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

A Biblical Case for Christian Pacifism I: Getting Started

   We are exploring a biblical case for or defense of Christian pacifism.  To get started, we need to define our terms and approach to the problem.  First, this is a biblical case for Christian pacifism, not the only way the case can be made from Scripture.  There are a variety of interpretations and approaches to Scripture held by Christian pacifists–and a number of legitimate ways of laying out the case.  This is simply the case I am making and the approach I, as a Christian pacifist who has long studied these matters, have chosen to proceeed.

Second, this is a biblical case.  Although bypassing debates over terms like “inerrancy” or ‘infallibility,’ I will be writing with the assumption that most readers are Christians who hold that the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are uniquely authoritative for both the doctrinal convictions and also for the ethics or moral practices of the Church, both collectively in its gathered life together and individually as members.  Protestant Christians generally belong to Reformation or post-Reformation groups which confess the Scriptures as the supreme authority, sometimes even saying the ONLY authority, in these matters.  Eastern Orthodox Christians place the Scriptures within the interpretive framework of the early ecumenical councils of the undivided Church, especially the Apostolic and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds, and the Definition of Chalcedon.  Roman Catholic Christians hold that Scriptural authority is part of the twofold teaching authority of the Church Magisterium, the Teaching Church, along with ongoing church tradition as embedded in councils and papal pronouncements. (Under certain very limited circumstances, Catholics hold that the pope can and does teach ‘infallibly.’) Some Quakers and some Pentecostals view the authority of the Scriptures through the authority of the living voice of the Holy Spirit discerned within the local church.  But all Christians have the Scriptures in common and I will appeal to those books which all consider canonical or forming the teaching norm of the Church universal.

For this reason, though some references to historical scholarship will be made from time to time, I will not here be trying to reconstruct “the historical Jesus” behind the four canonical Gospels, nor engaging in a “quest for the historical Israel” different from that presented in the historical accounts of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament.  This study is not aimed at scholars, but at ordinary Christian laity.  I assume that if I cannot show that the Bibles they actually read point to pacifism and nonviolence as a Christian norm, it won’t matter what case could be made to academics. I may from time to time alert readers to matters they may want to pursue in-depth in other works, but I have to keep my attention on the goal:  understanding the Biblical message as calling for nonviolence and pacifism on the part of all Christians.

Defining some key terms in this study: 

  • Christian: refers here to all who make the earliest Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord,” whose faith in God is mediated by Jesus, and who seek to follow Christ.  “Christian,” means “Christ-follower,” and before the earliest believers were called “Christians” at Antioch (Acts 13:1) they were simply called “Followers of the Way [of Jesus–as opposed to the Way of the Pharisees, Zealots, one of the Greco-Roman mystery cults, etc.].  So, in this study I am not writing to those who, as Clarence Jordan used to mock, simply want to admire Jesus, but to those who sincerely want to follow in the Way that he opened up.  “Christian” in this study does not mean someone who had a certain religious experience (whether they call it being “born again,” or by another name), but then live just like their non-Christian neighbors, but those who realize that being Christian involves addressing claims  that Jesus Christ makes on their lives.  It will be the burden of this study to show that living without violence or revenge or waging war is one of those claims on the lives of Christians. Engaging in the pursuit of justice and peace is another strong claim Jesus makes on our lives. So, negatively, we avoid killing or violence, and positively we work for justice and peace.
  • Violence is defined in this study as “using force or the threat of force to overwhelm the will or violate the rights or bodily integrity of another human being.”  Questions of violence to property or to animals or other living things will be bypassed in this study.  But mental or psychological violence is covered in our definition by means of the threat of physical violence.  For more on this definition see, Glen H. Stassen and Michael L. Westmoreland-White, “Defining Violence and Nonviolence” in Teaching Peace: Nonviolence and the Liberal Artsed., J. Denny Weaver and Gerald Biesecker-Mast (Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).  Update:  Mark Congdon thinks this definition needs to change “or” to “and.” I’ll think about that. He may be right.  But we need to separate the definition of violence from arguments about whether or not it is right or wrong. After all, Just War Theorists will agree that war is violent; it involves shooting, bombing, stabbing with bayonets, etc.  Nevertheless, they would argue that, under precise conditions and terms spelled about by JWT (many of which are now codified in both U.S. and international law), these would be justifiable (they claim) to prevent conditions they would think of as even more evil.  Likewise, there may be some things that would not technically count as violence under the definition given–such as assisted suicide, perhaps, that one would still want to argue are morally (and maybe legally) wrong.  We need to define violence correctly, but then also argue for it being wrong.  The article cited goes into far more detail and is more philosophically precise. Here, we are just getting our bearings for a biblical argument on pacifism.  There will be many “borderline” discussions and “grey areas,” but the main argument against war or terrorism, violent coups, spouse or child abuse, etc. will be clear.  Once we have moral clarity about the general direction of the life of discipleship as Christians, we can worry about “grey areas.”  But we don’t want special pleading–to say that “I don’t believe in violence but I do believe in X, therefore X is not really violent.” We need to separate the definition of violence (whether or not that definition needs refining) from the argument about an action’s morality so as not to hide some types of violence behind definitions.
  • As such violence is distinguishable from two related terms force and coercion.  Force refers to any power to set an object or a course of events in motion.  Coercion refers to all practices that pressure others to take actions or refrain from actions against their own desires.  Violence always involves coercion and usually involves force, but not all force or coercion is a form of violence.  If I swing a baseball bat, it always involves force, but it is only violent if my intended target is my neighbor’s head rather than the spheroid thrown by my neighbor called a “baseball.”  However, if I poison someone without her knowledge, I have not used force, but my action was still violent.  Similarly, if I insist that my children do their homework when they would rather not, I am being coercive, but I am not being violent just by using my moral authority as their father (nor is Kate when using her authority as mother to achieve the same end). If I threaten to lock them in a closet otherwise, or beat them into submission, my coercion has been violent.
  • These distinctions may seem petty, but they are important.  Many have objected to Christian pacifism by claiming that it does away with authority (and thus is always anarchistic) and that Christian pacifists are hypocrites if they discipline their children.  That is not so.  Some pacifists are against spanking, but not all. (My own objections to spanking do not involve the claim that spanking is always wrong or always child abuse–but that the difference in adult strength is so great, and adults are usually angry when they employ spanking, that abuse is always a strong potential outcome.  Once I grabbed one of my daughters by the arm to prevent her from running into an oncoming car.  I did the right thing. My action, though forceful and coercive, was hardly violent. But I still accidentally bruised her arm.  So, I refrain from spanking because I do not trust my own strength when angry. I do think that parents for whom spanking is the USUAL form of punishment are failing as parents, even if they manage to spank in such a way as to not be abusive.)
  • Consider other examples: If someone is attempting suicide by jumping off a bridge and another prevents this by tackling the jumper, the rescuer is being forceful and coercive, but not violent–not even if they injure the jumper in the rescue.  Workers in a mental hospital who practice safe methods of restraint against a violent patient are not being violent, but if they fight the patient they are being violent–defensively violent, but still violent.  Nor are intentions everything:  If a pilot accidentally releases his bombs over a wedding, we still call the resulting carnage violence.  The argument being made in this study is that Christians are forbidden violence (and commanded to engage in practices of justice seeking and peacemaking), NOT they are forbidden to ever use force or coercion.
  • Nonviolence is a term that has evolved in meaning. It once meant only refraining from violence.  It has evolved to mean, and I use the term here, to refer to active practices against injustice and war that are not themselves violent.  Examples of such practices include:  strikes (if the strikers remain disciplined and nonviolent), boycotts, demonstrations, walkouts, nonviolent protests, symbolic actions, work slowdowns, general strikes throughout a nation, fasting (under certain conditions), etc.  We will see numerous such examples in Scripture and history throughout this study. Nonviolent direct action is a form of conflict, of struggle against injustice. It is not passive or submissive or cowardly. It is an alternative to flight or fight, to submission or armed, violent, resistance.
  • Conflict resolution or conflict transformation refers to a series of evolving practices for peacemaking in the midst of conflict, including in the midst of war or armed violence.  These practices are distinct from the practices of nonviolent direct action, but they are not in tension with them. The practices include negotiation, cooling off periods, etc.
  • Pacifism refers to the ideological conviction, often religiously rooted, that all war and violence is morally wrong and may not be used even as a “lesser evil.”  In this study, I refer to Christian pacifism, the claim that Christians (Christ-f0llowers) must attempt to live without violence, especially without lethal violence, and, positively, to engage in practices of nonviolent struggle for justice and peacemaking.  For this reason, at a minimum, Christians must refuse to go to war or to prepare for war by serving in national militaries (or by serving in armed militias or guerilla groups, for that matter).  (The question of police work is more complex than can be addressed here, but it cries out for more attention.  See further Tobias Winright, “From Police Officers to Peace Officers,” in The Wisdom of the Cross:  Essays in Honor of John Howard Yoder, ed. Stanley Hauerwas, Harry J. Huebner, and Chris Huebner (Eerdmans, 1999, repr. Wipf and Stock, 2005).  This is based on Winrights unpublished Ph.D. dissertation in Christian ethics from Notre Dame, which I hope will be published in full in the near future.)
  • Nevertheless, as we will see, the major thrust of the biblical message is not on what we should refrain from doing (violence, making war), but on what we should be doing (working for peace and justice).  This point has come to have wide agreement beyond Christian pacifist circles.  Christian pacifists and those from the “Justifiable War Tradition,” are beginning to agree on a set of normative practices in Just Peacemaking.  I have discussed those in depth elsewhere on this blog. I may refer to them again at the end of this study, but not in detail.

I think we will end this first installment here so as to refrain from making these too long for busy readers to follow.  The next installment, then, will deal with two more “getting started” questions:  “Why Does This Study Begin with Jesus and the New Testament?” and “How Ought Christians to Read the Old Testament?” From there we will begin our biblical studies.

October 3, 2009 Posted by | Bible, Biblical exegesis, convictions, death penalty, discipleship, ethics, Hebrew Bible/O.T., Jesus, just peacemaking, just war theory, New Testament, nonviolence, pacifism, peacemaking, theology, violence, war | 20 Comments

Urge CT Gov. Rell to Sign Death Penalty Abolition

Breaking silence for breaking news!  Will death penalty abolition regain momentum?  In 2007,  New Jersey became the first state to legislatively repeal the death penalty since 1976 (NY’s state Supreme Court had struck its dp down as violating the state constitution).  Early this year, New Mexico became the second and several other states had dp abolition bills in process.  It looked as if the movement to abolish the death penalty was gaining real momentum.  But the bill for abolition in Maryland was amended to keep the death penalty but require a higher level proof than in murder cases where the death penalty is not on the table.  In Kansas, the Senate voted for further study and the session ended.  In Montana, the bill was tabled and thus defeated for this session.  In New Hampshire, after the governor promised to veto abolition, it was modified in a fashion similar to Maryland.

Then, last month, it seemed like the best possibility for another victory for abolitionism this year was defeated in Colorado.  Colorado’s bill would have taken money save from abolishing the death penalty and used it to solve cold case murders.  It passed the state House by 1 vote and failed in the state Senate also by one vote.  At least for this year, death penalty abolition seemed to have run aground.

Now, unexpectedly, it may have new momentum.  The state of Connecticut has a death penalty statute, but has never actually executed someone in 48 years.  It has never been part of the “death belt” in this nation.  But Gov. Jodi Rell (R-CT), a former prosecutor (who never graduated university and has only honorary degrees), has always supported the death penalty, claiming that some crimes are so heinous as to deserve death.  In her term, CT had its first execution since 1960 in 2005. Given that opposition, it seemed unlikely that CT’s legislature would repeal the death penalty.  Surprises do happen. 

On 13 May, the CT state House passed a bill repealing the death penalty 90-56.  And yesterday, the CT Senate passed abolition, 19-17.  Neither legislative body has enough votes for abolition to override a veto by Gov. Rell and her public comments since yesterday do not sound like she wants to sign it into law. 

CALL Gov. Rell at 1-800-406-1527 or, in CT, 860-566-4840.  Or email her office at governor.rell@ct.gov and urge her to sign this repeal into law. (Be polite.) READERS FROM CONNECTICUT ARE ESPECIALLY URGED TO CONTACT HER AND URGE HER TO SIGN ABOLITION INTO LAW.  Gov. Rell is an Episcopalian and the Episcopal Church has long been opposed to capital punishment.

P.S.  I should say that Gov. Rell is from the dwindling moderate wing of the Republican party.  She is pro-life, but supported civil unions for same-sex marriage.  She instituted a statewide cap and trade system to reduce global warming and streamlined social security disability claims.  She is a major proponent of campaign finance reform and has been known widely for her clean campaigns. She was considered for John McCain’s running mate last year, but his staff thought her too moderate for the GOP base.  She, a Republican, has huge approval ratings in the very Demcratic state of CT.  So, she is no fanatic, but a person of both faith and reason.

May 22, 2009 Posted by | death penalty | 8 Comments

Colorado Senate Defeats Death Penalty Abolition

I had high hopes that CO would become the 2nd state this year and the 3rd state in 2 years to abolish the death penalty.  I was especially impressed at the wording of the CO bill which would repeal the death penalty AND USE THE MONEY SAVED (est. at $3 million per year) to investigate cold case murders.  The bill passed the CO House of Representatives 33-32 on 20 April.  It passed 2 key committees in the state Senate.  But when it came to the full senate vote, an amendment passed that appropriated more money for cold cases but kept the death penalty. (Where will CO get this money in a recession without the savings from repeal of the death penalty?)  That amended bill passed on 04 May.  In the reconciliation conference, the repeal of the death penalty was restored, but the Senate defeated that bill 18-17 on 06 May–at the end of the legislative session. 

The narrowness of the bill’s passage in the House and the narrowness of the defeat in the Senate shows that this is not the end of this debate in CO.  It also shows that if Gov.  Bill Ritter (D-CO) had used his influence with the Democratically controlled legislature, he could have passed this bill.  So, Colorado abolitionists, between now and next session, you have to create a groundswell  for abolition and work on changing a few key legislators–and work on getting the governor publicly on your side.

A bill to abolish the death penalty has passed the House of Reps. in NH, but looks to simply die in the Senate.  A bill to abolish the death penalty in IL passed a key House committee but no further action has been  taken and the legislative session is drawing to a close.  A bill to abolish the death penalty in CT passed a key house committee, but no further action has been taken.

North Carolina seems poised to pass the Racial Justice Act which would allow judges to vacate death sentences if it could be  proven that racial prejudice was involved in the sentencing. (Unfortunately,  it is much easier to prove racism in death sentences statistically than to show that  it was involved in a particular sentence–unless the jurors sit around making racist jokes or something.)

The movement to abolish the death penalty in the U.S. has gained considerable ground since the 1990s, but it is still an uphill struggle.  My hopes that this year could see a rash of state abolitions was premature, it seems.  But even if we get only one  state per year, we will be moving in the right direction.

May 13, 2009 Posted by | death penalty | Comments Off on Colorado Senate Defeats Death Penalty Abolition

A Christian Case Against the Death Penalty: Prologue

In March, I reported on the new life and momentum that the anti-death penalty movement has found in the U.S.  This led one reader to want to debate the morality of capital punishment directly.  I simply did not have the time for such a debate then, but promised to have such a thread as soon as possible.  That time is now.  In this post, I will outline the shape of the case I will make in a series of posts.

I have written numerous articles on the death penalty since 1985.  Many of these articles have been published in book-length collections and symposia.  I will draw on those earlier works and may site my own writings as well as others.

First, since I assume that pacifist Christians already oppose the death penalty, and already read Scripture from that perspective, I will, instead, argue a case from a non-pacifist perspective.  I opposed the death penalty since my early teens, long before I became convinced that Christians must be pacifists and quit the U.S. army as a conscientious objector.  So the case I will argue will assume that lethal self-defense is a moral option.

I will begin by examining the biblical texts that are most often used (by both sides) in the intra-Christian debates over the death penalty.  Unless one is already is a pacifist and reads Scripture from such a hermeneutical perspective, I do not think that the biblical case the death penalty is open and shut.  My claim is (slightly) more modest:  that the biblical narratives should bias Christians against the death penalty.  That is, Christians, being shaped in the biblical narratives, should be suspicious of the moral claims of the death penalty.  The burden-of-proof, for biblical Christians, should be on those who would make a moral argument for the death penalty.  (Thus, I call this series “A Christian Case Against the Death Penalty,” and not The Christian Case Against the Death Penalty.  I do not assume there is only one way of arguing for or against the death penalty.)  I will also examine several Christian practices that should re-shape the debate over the death penalty among U.S. Christians.

I will then examine the common public moral arguments for and and against the death penalty.  I will argue that the moral case for the death penalty falls short and that the moral case for abolishing the death penalty is stronger and more compelling. 

I will then argue for alternatives to the death penalty that take the concerns of pro-death penalty advocates seriously.

Throughout the series, I will call attention to the dimensions of moral discernment noted in that series

I am not a lawyer, but legal reasoning bears many similarities to moral reasoning.  As an epilogue, I will briefly examine the case that the death penalty is unconstitutional based on the 8th Amendment to the U.S.  Constitution’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.”

I hope readers will find this conversation informative and stimulating.

May 13, 2009 Posted by | death penalty, ethics, human rights., moral discernment | Comments Off on A Christian Case Against the Death Penalty: Prologue

Replacing Souter: Criteria for a Supreme Court Justice

The Constitution of the United States does not give any binding criteria of eligibility for Justices of the Supreme Court.  This contrasts strongly with the President and members of Congress in which age and citizenship requirements are spelled out (the President and VP may not be naturalized citizens).  Theoretically, anyone could be appointed to the Supreme Court–provided the Senate approves for the Constitution requires the “advice and consent” of the Senate. Usually, this has meant a simple majority unless an attempt at filibuster means that 60 senators must agree to “invoke cloture” and end debate and go to a vote.

In practice, however, Justices have always been appointed who were familiar with the law of the land.  They were expected to be lawyers who had passed the bar exam and were licensed to practice law in one or more of the respective states of the union.  After law schools became common (19th C.), all Justices were expected to have law degrees.  Sitting judges from lower courts, especially appellate courts, have formed the bulk of the Justices.  (All of the current members of the Supreme Court were appellate judges, for instance, though both Souter and Clarence Thomas had only served briefly before being nominated to the Supreme Court of the United States [SCOTUS].) But that has not always been the case.  Beginning with the first Chief Justice, John Jay (1745-1829), there have been numerous justices who spent part of their careers as working politicians.  (Jay had been President under the Articles of Confederation, prior  to the adoption of the current Constitution, as well as minister (ambassador) to France and Spain and later Secretary of Foreign Affairs (i.e., Secretary of State).  A signer of the Constitution, he was also a co-author of The Federalist Papers.   Later he was Governor of New York.) In the 20th C., such working politicians who became Supreme Court justices included William Howard Taft (previously U.S. President), Charles Evans Hughes (former governor of NY and Republican candidate for U.S. president), Earl Warren (former governor of California), and Hugo L. Black (Democratic Senator from Alabama).  There have also been numerous legal scholars at law schools and high-ranking members of the Department of Justice–especially Attorneys General and Solicitors General.  (The great Thurgood Marshall, first African-American justice, had been Pres. Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Solicitor General. The Solicitor General pleads the government’s cases before the SCOTUS.)

So, Pres. Obama has a wide array of choices before him.  The Senate favors confirming appellate judges, but Obama has said he is looking for someone with real world experience, not just academic brilliance.  So, he might incline to reviving the tradition of appointing a working politician, or someone working as legal counsel for a human rights organization or for labor or for children.  We also know he favors brilliance and he favors legal appointments whose legal degrees come from the Ivy League schools (Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, ) or sometimes Chicago or Stanford.  In my view, this is a welcome change from the Bush administration’s habit of appointing legal people with degrees from fundamentalist diploma mills like Pat Robertson’s Regent University, but that Obama should work to diversify.  There are plenty of excellent legal minds which went to good law schools attached to state universities (e.g., University of Michigan) and from a much broader range of the country.  The Ivy League is excellent, but is not everything.

If I were a gambler (which I am not), I would wager a large sum that his appointment will be a woman.  We only have one woman on the Supreme Court and this is far inferior to other nations.  Further, we know from studying appellate courts that the presence of more than one female judge influences the judgments of the male judges.  Since women are 51% of this country, this imbalance is long overdue correcting. And women are nearly 60% of the Democratic Party,  so Obama will feel major pressure to appoint a woman–to say nothing of the fact that Michelle Obama, his wife, is also a Harvard-trained lawyer. 

There will also be pressure from African-Americans to appoint another African-American and from Hispanics to appoint the first Hispanic justice. (Asians and Native Americans are too small a fraction of the population to put real pressure on Obama in this way, but they will doubtless lobby for a member of one of their ethnic groups, too.)  Yet, Obama has never been the “quota” type of Affirmative-Action believer.  He has a diverse cabinet, but looked to qualifications first and foremost. (Those on the right who predicted he would fill his cabinet with African-Americans have been shown wrong. If anything, they are slightly under-represented.)

I would love to see greater diversity on the court, but my priorities are excellence, defense of civil liberties, and a tilt toward seeing the law on the side of the poor, marginalized, and weak, rather than on the side of corporations.

If I were advising the president (yeah, right), I would want someone who:

  • Believes strongly in religious liberty and church-state separation.  Membership in Americans United for Separation of Church and State or a similar group would be a huge plus.  If the nominee is a judge, I would look for opinions that represent the previous high separation standards, prior to the erosion of the wall late in the BurgerCourt and all through the Rhenquist Court and continuing so far in the Roberts Court. 
  • Believes strongly in civil liberties more broadly, especially free speech, assembly, privacy, the press.  I would want a justice that defends the civil liberties of suspects,  too, and keeps high standards for police and government agencies in the collection of evidence.
  • Is suspicious of the very idea of corporations as persons (Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad, 1886) and generally favors the rights of individuals over corporations and the common good, including the ecological common good, over corporations.
  • Believes in equal justice for all regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, or physical or mental disability.
  • Believes strongly in the separation of powers and checks and balances and rejects the “unitary executive” idea of Yoo and co. which makes the president an elected dictator, at least in time of war.  Strongly reserves the right to declare war to Congress as Article 1 prescribes.
  • Is more inclined to see democracy threatened by state secrets than by too much information in the hands of the people.
  • I would love a true opponent of the death penalty, no hedging, on SCOTUS, since we have not had one since Marshall’s retirement. (We never had a majority of those believing the death penalty was wrong.)  However, if this was well known, I am not sure such a person could get confirmed by the Senate.  Fortunately, abortion comes up at senate hearings far more often than the death penalty.
  • I would love someone who believes  that Article 1 of the Constitution means what it says–that ratified treaties share with the Constitution the status of “highest law of the land.”  Thus, no executive can decide that the “Geneva Conventions are outmoded and quaint”  as some of the Bush administration did.

Would such a nominee be able to be confirmed?  Hard to say. Much would depend on the person’s ability to articulately defend her or his views before the Senate.  It’s not the Republicans so much that Obama’s nominee would need to watch (now that they have only 40 seats in the Senate!), but the centrist and conservative Democratic senators who meet with Evan Bayh of Indiana.  If Obama’s nominee seems to them to be too far from mainstream legal opinion, s/he would be in trouble.  So, for instance, I think we could get a strong torture opponent, but not someone who was as outspoken against torture during the Bush years as Dawn Johsen, Obama’s yet-to-be-confirmed nominee for Deputy Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel.  Obama wouldn’t want to see such a long hold up. 

What criteria would you suggest for such a nominee?

May 4, 2009 Posted by | church-state separation, civil liberties, courts, death penalty, human rights., judges, judicial philosophy, law, torture, U.S. politics | 5 Comments

Death Penalty Update: Colorado

As noted by my friend, Daniel (who lives in CO when home from his mission work in the Bahamas), yesterday the Colorado Houe of Reps. narrowly passed legislation to repeal the death penalty.  From here the bill goes to the CO senate and, if it passes there, to Gov. Ritter (D-CO) who has not said whether or not he will sign the bill.  Ritter is a former prosecutor who has always supported the death penalty, but he is also a devout Catholic and in the last several decades the Catholic Church has shown strong opposition to the death penalty. (This is not the church’s traditional stance.) So much so is this the case that studies have shown that the more frequently American Catholics go to mass, the more likely they are to oppose the death penalty. (I wish the same could be said of American Evangelicals!)

The Colorado legislation would not just repeal the death penalty, but would use the money saved to help solve cold case murders.  That provision has to appeal to law and order types, including a former prosecutor who is now CO governor, I hope. I wish Ritter would speak out in favor of the bill since that could help its chances in the CO Senate.

If CO abolishes the death penalty, it will be the second state this year (both Western states with Catholic governors) right after New Mexico, and the third state in two years (NJ abolished the death penalty in 2007).

MD, whose Catholic governor campaigned on abolishing the death penalty and won, has just passed legislation that would make it much harder to execute prisoners.  Gov. O’Malley thinks it a good first step and will sign it, but is not giving up on full abolition.

There are abolitionist bills currently in IL, CT, NH, ME, and NE.  The Alaska legislature killed a bill to restore their long-abandoned death penalty and Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine (D-VA) vetoed legislation that would have greatly expanded their death penalty statute.

April 22, 2009 Posted by | death penalty | 6 Comments

State of GA About to Execute Probably Innocent Man!

The above Youtube video was a joint project of the U.S. section of Amnesty International and the Indie Rock group, State Radio.  It details the story of Troy Davis. Davis was convicted of murdering a police officer  18 years ago, but, in the meantime, the case against him has fallen apart.  Seven 7) of the nine state witnesses against Davis have recanted their testimony and implicated one of the remaining two witnesses as the actual murderer. 

On 16 April 2009, the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals rejected Davis’ appeal for a new trial. His appeal was based on a simple fact:  No  court has yet to hold ANY evidentiary hearing on the the new evidence of tainted testimony.  In U.S. law after an initial trial has found someone guilty, the burden of proof shifts. One is now legally guilty.  Most appeals can only be made on the basis of technical improprieties in the original case (and then conservatives yell about people “getting off on a technicality”).  The majority of the justices who rejected Davis’ appeal expressed regret that they felt constrained by procedural rules! (A major reason for abolishing the death penalty.)

The GA Clemency Board can still intervene as can Gov. Sonny Perdue (R-GA).  Contact Gov. Perdue and urge clemency for Troy Davis. Urge Gov. Perdue not to risk executing an innocent  man.

In other death penalty news, Gov. Bill Richardson (D-NM) of New Mexico, a devout Catholic, met with the Pope on 16 April. The Vatican and the Italian people are some of the strongest opponents of the death penalty (although this is a change in Catholic thought since the Second Vatican Council; prior to this the Church had been a strong proponent of the death penalty since at least the 4th C.). Gov. Richardson, who recently signed legislation abolishing capital punishment in New Mexico (the 2nd U.S. state to abolish the death penalty in the past 2 years–with several more having pending legislation), was honored by the lighting of the Roman Coliseum.  This Protestant hasn’t been as fond of this particular pope, but I am glad that the Catholic Church continues to push for global abolition of the death penalty.  I hope this trend continues.

April 19, 2009 Posted by | death penalty | 9 Comments

New Hampshire House Repeals Death Penalty

This just in, the New Hampshire House of Representatives has just voted to repeal the death penalty in New Hampshire.  The legislation now goes to the NH Senate.  Gov.  John Lynch (D) has promised to veto the legislation if it reaches his desk!  NH citizens who disagree with this promise and want the death penalty repealed can send Gov. Lynch a message here.

This has happened in New Hampshire before.  In the 1990s, NH voted to repeal the death penalty and then-Gov. (now Sen.) Jeane Shaheen (D-NH) vetoed it.  Clearly NH people and legislators are not in agreement with their governors, even when the latter are Democrats!  But the ’90s was a time when public support for capital punishment (and the number of executions) was reaching all time highs.  Since 2000, the number of executions has plummeted nationwide (though still remaining high in Texas, Virginia, and Florida) and public support for capital punishment has also decreased–though not as fast or thoroughly as abolitionists like myself would want.

NH has not actually executed anyone for the last 50 years.  In fact, of the 35 U.S. states who have the death penalty on the books, the only two which have carried out ZERO executions since 1976 (the year that the Supreme Court said, in Gregg v. Georgia , that the death penalty could be Constitutional if carried out in a way that was neither arbitrary nor discriminatory) are New Hampshire and Kansas.  (KS has just buried in committee for another year a bill that would repeal its death penalty.)

Will NH follow New  Mexico and New Jersey and become the 3rd U.S. state to repeal the death penalty since 1976? Or will that belong to one of the other states considering such repeal this year like Colorado? Will 2009 be a “tipping point year” for the movement to abolish the death penalty in the U.S.? Stay tuned. (And, as promised, in April I will write a series of blog posts making the case for abolishing the death penalty–and invite debate from the other side.)

March 25, 2009 Posted by | death penalty | 1 Comment

Thank-You, Governor Richardson!

On Thursday, 18 March 2008, Governor Bill Richardson SIGNED legislation abolishing the death penalty in New Mexico and replacing it with life imprisonment without possibility of parole.  I urge all who greet this development as good news to contact Gov. Richardson and thank him  for signing this historic legislation.

You can call Gov. Richardson’s office at 505-476-2200, drop him a postcard or letter at:

Governor Bill Richardson, Office of the Governor, 490 Old Santa Fe Trail, Room 400, Santa Fe, NM 87501.

Or email the governor at this web page: http://www.governor.state.nm.us/emailchoice.php?mm=6

Just as it is important to complain to politicians when they do  wrong (and to complain about them in the press), petition them, etc., so also it is important to thank them and praise them when they do right.  In America, any politician who works on prison reform or the abolition (or even restriction) of the death penalty, or defends the rights of prisoners or the accused, etc. will face public criticism and be accused by the Right of being “soft on crime.” So they have to know that many people appreciate their efforts and moral courage.

If you share the abolitionist stance of this blog (and, as I promised a reader, I will make a careful case for the abolition of the death penalty in a series of posts in April), then I urge you to contact Governor Richardson and thank him for his efforts–and tell him to thank the people of the New Mexico legislature that passed the bill.

Also, the repeal was not retroactive,  so New Mexico still has people on death row.  Ask Gov. Richardson to commute the sentences of the remaining death row population to life imprisonment.

As I have chronicled in this space, similar legislation is pending in many U.S. states.  I expect that either New Hampshire or Colorado will be the  next to join the 15 states and the District of Columbia where the death penalty is outlawed, but there are several other possibilities.

March 20, 2009 Posted by | death penalty | Comments Off on Thank-You, Governor Richardson!

Update on Recent Death Penalty Legislation in States

New Mexico:  A bill to repeal the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without parole has passed both chambers of the state legislature and awaits Governor Richardson’s decision as to whether to sign or veto.

Colorado: A bill to repeal the  death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment (and use the money saved from abolition to investigate cold cases) has passed the House Judiciary Committee.  It awaits a vote of the full House and has not yet been introduced into the  state Senate.

Kansas:  A bill to abolish the death penalty and replace it with life imprisonment without parole passed the Senate judiciary committee, but the full Senate voted to return the bill to committee for further study.  KS is a conservative state, but a leading senate Republican is championing abolition, so this might have a chance, but the decision to return the bill to committee ends possibility of passage this session.

Maryland:  A bill to abolish the death penalty and replace with life imprisonment passed the senate judiciary committee, but,  in the full senate an amendment passed that would retain the death penalty but require a higher degree of proof of guilt in capital cases.  That amended bill now goes to the House.  Conceivably, the MD House could pass the original bill, without the amendment, and the amendment would be fought over in reconciliation.  Polling shows the public in MD about even divided on abolition.

Montana: A bill to abolish the death penalty and replace with life imprisonment without parole has passed the Senate and goes to the House .  It faces a House Judiciary Committee hearing on 25 March.

Illinois: A bill to abolish the death penalty passed the House Judiciary Committee on 05 March.  No news yet on full House hearing.  IL previously had a 3 year moratorium on executions when a series of newspaper articles (investigation done by law students) found that the IL system was broken and had resulted in many miscarriages of justice.  There have been major attempts to reform the system that have proven cumbersome and costly, so IL may be ready for abolition.

Alaska: A bill to RESTORE the death penalty had hearings in Feb.  Chance of making it out of committee looks slim.

West Virginia:  A bill to restore the death penalty tried to bypass committe with a straight floor vote. That move failed and the bill has been sent to the House Judiciary Committee.

There are bills to abolish the death penalty that have not received any scheduled hearings yet in Connecticut, New Hampshire (which passed abolition in the late ’90s only to have the governor veto it), Texas, Washington State.  Bills to expand the death penalty in Virginia have passed but without the votes necessary to override the promised veto of Gov. Tim Kaine (D-VA).

Here in Kentucky, the huge budget problems of the state are threatening the very existence of  the public defender program.  In light of this, and the level of legal expertise needed to defend in capital cases, legal experts and the state’s judges have urged the  governor to impose a 2 year moratorium on executions.

In North Carolina, where recent polling shows a majority in favor (for the first time) of abolishing the death penalty, there is a bill to exempt the mentally ill from the death penalty and a bill that would make it easier to show racial discrimination in the death penalty.  Neither have hearings scheduled.

Tennessee  has a number of reform (not repeal) bills that follow recommendations made by a two-year study commission. None of those bills have yet been scheduled for hearing.

Alabama has introduced a bill that would allow inmates to petition for DNA testing. No hearings scheduled.

In Missouri there is a bill for a 2 year moratorium on executions while the death penalty is studied by a commission.  A similar bill has been  introduced in Nevada.

Public opinion also seems to be turning against the death penalty (especially when the question offers the alternative of life without parole), although support is still MUCH higher in the U.S. than in the rest of the industrial world.  Support for capital punishment is strongest in the deep South, Texas, Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming.  Opposition is strongest in the Northeast and the West Coast.  Shifts are happening in the MidWest and the Upper South.

When asked about their priorities for crime prevention, America’s police chiefs put the death penalty dead last (whether or not theoretically in favor of it being on the books)  at 1%.  The priorities of America’s police chiefs for curbing crime are: reducing drug use 31%; better economy & more jobs (17%); simplifying court rules (16%); longer prison sentences (15%); More police officers (10%); reducing guns (3%).

March 18, 2009 Posted by | death penalty | 2 Comments