As the number of executions surges, Christians remain divided on the death penalty's morality and purpose.

One might think Sue Norton would be among the most ardent supporters of the death penalty in light of the 1990 double murder of her parents. Yet today, as the man convicted of killing her parents sits on Oklahoma's death row, she is among those working hardest to have his death sentence commuted.

"If our world is going to change," she says, "we have to move past hate and learn to love with the unconditional love displayed by Jesus." Norton, a member of an American Baptist church in Arkansas City, Missouri, says the man who killed her parents has converted to Christianity through her witness. She regularly visits and writes to him in prison and talks to him weekly by telephone.

Norton is among the nearly 3,000 members of the Atlantic, Virginia-based Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation (mvfr), which opposes the death penalty and advocates programs and policies aimed at crime prevention. "Our society places an expectation on families to seek vengeance," says mvfr executive director Pat Bane. "One parent told me that people made her feel like she was betraying her son because she did not want to kill the person who murdered him. Our goal is to break the cycle of violence rather than escalate it."

CAPITAL COMEBACK: Though not an mvfr member, Aldona DeVetsco opposed the May 2 lethal injection of Keith Zettlemoyer, the first person to be executed in Pennsylvania since 1962. Zettlemoyer shot and killed Charles DeVetsco, Aldona's son, in 1980. She signed a petition appealing for a stay of execution, calling capital punishment "senseless vengeance."

Pennsylvania is the latest in the growing list of states to administer the death penalty for the first time in decades. Last year, Idaho, Maryland, and Nebraska carried out their first executions in more than 30 years. Earlier this year, Montana did the same. Across the nation, during the first six months of the year, 33 people were executed, surpassing the total for all of last year.

The resurgence of the death penalty has given rise to a more fervent opposition. Challengers of capital punishment point out that most other countries that permit the death penalty-such as Iraq and China-are infamous for human-rights violations.

Nevertheless, those in the United States who oppose the death penalty are waging what appears to be an uphill battle. From the common citizen to the Supreme Court, sentiment runs solidly in favor of capital punishment both in principle and in practice. Among politicians, a tough-on-crime posture crosses party barriers. That posture almost always translates into support for the death penalty, even if it means flip-flopping on the issue, as has happened with many officeholders, including President Clinton.

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Standing against this tide, all major Protestant denominations, with the exception of Southern Baptists, officially oppose the death penalty. And the pope, in his March encyclical, stated that conditions that would justify the death penalty "are practically non-existent." Observers note this is the closest the Roman Catholic Church has ever come to supporting an outright ban on capital punishment.

PUBLIC SUPPORT: Most surveys, however, indicate that, on this issue, church leaders are out of step not only with the general public, but also with those in their pews. According to a May Gallup Poll, 77 percent of Americans support the death penalty while only 13 percent oppose it, with the remaining 10 percent undecided or saying it depends on circumstances.

According to the survey, Republicans favor the death penalty by a margin of 89 percent to 7 percent, while Democrats support it 67 to 20 percent. Those in mainline denominations support it 81 to 9 percent. Eighty percent of those identifying themselves as "born again" favor the death penalty, while only 12 percent oppose it. And despite statistics establishing that the death penalty is administered with a racial bias, according to the survey, 55 percent of black Protestants support capital punishment, while 30 percent oppose it.

According to the Washington, D.C.-based Death Penalty Information Center (dpic), when people are asked for a yes or no response, most favor the death penalty because the "myth persists that even the most dangerous murderers will be released in seven years if they are not executed."

dpic executive director Richard Dieter cites a 1993 bipartisan study conducted by the Democratic polling firm of Greenberg/Lake and the Republican Tarrance Group as being more reflective of public opinion. In that survey, when asked for a yes-or-no response, 77 percent-identical to the Gallup survey-said they favored the death penalty.

However, when people were asked, "If it were possible to sentence a person convicted of murder to life in prison with no possibility of parole ever, and require their earnings from prison industries to go to the victim's family," 44 percent said they favored that option, while 41 percent favored the death penalty.

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Dieter maintains that fewer Americans would favor the death penalty if they realized that "45 states and the federal government now employ sentences in which no parole is possible for at least 25 years for their most serious murder cases."

DETERRENCE DETERRED: The prevalence of violence in American society despite the legality of the death penalty in 38 states has in the minds of many diminished the argument that capital punishment is a deterrent, except insofar as it prevents convicted murderers from killing again. "There is no empirical evidence of any compelling nature to support [the death penalty] on the grounds of deterrence," says Joshua Dressler, a professor at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, California, and author of three books on criminal law and procedure.

Bryan Stevenson, a Christian attorney and executive director of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, notes that Texas, despite being the leading execution state since the Supreme Court's 7-to-2 Gregg v. Georgia decision affirming the death penalty in 1976, has seen its violent crime rate rise 46 percent. "I believe that people are increasingly realizing that the more we resort to killing as a legitimate response to our frustration and anger with violent crime, the more violent our society becomes," says Stevenson, who has represented more than 100 death row prisoners during the past decade. "We could execute all three thousand people on death row today, and most people would not feel any safer tomorrow."

CITING SCRIPTURE: As with many other issues, Christians on both sides of the capital punishment debate cite scriptural support for their contrasting positions.

Prison Fellowship Ministries (pfm), in which volunteers share the gospel with inmates, does not take an official stand because its own board is divided. pfm encourages Christians to weigh the biblical arguments for themselves.

pfm says there are three biblically based positions on capital punishment: One claims the Bible prohibits it; a second holds that the Bible mandates it; a third view is that Scripture permits but does not require capital punishment.

Those who oppose capital punishment maintain generally that the New Testament, especially the example set by Jesus, supersedes any such teaching in the Old Testament. "I believe that the meaning of Christ's death and resurrection is redemption for everyone," says Church of the Brethren member Bob Gross of Indianapolis, active for nearly a decade in the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. "To say that some people's sins are not covered is hypocritical. That's not an excuse to murder; but Jesus said if we are not willing to forgive, we place ourselves outside of God's forgiveness."

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But renowned theologian Carl Henry says such an outlook "tends to subordinate the justice of God to the love of God." Henry favors the death penalty, citing Genesis 9:6, which states, "Whoever sheds the blood of a human, by a human shall that person's blood be shed" (nrsv). He also maintains that Peter, by cutting off Malchus's ear in an effort to prevent Christ's arrest (John 18:10), was most likely trying to kill the soldier. According to Henry, Christ's statement that those who kill by the sword are subject to die by the sword implicitly recognizes the government's right to exercise the death penalty.

Those who maintain that Scripture neither mandates nor prohibits capital punishment are most likely to focus on the question of whether the administration of the death penalty is consistent with biblical principles and practices. Among these concerns are the requirement that witnesses participate in the execution, that the intent of the offender be taken into consideration, and that justice be administered without regard to social or economic status.

Charles Colson, who founded pfm in 1976 after serving a seven-month Watergate-related prison term, says he has grave reservations about the way in which capital punishment is administered. "I remain convinced that it is not a general deterrent," Colson says. "But I must say that my views have changed, and I now favor capital punishment, at least in principle, but only in extreme cases when no other punishment can satisfy the demands of justice." Colson says a visit he had with Illinois mass murderer John Wayne Gacy, who was executed last year for killing 33 young men and boys during the 1970s, pushed him over the edge to a pro-death penalty view. From a theological perspective, Colson argues that "justice in God's eyes requires that the response to an offense . . . be proportionate."

Although the thief on the cross alongside Christ was included in Christ's merciful action, this criminal did not have "the consequences of his crime" eliminated, Colson asserts. "Nowhere does Jesus set aside the requirements of civil law."

Likewise, Colson favors the death penalty for the perpetrators of April's Oklahoma City bombing. "No other punishment [is] sufficient for the deliberate savagery of the crime."

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EQUAL JUSTICE ISSUES: Many hold anti-death penalty views primarily out of a concern for fairness. According to one frequently cited study by researchers Hugo Bedau and Michael Radelet, 23 people have been executed in the United States this century whose guilt was later either clearly disproven or cast in doubt. Others-48 according to the dpic-have been able to prove their innocence while still on death row, establishing the possibility of receiving the death penalty despite what many would consider reasonable doubt.

Rob Dunham, executive director of the Pennsylvania Post-Conviction Defender Organization in Philadelphia, says, "If we are going, as a matter of public policy, to have a death penalty, then we must, as a matter of public policy, ensure procedural fairness."

Dunham says that despite the clear conclusion five years ago of a joint federal and Pennsylvania court task force that the state does not provide adequate representation to indigent defendants, the legislature has enacted a law intended to hasten the rate at which death warrants are signed. "Legislators see the issue as a politically popular one," Dunham says, "and they are taking measures that enable them to claim they are tough on crime without regard for the actual legal or moral consequences."

McGeorge Law School professor Dressler adds, "The amount of money many states-especially in the South-give attorneys to take on postconviction appeals is laughable. Lawyers either have to work for $5 an hour or do a shoddy job." According to Dressler, not only do these conditions increase the risk that innocent people will be executed, but they also result in the failure to recognize mitigating circumstances under which those who are guilty of murder should by law be spared the death penalty.

Dressler maintains that a counterterrorism bill under consideration in Congress represents a greater interest in efficiency than in truth and administrative fairness. The proposed bill would limit most death row inmates to one federal court appeal.

Death penalty opponents have thoroughly documented a racial bias in the administration of capital punishment. Roughly half of all murder victims are black, but in executions, 85 percent of those they had murdered were white. "I think it is clear that the death penalty is reserved primarily for the poor and for people of color," Stevenson says. "As we say in our circles, 'Capital punishment means them without the capital get the punishment.' "

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Stevenson believes that the death penalty has a subconscious attraction to the middle class "by symbolically communicating to poor people and racial minorities, 'We will not let you terrify us. We will strike back at you.' " He believes that if the death penalty were administered fairly, it would lose this symbolic value and as a result be abolished. "I don't believe our society is capable of making the judgment that the life of any person, even a guilty person, no longer has purpose or value."

Christians who favor the death penalty, however, believe the answer lies not in eliminating a punishment whose purpose is to recognize the value of human life, but in advocating legal remedies to ensure fair application.

Given the current mood of the country, laws supporting the death penalty are not likely to disappear anytime soon. Then again, neither will those committed to opposing those laws.


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