not get this?
At least Governor, George Ryan of Illinois, in January 2000, said:
I cannot support a system which, in its administration, has proven so fraught with error and has come so close to the ultimate nightmare, the state’s taking of innocent life… Until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty, until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection, no one will meet that fate.
Thereby, Gov. Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in his state, after the 13th Illinois death row inmate had been released from prison due to wrongful conviction. In the same period, 12 others had been executed.
I shudder to think how many people have been executed for a crime they did not commit.
And how about this little factoid:
In a 1990 report, the non-partisan U.S. General Accounting Office found “a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty.” The study concluded that a defendant was several times more likely to be sentenced to death if the murder victim was white. This has been confirmed by the findings of many other studies that, holding all other factors constant, the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim.
Wow. So the system is not only broken, but it also appears to have a deep bias.
The most troubling thing for me is that what we call “capital punishment” is about as far from a Christian response as one can get.
In the Christian novel The Shack, the main character Mac has a conversation with God about his inability to forgive the man who brutally raped and murder his very young daughter. The character of God says this in response to Mac’s struggle with forgiveness:
For you to forgive this man is for you to release him to me and allow me to redeem him.
Now, I know this isn’t a quote from scripture, but isn’t this really what Jesus taught? There is no real way we can decide a person should die and be justified. All of the New Testament is about agape – that is, unconditional love and forgiveness. So as Christians, how do we come to the conclusion that someone is beyond God’s reach and that it’s okay for us to come up with all kinds of fancy ways to kill them?
People who commit heinous crimes against others are a what inspire us to call for revenge, to get even, to get a payback. But while that may be our knee-jerk reaction my friends, that is not what we are taught by the One who redeems us; instead we are taught to let the first one without sin cast the first stone. We are taught to forgive not once but seventy times seven (Matthew 18:21-22).
Forgiveness acknowledges that a wrong was committed.
Forgiveness changes us from victim to victor.
Forgiveness takes the power from a bad act and turns the act to good.
Forgiveness is the only road to freedom.
Jesus, as near as I can tell, never made the act of forgiveness a bargaining chip for revenge and judgment.
I did not know Troy Davis, nor did I really know a lot about his particular case, except that he was convicted of shooting an unarmed off-duty police officer. Was this crime anymore heinous then that committed by the man in Texas who dragged a black father to his death and was then executed on the same day as Troy Davis?
I also know there was enough hell raised around Mr. Davis’s case to know that something was terribly wrong. I also know there was no hell raised about the execution of the man in Texas, and this too says that something is very wrong. Has our lust for blood, retribution and power become such we now want God’s job? Do we get to decide a color code for heinous crimes and then ignore our faith teachings and kill?
A presidential candidate recently bragged about how many people had been put to death in Texas, while claiming to be a born-again Christian. The audience was filled with Christians, and they cheered his accomplishment. Really? Oh my God, really?
This might be a stretch here, but I would guess most of the folks in the audience and the presidential candidate himself are also what some would call “pro-life”. How does this square with capital punishment? I mean, if all life is sacred and cannot be terminated, does that not make these folks who support capital punishment nothing more than late-term abortionists?
Our Christian faith and its leader Jesus are very clear on this point. We do not have the ability to make clear judgments that allow the government to take a life. One hundred thirty-plus wrong convictions is really all the evidence we need.
I wonder who in this whole debacle showed more mercy and justice? Troy Davis, who asked for a polygraph test and was denied, said as his final words:
The incident that night was not my fault, I did not have a gun… I did not personally kill your son, father and brother. I am innocent… Those about to take my life, may God have mercy on your souls, may God bless your souls.
Was the State of Georgia merciful in waiting to see if there was some “legal” reason to stop the execution – or were they just covering their political asses?
Today I am heartbroken and weep at the thought there are those who really believe it’s okay to play God. I am heartbroken that in the end there are far more than a few who can look past forgiveness and a direct command from Jesus to “Love one another as I have loved you” and find creative ways to come up with all kinds of justifications as to why it is okay to ignore the teachings of the one that Christians call “Savior”.
Today, I have a better understanding of why Jesus sat on a hill outside of Jerusalem and wept. May God have mercy on us all.
Founding and Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church and Editor-in-Chief of Whosoever, Rev. Paul M. Turner (he/him) grew up in suburban Chicago and was ordained by the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches in 1989. He was called to Atlanta in 1994 to pastor All Saints MCC. Five years later he founded Gentle Spirit Christian Church. He lives in Decatur with his husband Bill, who he met in 1982 while living and working in Ohio and legally married in 2015.