Living in Berkeley, California for four of the past five years was an exciting and fulfilling experience. While I don’t miss the traffic or the extremely high taxes, I do miss my neighbors. We had the good fortune to buy a home in a friendly, urban part of North Berkeley, very close to a terrific shopping and dining street, Solano Avenue.
The house on the north side of us was owned by Sylvia, a retired University of California financial manager and feisty Quaker. Owner of two identical black longhaired black cats, she provided us with wit, insight and our sometimes visiting pet, Furillo. North of her house, two doors away from us lived her sister, Sally, who is an activist against the death penalty known to many in the movement due to her many public appearances and travels to meetings and workshops around the country.
Sally’s story is very moving. She had been the wife of an Episcopalian priest and they had one daughter. Her daughter married and had one daughter. Sally’s only granddaughter was brutalized and murdered by a church sexton at age ten. During the indictment proceedings, Sally was asked by her daughter what to tell the prosecuting attorney about whether she wanted to ask for the death penalty. Sally advised her not to ask for the death penalty.
The perpetrator of this crime lives in a prison in California that is visible from the road and Sally has driven past this prison numerous times on the way to various meetings and activities where she continues to lobby against the death penalty. I dedicate this sermon to Sally’s work and to her family’s great loss.
As a result of knowing Sally I have come to believe that the death penalty is barbaric and does not represent my values as a religious person. I do not know how I might feel in a situation where someone I deeply care for was murdered. I do know that many parents and survivors of murder victims have joined together throughout our country to work towards other alternatives than the death penalty. I would hope for support from these people should I ever need it.
There are alternatives to the death penalty. The group “Unitarian Universalists Against the Death Penalty” changed its name last year to “Unitarian Universalists for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.” Life without parole is one alternative, which unfortunately is not an option in many states. Surveys indicate that if this alternative is available, the public’s support for the death penalty drops sharply. Reports from Michigan where 2,572 inmates are serving sentences of life without parole are these inmates cause fewer problems than the general prison population. Their motivation for good behavior is clear: to get into a lower security classification. This includes a larger cell, eating with other inmates and the privilege of watching television. They cannot, however, look forward to getting out, unless new evidence is found to prove their innocence.
Along with life without parole is the program of restorative justice. The Quakers call this “Shalom Justice” based on an informal definition of “shalom” as “the peace they seek is not merely the absence of war or even of private violence, but the presence, and continuous growth, of all creative human powers.” This idea is expressed in the concepts of “wholeness” and “integrity.” Restorative justice asks us to hear “corrections” as meaning “working together to make things right.” “A
restorative response to crime is a community-building response.” Can the death penalty ever build community? Can it reconstruct lost relationship? Can it bring back those whose lives were lost? Not only does the death penalty fail to restore Shalom; it harms society further by increasing, sometimes doubling its losses in terms of relationships.
Quaker John Wilmerding asserts that the death penalty harms the integrity of society. Restorative justice calls for the mending of the ‘fabric’ of society by attending to the relationships among and between everyone involved in trangressive incidents.
The ideal of those who promote restorative justice is that the murderers may actually play a role in restoring the lives of the survivors to a greater degree of normalcy. An article in Western Criminology Review states that “victims and offenders often speak of their participation in a mediated dialogue as a powerful and transformative experience which helped them in their healing process. Victims have normally been left out of the criminal justice system. Restorative Justice and mediation offer the victims of serious crime an opportunity to be heard and to be released from the feeling that the offender exercises control over them. They can see the offender as a person rather than a monster and can become more trusting in their relationships with others. They are no longer preoccupied with the offender and in many cases actually found peace. Parents of murdered children have expressed their sense of relief after meeting the offender/inmate and sharing their pain. They have also been able to reconstruct what actually happened and why. A doctor in California whose sister was killed by a drunk driver was initially very skeptical about meeting the offender. Following the mediation session, the victim stated, “I couldn’t begin to heal until I let go of my hatred.after the mediation I felt a great sense of relief. I was ready to find enjoyment in life again.” None of this is possible within the present culture of executions which has institutionalized a process excluding the victim.
Unitarian Universalist churches are passing congregational resolutions calling for a moratorium on executions. We are joining people from many different denominations in this moratorium movement with hopes for the eventual abolition of the death penalty.
The argument that the death penalty is unconstitutional has been tossed about by the Supreme Court in several decisions. In 1972 the court declared “the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty constitutes cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments.” Then in 1976 they moved in the opposite direction. They wrote that if the penalty were evenly handed out it does not violate the constitution. After the Gregg ruling, more than three dozen states enacted new death penalty statutes. Of the 12 without capital punishment statutes, ten have homicide rates below the national average. Of those with the statutes, half have homicide rates above the national average.
The American Civil Liberties Union holds that state-authorized killing is immoral and that capital punishment denies due process of law because its imposition is arbitrary and irrevocable. As it is administered now, the death penalty violates the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws. It is applied randomly at best and discriminatorily at worst. It is imposed disproportionately upon those whose victims are white, on offenders who are people of color, and on those who are themselves poor and uneducated.
The nation’s death rows have always had a disproportionately large population of African-Americans, relative to their fraction of the total population. If one kills a white person, their chances of receiving the death sentence are 4.3 times higher. In 1990 the U. S. General Accounting Office reported to Congress that their synthesis of 28 studies shows a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty and that race of victim influence was found at all stages of the criminal justice system process.
Financial costs of a capital trial is from 40 – 50% more expensive than carrying out the sentence of life without parole. Florida has estimated that the true cost of each execution is approximately six times the cost of a life sentence. The only way to make it cheaper would be to curtail appellate review. In nearly half of the death penalty cases given review under federal habeas corpus, the conviction is overturned.
Senator Russ Feingold has introduced an Act that would abolish the death penalty at the federal level, which would end imposition of the death penalty for violations of federal law. At this time there are some 60 federal crimes which can carry the death penalty. He outlined his reasons for supporting this Act in a statement from 1999. They include the things I have already mentioned and the fact that we are one of only six nations on this earth that puts to death people who were under 18 years of age when they committed their crimes. The other countries who still execute children are Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Since 1990, the United States has executed ten child offenders.
Finegold discusses the long held opinion that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime. He cites the statistic that the murder rate in the U. S. is six times higher than the murder rate in Britain, seven times higher than in France, five times higher than in Australia, and five times higher than in Sweden. All of these countries have abolished the death penalty. He also cites research among American police chiefs regarding what factors might reduce crime. They rate reducing drug abuse as the primary factor in reducing crime, along with a better economy and jobs, and other factors before their last choice, the death penalty.
For me, the most compelling reason to abolish the death penalty is how many people have been released from death row because they were found innocent of the charges brought against them by our legal system. In about 25 years at least 79 death row men and women have been released. Even the American Bar Association requested a moratorium on the death penalty in 1997 because it found that the application of the death penalty raises fairness and due process concerns.
Amnesty International has a list of the countries who have abolished the death penalty and those who retain the death penalty. The death penalty is regarded in Europe as something of an anachronism. 28 European countries have abolished the death penalty either in law or in practice. It Great Britain, it was abolished (except for treason) in 1971; France abolished it in 1981, Canada in 1976. What is astonishing about these two lists is the countries that retain it and that we are in their company. Almost all the developed nations of the world have abolished the death penalty. The last execution in Iceland was in 1830. In Portugal in 1849. In Monaco in 1847. In Sweden 1910. In Canada, 1962. The United Kingdom 1964. In 1999, the United States executed nearly 100 men and women and children.
Senator Feingold writes that with every American who is executed, the entire world watches and asks how the Americans, the champions of human rights, can compromise their own professed beliefs in this way. During the inauguration ceremonies in Washington last week, French citizens protested in many parts of Paris against the election of a man who might have prevented at least 152 executions during his tenure as Governor of Texas.
Sister Helen Prejean’s excellent book “Dead Man Walking” has inspired many to devote their lives to work for the abolition of the death penalty. The subsequent movie and opera written about her work have moved others to look at this issue seriously. Prejean presents the same ideas I have mentioned this morning. In addition, she talks about the effects of the execution process on those involved in the organizing of executions and in the care and feeding of offenders housed on death row. One stands out in particular. The story of her conversation with Major Coody, the man in charge of death row at Louisiana’s Angola Prison, who supervises inmates and guards. Coody reports his inability to sleep, his nightmares about executions. He talks to the inmates and describes many of them as “just little boys inside big men’s bodies, little boys who never had much chance to grow up.” Guards at Angola are taught from the start: never relate on a personal level with inmates. Coody also serves on the “Strap-down Team,” who accompany the prisoner to the electric chair. He has attended five executions. Prejean says he differs from the governor, the head of the Department of Corrections, the warden, and most of the other guards around here. He can’t persuade himself that he’s just doing his job. She counsels him to seek another job. Several months later Coody has been transferred to another part of the prison, has asked for early retirement and dies of a heart attack. No one knows the human toll of those involved in this process.
I believe we have a flawed justice system giving out irrevocable sentences. I suggest that we join other UU congregations in declaring our support for a moratorium on executions. This will be on the agenda for our February congregational meeting.
I close with the words of former U. S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun:
From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death . . . . I feel morally and intellectually obligated simply to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed. It is virtually self-evident to me now that no combination of procedural rules or substantive regulations ever can save the death penalty from its inherent constitutional deficiencies.