The Abolitionist New  
Vol. 2, No. 3
March 2014
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Monastic Traditions Can Help 
To Abolish The Death Penalty 
Ronald T. Clemmons

     Elements of the cenobitic life that flowered in western Europe still impact the modern church. Practices mandated in St. Benedict of Nursia's sixth century Rule are still practiced by modern-day monks. Some elements have even leached into the daily religious practices of laymen, among which is lectio divina.


     Lectio divina-Latin for divine reading-is an ancient process of reading, meditation, prayer, and contemplation of Biblical passages. Rather than considering scripture hermeneutically, lectio divina urges participants to mediate upon what the readings mean to them and what they perceive as God's personal message from the texts.


     Prayer and contemplation of the scriptures are the final two steps in the practice of lectio divina, with contemplation being considered a gift of the Holy Spirit. St. Bernard of Clairvaux stated, "when we contemplate ourselves we are troubled, and our sadness saves us and brings us to contemplate God; that contemplation in turn gives us the consolation of the joy of the Holy Spirit. Contemplating ourselves brings fear and humility; contemplating God brings us hope and love."


     The penitent time of Lent provides us an excellent opportunity to practice lectio divina,using scriptures related to the death penalty as the texts. Between now and Easter Sunday, seek what God wants us to do about the death penalty by reading, meditating, praying and contemplating these scriptures:


      "Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image."  Genesis 9:6


      "You shall not murder."  Exodus 20:13


      "There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor?"  James 4:12


     "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord."  Romans 12:19


     "And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her."  John 8:7


     Hopefully, the four stages of lectio divina will lead to action. The timeline to prevent a massive imposition of the death sentences grows shorter each day. States across the country are awaiting clarification from the courts on whether substitute drugs can be used in executions since once-approved drugs are no longer available. Once the drug protocol is approved, states will commence killing on a regular timetable.


     In 2014, ten people have been executed already, an average of just under one per week. States do not lack resolve in executing people; just the opposite, state officials seem to be in great haste to execute people. It will only be stopped when people of conscience pressure their elected representatives to halt the killing by repealing death penalty laws in thirty-two states.


     Benedict's Rule is still based on two principles: ora et labora-prayer and work. The campaign to eradicate the death penalty must be based on the same two principles. Use a portion of the Lenten period to begin the prayer portion of the two principles and emerge on Easter Sunday with renewed hope that death can be overcome by unyielding work.

Another Innocent Man Released From Death Row 


     Louisiana death row inmate Glenn Ford was released from Angola Prison on March 11 after being incarcerated for thirty years for a crime he did not commit.


Glenn Ford

    Ford was released after state prosecutors informed him late last year that due to new evidence they could not stand by his 1984 conviction of killing a jewelry store owner while robbing the store. The state indicated that a confidential source had revealed that the murder was perpetrated by one of the other three men involved in the robbery.


     Ford's conviction bears the hallmarks of far too many death penalty convictions. The defendant, who is African-American, was convicted by

an all-white jury. His legal counsel was composed of two lawyers, one who specialized in cases involving oil and gas exploration (he had never tried a case before a jury), and the second attorney, who had graduated from law school only two years previously, had dealt only in small insurance claims lawsuits.


     In addition to poor legal representation, Ford was convicted on self-admitted perjured testimony from the girlfriend of one of the other men who were involved in the robbery. All testimony used by the state was later shown to be inconclusive, if not entirely wrong.


     The Louisiana supreme court stated that the evidence against Ford was "not overwhelming" and that the prosecution's case was open to "serious questions," but they allowed him to remain on death row.


     Only recently did the state admit that information had been withheld from Ford's defense team, including evidence coerced from other members of the robbery team used in the original trial.


     Ford became the 144th individual death row exonerated in the last two decades.

 Texas May Have Executed An Innocent Man


     Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia wrote in a 2006 decision that there was not "a single case-not one-in which it is clear that a person was executed for a crime he did not commit." Given the common knowledge about the inequities of the criminal justice system, Scalia's comments seem uninformed. However, the case of Cameron Todd Willingham may prevent the judge from making such a vacuous statement in the future.


     Willingham was convicted in 1991 of setting his Corsicana, Texas house on fire and burning to death his two year old daughter and one year old twins. Willingham went to his death denying that he killed his children.


     Willingham's conviction was based on testimony from fire officials and on the testimony of a jailhouse informant. During the defendant's appeals process, experts discounted the finds of local fire investigators, noting that the methodology used in 1991 did not even meet the standards in use at the time. The original report and analysis of the fire investigation was scientifically invalid.


     Prosecutors argued that even if the fire report was inconclusive, the testimony of jailhouse informant Johnny Webb would have be enough to convict Willingham because the defendant had told Webb he killed the girls. Webb's testimony was entered as valid into the court records.


     Willingham appealed through both state and federal courts, but his conviction was not overturned. A plea to Texas Governor Rick Perry for clemency was denied. Willingham was killed by lethal injection on February 17, 2004.


     In an attempt to prove Willingham's innocence, the Innocence Project has discovered evidence that may prove that the prosecutor made a deal with jailhouse informant Johnny Webb to lower the degree of his robbery charge, if he would testify against Willingham.


     Webb, who has now been diagnosed as bipolar, is no longer certain about what Willingham said to him while they were in jail together: "It's very possible I misunderstood what he said." Moreover, Webb states, "My memory is in bits and pieces. I was on a lot of medication at the time. Everyone knew that." 


     A note has been discovered in the prosecuting attorney's files noting that Webb received less time in jail due to the lessening of the charges against him "based on coop in Willingham." The prosecutor of the Willingham case, who later served as a judge, denies any deal was made with Webb.


     Exoneration for Willingham cannot occur unless the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles makes a positive recommendation to Governor Rick Perry and he signs the appropriate paperwork.


     For more information on the Willingham case, go to the Innocence Project.

True Stories From The Valley of Death

(Death Penalty News From Across The Country)


Baltimore- The last recent edition of Death Row, USA, issued quarterly by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, reveals that the total death row population in this country continues to decline. California (733), Florida (412), and Texas (292) have the highest number of death row inmates. The size of the death row population in Texas has declined 36% in the last ten years, but during the same period, the number of people on California's death row has increased 17%. In the United States, the total death row population is 43% white, 42% black, 13% Latino, and 2% other races.


Concord- The New Hampshire House of Representatives voted on March 12 by a two-to-one majority to repeal the death penalty in the Granite State. The vote was 225-104. The bill now goes to the state senate, where its fate is uncertain; however, many believe it will pass in the upper chamber. Governor Maggie Hassan has stated she will sign the bill, if passed by the senate. New Hampshire would be the nineteenth state to abolish the death penalty. New Hampshire has only one person on death row and has not executed anyone since 1939.


Jacksonville- Advocating an unusual tactic, a coalition of black ministers are calling for the death penalty to be used to curb black-on-black murders. Citing the seemingly acceptance of killing within the black community as the norm, the pastors are calling for the death penalty for the most vicious members of the community who kill, especially people of the same race. Others within the community disagree. Mentors and programs to help curb crime among youth are the keys to solving the problems.


District of Columbia- The 2014 "Starvin' For Justice Fast & Vigil" will be held in

Starvin For Justice

the nation's capital on June 28-July 2. The participants will meet daily on the steps of the Supreme Court to voice their opposition to the death penalty. Workshops, speakers, and engaging the public in a discussion of the death penalty is part of the agenda. This marks the twentieth year of the event designed to bring attention to the social and moral evils of the capital punishment. For more information go to Abolitionist Action Committee website.


Nashville- The Tennessee Attorney General has opined that a capital punishment bill currently being considered by the General Assembly is constitutional. The bill calls for executions to be performed by using the electric chair, if lethal injection is rules unconstitutional by the courts or if the state is unable to secure the necessary drugs from compounding pharmacies. Currently, death row inmates are euthanized by lethal injection, except anyone convicted prior to 1991 may select the electric chair.