Friday, July 24, 2015

What's the hurry about restarting the death penalty in NC?

What's the hurry about restarting the death penalty in North Carolina? There hasn't been an execution in this state since August 18, 2006. After several legal challenges were filed against the death penalty, a de facto moratorium began in 2007. Now a bill is poised to make its way to the floor of the state Senate next week that could pave the way for executions to begin again. 

What's the hurry? 

The fact that Henry McCollum was released from death row here in North Carolina about nine months ago would seem to give us a pretty good reason not to be in a hurry to start executions again. After more than three decades on death row, DNA evidence exonerated McCollum. If it weren't for the moratorium that has been in place since 2007, he almost certainly would have been killed by "we the people" years ago for a crime that he didn't commit. But now, less than a year after such a horrible mistake has been exposed, we are in a hurry to start executions again. 

The case of Alan Gell deserves some mention here as well. He spent four years on death row here in North Carolina before his sentence was vacated in 2002 when evidence previously withheld revealed that Gell was nowhere near the scene of the crime. Even though we know that we were ready to execute at least two innocent men in this young century we are now hurrying to crank up the lethal injections again. 

Of course, there was also the botched execution in in Oklahoma last year. Clayton Lockett, a convicted murderer, was given a lethal injection, but something went wrong. He began writing in pain and mumbling something unintelligible. Doctors on site halted the procedure, but Lockett was pronounced dead 25 minutes later after he suffered an apparent heart attack. The whole process took 40 minutes when it should have taken only a fraction of that.  Yet, even with this recent, serious problem with a lethal injection, lawmakers in this state are hurrying to begin lethal injections.

Maybe we need to slow down a bit and consider whether we should replace the death penalty with life without parole due to the cost of the death penalty if nothing else. Many studies have shown that the death penalty, with its necessary and required appeals process, costs millions more than sentencing an inmate to life without parole. (The cases of Henry McCollum and Alan Gell show us that we can't afford to eliminate the appeals process if we keep the death penalty.) Fox News reported that North Carolina could save $11 million per year by substituting life in prison for the death penalty. We could put a lot more law enforcement officers on the street to prevent murders with $11 million per year.

Death penalty supporters say that this punishment is needed as a matter of justice. Gordon "Randy" Steidl has a unique perspective on that question because he experienced both sides, as it were. He lived on death row and in the general prison population after his sentence was commuted to life. Eventually it was proven that Steidl was wrongfully convicted and he was released. After his experience, Steidl says today, "If you really want to kill someone, give them life without parole. It's worse than dying." When we sentence murderers to life in prison without parole, in a real sense, we take their lives.

My struggle with the death penalty is based on biblical teaching. This study would be a long blog entry in itself. But, briefly, I am moved by the account of Cain who murdered his brother Abel according to Genesis 4. God's punishment of Cain was not death (or even prison), yet Cain said that it was more than he could bear. Furthermore, God said that anyone who killed Cain for his crime would suffer a punishment that was seven times worse. God's example to us in the case of the first murderer was that he should not be punished by death.

The Apostle Paul's teaching that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation in Romans 1 also informs my position on the death penalty. The power of God can transform anyone, including murderers. But not if we give a murderer a lethal injection first. 

To the best of my knowledge, all known first degree murderers in North Carolina are locked safely away from the public in pretty unpleasant places, stripped of their freedom which many call a fate worse than death. So, really, what's the hurry about cranking up the lethal injection machine again?