Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

New Mexico Legislature Repeals Death Penalty!

New Mexico’s state legislature has voted to repeal capital punishment.  The bill has gone to the desk of New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (D-NM).  Previously, Richardson had seemed favorable to such repeal, but he now seems to be wavering and some reports have him considering a veto.  Contact Gov. Richardson and urge him to sign this historic legislation. (Richardson is a devout Catholic, so you might remind him that the Catholic church has been in favor of death penalty abolition for decades.)

Currently, 36 U.S. states have the death penalty, but 11 are considering repeal. New Mexico could be a pioneer.  It would be the 15th U.S. State to repeal the death penalty (a few never had it). New Jersey and New York repealed capital punishment in 2007. For New York this was the 2nd time around. It had repealed the death penalty in the 1950s, but reinstated it in the early ’90s when a “hang ’em high/law and order” movement swept the country.

Oddly enough, the deep recession has pushed for more abolition (because, contrary to popular myth, life imprisonment is cheaper than the death penalty for a variety of reasons). Here in Kentucky, for instance, our budget crisis threatens to end or severely cripple our public defender program. In light of that legal experts are calling on Gov. Steve Beshear (D-KY) to impose a moratorium on executions because the Constitution requires a right to competent defense.

A list of major religious statements against the death penalty can be found here.  Since I am a Baptist, whose own particular Baptist denomination (the Alliance of Baptists) has not made any statements on the matter, let me quote the statement of the American Baptist Churches, USA (June 1977–just following the Supreme Court decision, Gregg v. Georgia which allowed states to resume capital punishment if it could be applied in a non-arbitrary manner) and updated afterward):

Until the Gilmore case in 1979, there had been no execution in the United States in 10 years.   The ritual taking of life had ceased while debate continued in the courts regarding the constitutionality of capital punishment.

Now that the death laws in some states have been upheld, over 400 persons nationwide face possible execution by hanging, firing squad, asphyxiation, or electrocution.  Such punishment has been abolished in Canada and most of Europe, where it is seen as morally unacceptable and a form of cruel and unusual punishment inconsistent with religious and/or ethical traditions.

The majority of those on death row are poor, powerless, and educationally deprived.  Almost 50 percent come from minority groups. This reflects the broad inequities within our society, and the inequity with which the ultimate is applied.  This alone is sufficient reason for opposing it as immoral and unjust.

Since further legal actions to stop executions appear unpromising, it is more important than ever that the religious community speak to the moral, religious and ethical implications of killing by the state.  Numerous secular and religious groups have recently taken positions in opposition to capital punishment.

THEREFORE, we as American Baptists, condemn the current reinstatement of capital punishment and oppose its use under any new or old state or federal law, and call for an immediate end to planned executions throughout this country.

We urge American Baptists in every state to act as advocates against the passage of new death penalty laws, and to act individually and in concert with others to prevent executions from being carried out.

We appeal to the governors of each state where an execution is pending to act with statesmanship and courage by commuting to life imprisonment without parole all capital cases within their jurisdiction.

I have been active in working for the abolition of the death penalty since my teens.  I have written several articles which have been published as chapters in books on the death penalty.  (One is being reprinted now in a collection edited by a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.) I believe that those of us who worship One unjustly executed, and who believe that God alone is sovereign over life and death, cannot support state-sanctioned murder. I also believe that we  risk executing innocent persons and that the death penalty works symbolically against real and meaningful prison reform and is an  ineffective tool in fighting crime.

Those who wish to study more on the topic are invited to begin here.

I pray that Gov. Richardson will sign this historic legislation and that this begins a new wave of death penalty abolition in America.

NOTE:  U. S. states without any current death penalty provision in law:  Alaska, Hawai’i, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, New Jersey, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia, Wisconsin.  In addition, Nebraska’s Supreme Court has ruled its capital punishment law unconstitutional (according to the Nebraska state constitution) and Nebraska has introduced legislation to repeal it; there has also been a rival bill introduced that would modify the death penalty in hopes that it would then pass constitutional muster. Who knows which path Nebraska legislators  will take?  Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico also have no death penalty.

Legislation on capital punishment is in session in the following states in 2009:  AL (Bill to allow death row inmates to demand DNA testing; And what if no DNA is available?); AK (Bill to reinstate the death penalty; Despite its Republican domination, the death penalty is not popular in AK–but is it popular with AK legislators?); AR (Bill to codify lethal injection); CO (Bill to abolish the death penalty and use money saved to solve cold cases. Has passed the House judiciary committee and goes to the full House.); CT: 2 Bills: One would repeal the death penalty, the other would simply require a higher standard of proof; GA (4 bills. 1: allow death penalty without unanimous juries–this dangerous bill unanimously passed the GA senate and the House Judiciary Committee; it is probably unconstitutional; 2. Allow prosecutors to seek life without parole without seeking the death penalty; 3. 2 Yr. moratorium on executions while dp studied; 4. Lower standard of proof for mental retardation in dp cases. U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that executing those with mental retardation is unconstitutional.)  ID: Bill to modify lethal injection law to conform to Supreme CT ruling upholding KY’s lethal injection law. IL: Bill to abolish dp–passed the House Committee–goes to full House and Senate. IN: Bill to exempt severely mentally ill from dp. KS: Bill to abolish dp in all future trials (passed the Sen. Jud. Committee. Goes to full Senate on Monday 16 March).  MD: Bill to abolish the death penalty introduced by governor (Ended in Senate by amendment; if passes in House could be returned to Senate); MO: Bill to impose 2 yr. moratorium on executions while dp is studied; MT: Bill to abolish the dp, including for current death row inmates (Passed the senate; goes to house); NB: see above; NV: Bill to impose 2 yr. moratorium on executions while dp is studied. New Hampshire: 4 bills (1. Abolition. 2. Study Commission. 3. Change method to firing squad. 4. EXPAND dp to add crime of murder with firearm.); NM: See above; NC: Bill to exempt mentally ill; A second bill that would allow prisoners to challenge their dp conviction based on racial prejudice; SC: (Bill to forbid identifying any member of execution team or punish anyone for participating in execution. Would that include forbidding any religious sanctions? Because, if so, that’s a violation of religious freedom and unconstitutional.) TN: 4 reform bills growing out of a statewide study. (1. Require defense attorneys in dp cases to be highly qualified. 2. Mandate defense attorneys have uniform access to info against clients. 3. Require police officers to record all interrogations of suspects. 4. Timetables for appeal.) TX: Bill to repeal (in committee) and Bill to eliminate dp for accomplices who did not directly participate (e.g. in a robbery). UT: Proposed constitutional amendment to restrict repeals–defeated in House.  VA: 3 bills to expand dp–all face veto by Gov. Tim Kaine (D-VA). WA: Bill to repeal death penalty.

Although a few states in that list are moving in the wrong direction, this shows more activity to end capital punishment than in a long time.  Pray for a complete abolition worldwide.


March 15, 2009 - Posted by | death penalty


  1. Why not turn one who has committed murder over to the family of the victim of the crime ? Let them exact justice. If anyone has the right it is the victim’s family. No, the ACLU might view that as cruel and unusual punishment (which is what murder is in fact).

    Comment by Paul | March 15, 2009

  2. The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents
    Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters, contact info below

    Often, the death penalty dialogue gravitates to the subject of innocents at risk of execution. Seldom is a more common problem reviewed. That is, how innocents are more at risk without the death penalty.

    Enhanced Due Process

    No knowledgeable and honest party questions that the death penalty has the most extensive due process protections in US criminal law.

    Therefore, 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.

    That is. logically, conclusive.

    Enhanced Incapacitation

    To state the blatantly clear, living murderers, in prison, after release or escape, are much more likely to harm and murder, again, than are executed murderers.

    Although an obvious truism, it is surprising how often folks overlook the enhanced incapacitation benefits of the death penalty over incarceration.

    There are a few absolutes when it comes to Life Without Parole. The legislature can lessen sentences, retroactively, and the executive branch can lessen any individual sentence.

    Enhanced Deterrence

    16 recent studies, inclusive of their defenses, find for death penalty deterrence.

    A surprise? No.

    Life is preferred over death. Death is feared more than life.

    Some believe that all studies with contrary findings negate those 16 studies. They don’t. Studies which don’t find for deterrence don’t say no one is deterred, but that they couldn’t measure those deterred.

    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. Yet, the evidence is compelling and un refuted that death is feared more than life.

    Enhanced Fear

    Some death penalty opponents argue against death penalty deterrence, stating that it’s a harsher penalty to be locked up without any possibility of getting out.

    Reality paints a very different picture.

    What percentage of capital murderers seek a plea bargain to a death sentence? Zero or close to it. They prefer long term imprisonment.

    What percentage of convicted capital murderers argue for execution in the penalty phase of their capital trial? Zero or close to it. They prefer long term imprisonment.

    What percentage of death row inmates waive their appeals and speed up the execution process? Nearly zero. They prefer long term imprisonment.

    This is not, even remotely, in dispute.

    What of that more rational group, the potential murderers who choose not to murder, is it likely that they, like most of us, fear death more than life?

    Life is preferred over death. Death is feared more than life.

    Furthermore, history tells us that lifers have many ways to get out: Pardon, commutation, escape, clerical error, change in the law, etc.

    In choosing to end the death penalty, or in choosing not implement it, some have chosen to spare murderers at the cost of sacrificing more innocent lives.

    Furthermore, possibly we have sentenced 25 actually innocent people to death since 1973, or 0.3% of those so sentenced. Those have all been released upon post conviction review. The anti death penalty claims, that the numbers are significantly higher, are a fraud, easily discoverable by fact checking.

    The innocents deception of death penalty opponents has been getting exposure for many years. Even the behemoth of anti death penalty newspapers, The New York Times, has recognized that deception.

    To be sure, 30 or 40 categorically innocent people have been released from death row . . . (1) This when death penalty opponents were claiming the release of 119 “innocents” from death row. Death penalty opponents never required actual innocence in order for cases to be added to their “exonerated” or “innocents” list. They simply invented their own definitions for exonerated and innocent and deceptively shoe horned large numbers of inmates into those definitions – something easily discovered with fact checking.

    There is no proof of an innocent executed in the US, at least since 1900.

    If we accept that the best predictor of future performance is past performance, we can, reasonably, conclude that the DNA cases will be excluded prior to trial, and that for the next 8000 death sentences, that we will experience a 99.8% accuracy rate in actual guilt convictions. This improved accuracy rate does not include the many additional safeguards that have been added to the system, over and above DNA testing.

    Of all the government programs in the world, that put innocents at risk, is there one with a safer record and with greater protections than the US death penalty?


    Full report -All Innocence Issues: The Death Penalty, upon request.

    Full report – The Death Penalty as a Deterrent, upon request

    (1) The Death of Innocents: A Reasonable Doubt,
    New York Times Book Review, p 29, 1/23/05, Adam Liptak,
    national legal correspondent for The NY Times

    copyright 2007-2009, Dudley Sharp
    Permission for distribution of this document, in whole or in part, is approved with proper attribution.

    Dudley Sharp, Justice Matters

    Comment by Dudley Sharp | March 15, 2009

  3. An innocent who is sent to prison is alive to be released if new evidence comes to light. Also, where the death penalty is “off the table,” juries are able to view evidence more objectively. In capital cases, prosecutors make certain that only people who believe in the death penalty are on the jury and studies have shown that this has the effect of creating juries who are predisposed to believe the accused is guilty, rather than to make the prosecution prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, Dudley, the death penalty already leads to more miscarriages of justice just by being “on the table.”

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 15, 2009

  4. The family of a murder victim is singularly unable to exercise sound judgment as to whether an ACCUSED murder is guilty or not. Revenge is not justiice. We take revenge away from family members for good reason. And it is not the ACLU (of which I am a member) which views that as cruel and unusual punishment, but the Constitution and 500 years of English common law before that. Rabbinic law, building on the Hebrew Scriptures, is even stricter in this regard, Paul. And Christians are simply forbidden to exact revenge at all.

    The biblical view of justice is not retribution, but RESTORATIVE JUSTICE which heals brokeness in relationships and even in the universe. Forgiveness is central to biblical justice.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 15, 2009

  5. Dudley wrote: “To state the blatantly clear, living murderers, in prison, after release or escape, are much more likely to harm and murder, again, than are executed murderers.” This is not true. There have been numerous studies on this over decades in states with and without the death penalty and in countries with and without the death penalty. Murder has a very low recidivism rate, unlike theft or other crimes. Obviously there are exceptions, such as serial killers, hitmen, gangbangers, etc. But most murders are spontaneous and even if planned do not represent a pattern in life.

    However, Dudley, you are assuming that the choice is execution or release after prison. Most states which abolish the death penalty make the alternative life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. That is what New Mexico just did, for instance. So, this is false and misleading argument.

    The accuracy rate you state is also false. In fact, since the advent of DNA testing we have found that convictiions based on eyewitness testimony are remarkably unreliable.

    I have worked on these issues for years, so I know what I am talking about. I have worked with the sociological data and the FBI data. I have worked with victims’ families and the family members of accused (or actual) murderers. I have interviewed police, judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys. Not even those who in the system who are in favor of capital punishment argue for such an accuracy rate. For data that shows just how in error that is, see http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/innocence-and-death-penalty . Those who get sentenced to death are not usually those whose guilt is most overwhelmingly obvious or those who have committed the worst crimes, but those with the worst lawyers (even sometimes sleeping or drunk in court as in several cases in Texas), usually the poor and often racially discriminated. In fact, data shows that if the victim is white, prosecutors are far more likely to seek the death penalty than if the victim is black–regardless of the race of the perpetrator. See http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/race-and-death-penalty .

    This data was so overwhelming that it was accepted as evidence of racial bias in a Supreme Court Death Penalty case McClesky v. Kemp (1987)–in which the court then bizarrely ruled that the dp was constitutional anyway!

    You also state that the death penalty is a deterrent and this has been REPEATEDLY disproven again and again.

    As the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 15, 2009

  6. Michael:

    I am astounded that you would challenge this.

    “To state the blatantly clear, living murderers are much more likely to harm and murder, again, than are executed murderers.”

    It is a truism. There is no possible contradiction.

    Secondly, Of course jurors chosen for a death penalty case have to be able to impose the death penalty. All jurors are required to be able to enforce the law and sanctions which exist for any case. That’s law 101.

    Comment by Dudley Sharp | March 15, 2009

  7. The 130 death row “innocents” scam

    For fact checking.

    1. “Case Histories: A Review of 24 Individuals Released from Death Row”, Florida Commission on Capital Cases, 6/20/02, Revised 9/10/02 at http://www.floridacapitalcases.state.fl.us/Publications/innocentsproject.pdf

    83% error rate in “innocent” claims.

    2. “Is ‘the innocence list’ an appropriate name?”, 1/19/03

    Dieter admits they don’t discern between legal innocence and actual innocence. One of Dieter’s funnier quotes;”The prosecutor, perhaps, or Dudley Sharp, perhaps, thinks they’re still guilty because there was evidence of their guilt, but that’s a subjective judgment.” Yep, “EVIDENCE OF GUILT”, can’t you see why Dieter would think they were innocent? And that’s how the DPIC works.

    3. The Death of Innocents: A Reasonable Doubt,
    New York Times Book Review, p 29, 1/23/05, Adam Liptak,
    national legal correspondent for The NY Times

    “To be sure, 30 or 40 categorically innocent people have been released from death row . . . “.

    That is out of the DPIC claimed 119 “exonerated”, at that time, for a 75% error rate.

    NOTE: It’s hard to understand how an absolute can have a differential of 33%. I suggest the “to be sure” is, now, closer to 25.


    Comment by Dudley Sharp | March 16, 2009

  8. Dudley, you are flooding this site, rather than interacting with people. That’s against the rules of this blog. So, I am going to remove several of your comments until you learn some manners. If you can actually interact with people in a conversational mode, you won’t be banned from the site for good.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 16, 2009

  9. Dudley said, I” am astounded that you would challenge this.

    To state the blatantly clear, living murderers are much more likely to harm and murder, again, than are executed murderers.

    It is a truism. There is no possible contradiction.”

    Actually, you’re right. I didn’t read this closely. I was in a hurry and read this as released murderers are much more likely to harm and murder again than are murderers condemned to death.” For that’s how the argument actually translates in the criminal justice system.

    Now, this was a celebratory blogpost, but you obviously want to turn it into a debate over the morality of the death penalty. I am willing to have such a debate (I’ve done it numerous times over decades), but not right now. I have writing deadlines and too many series of posts already begun to start a new one. So, if you’ll quit flooding my comments, I’ll begin such a thread at the beginning of April–complete with stats, biblical arguments, etc. But not right now–this was just celebrating what is, from my perspective, good news from New Mexico. If you can’t wait, you’ll have to have the debate with someone else.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 16, 2009

  10. So, I guess that we let a person get away with murder? The criminal justice system seems to grant more justice to the convicted criminals than to the victims in a lot of instances. Vigils outside of prisons and celebrity status (e.g. Mumia). The world is indeed turned upside down regardless of how you paint it.

    Comment by Paul | March 16, 2009

  11. Michael:

    I can’t turn your blog into anything you don’t want.

    I blog only at your discretion and am grateful that you allow comment.

    Thank you.

    Comment by Dudley Sharp | March 16, 2009

  12. I find the Christian biblical, theological and traditonal support for the death penalty to far outweigh any reconciliation model in opposition to the death penalty.

    Please review
    Catholic Scholars: Support for the Death Penalty

    There are many no Catholic references.

    Furthermore, reconciliation, in no way, excludes a just sanction for the crime committed. Likely, the best models may end up commbining reconcliation with retributive sentencing.

    In the US, death row inmates wait between 1 and 30 years to be executed, with the average being about 11 years.

    Comment by Dudley Sharp | March 16, 2009

  13. Dudley, 1 more chance! Wait until we can debate this. Quit flooding my comment spaces–or I will ban you from the site.

    Notice how many of your remarks are here without any chance for others to comment. That’s a violation of one of my chief posted rules: not letting others have a chance and dominating the thread.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 16, 2009

  14. Paul, I do not propose letting murderers “get away” with anything. The alternative to the death penalty is life without parole. This allows mistakes (punishing an innocent) to be corrected–in ways that execution does not.

    I am not going to comment on the specifics of the Mumia case.

    Again, I will be happy to have a complete debate on the death penalty in April when I catch up on some work and can devote the time needed to it. Thanks.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | March 16, 2009

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