The Abolitionist New  
Vol. 2, No. 8
August 2014
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No Messy Details, Please 


The Right Reverend George E. Packard

Chaplain, National Executive Council

Episcopal Peace Fellowship 

     The recent tragedy of the botched execution of Joseph Rudolph Wood III puts an irony in high relief. Terrible things are done in our name but we'd rather not know about it. So desperate are we to keep this in place that we talk ourselves into a comforting alternative. If only the "right" combination of drugs could have been administered, in the "right" way, Wood would have died appropriately.

     But Chief Justice Alex Kozinski of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (as quoted by Joan Vennochi of The Boston Globe) says, "(Executions) are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should we. If we as a society want to carry out executions we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf."

Our fascination with the "right" cocktail mixture for execution is part of the American profile of living with the unpleasant details of violence. Efficiency won't clean it up and release us from responsibility whether we commit to a war or the execution of another human being.

As Bishop for the Armed Services and Prison Ministries I was in a unique position to observe that American culture is insistent to tame wild and unruly situations into a systematized corral of decorous and efficient outcomes.

When America goes to war our soldiers are supremely equipped. Each combatant is outfitted with gear valued in the thousands of dollars to include special body armor and super rifles with extra detection and accuracy. Most of all, the battle area is made so lethal that no enemy could survive. The flaw in this yen for efficiency is that the collateral damage to innocent civilians inevitably increases.

The more American war planners ratchet up the level of toxicity (delivery of ordnance and firepower), with the intent of victory and the safety of our troops, the inevitable by-product will be circumstantial civilian mortality.

It is this bizarre amalgam of efficiency, progress, and a dainty disdain for the grisliness of war that makes up the American attitude today. This is a learned anathema about sacrifice and war probably, in part, as a holdover from nightly newscasts about body counts in Vietnam. So strong was this revulsion that no official death count was acknowledged by the Bush Administration during the Iraq War; bodies were discreetly flown home. America seemed to be saying, "Do the war but don't remind us of the details and, above all, don't ask us to sacrifice!"

The same observation continued with my time as Bishop of Prisons and visits to those facilities in states where capital punishment was applied. During such times I would tour the grounds with the chaplains, learn about programs, lead worship and perform confirmations and socialize with the inmates. At one facility in Ohio, I had a wonderful Thanksgiving meal.

When it came to death houses, apologies always filled the air: the facility was off limits, under-utilized, or, most usually "under repair to be improved." When I did tour one of these places (and there were about 20) every narrative was the same: "The routine here is well-rehearsed and efficient (read humane)." I was struck how often efficiency became the equivalent of humane when those two values really have no relevant connection to each other.

Whether it is a battlefield or a death house the same concept seems to be applied America wants the deed done--the quicker the better--no messy details, please.

There is something about this interpretation of justice as blunt revenge that seems appealing to a mindset of efficiency. Karl Barth called such a dodge, "ontic non-being." It's as if we conjured a parallel, pretend being state to give us an assurance: this war will correct things, or, this execution will restore wholeness and life.

The only way out of this box is to enter life on its terms, that of mercy and shared vulnerability. From the cross Jesus made this plea even as soldiers gambled on his clothing...not dividing it, of course, all in the name of efficiency.


The Rt. Rev. George E. Packard is the former Bishop of the Armed Services and Prison Ministries of the Episcopal Church. He retired from the bishopric in 2010. He resides in New York.

Support For Death Penalty Declines In England 


     When Gwynn Evans and Peter Allen were hanged on August 13, 1964, no one would have guessed that their deaths would be the last two executions carried out in Great Britain.


     Two months after their demise, the political winds shifted in England, and the Labour Party came to power. Almost immediately, a vote was taken in the House of Commons to suspend capital punishment for five years, which became permanent in 1969.


     Two years ago, an online petition calling for a parliamentary debate of the death

penalty did not receive enough votes to warrant the call. In fact, people voting against reopening the topic outnumbered proponents.


     To mark the fiftieth anniversary of the last execution, a poll was run this week to measure public attitudes towards the death penalty. The results showed that 45% of the 2,000 respondents favored the death penalty, which was down from 51% two years ago.


     In the 18-24 age group, there was a 52% vote against reinstating the death penalty; 57% of this age group thought that abolition of the death penalty in 1969 was a positive action. Ukip voters represented the largest section of respondents who favored reinstatement of the death penalty.


     When questioned about the various methods of execution, lethal injection was favored by 51%, 25% electric chair, 23% hanging, 19% gas chamber, 17% firing squad, and 9% by beheading.

     One British writer stated, "The reign of the death penalty is over in Britain. It's now a relic of a more violent age, a time when wrongdoers were whipped, put in the stocks or transported to distant countries for penal servitude. We now live in an era where the majority of people in Britain don't want the death penalty and don't really think much about it except, perhaps, when they read about a horrific botched execution in the US."

True Stories From The Valley of Death

(Death Penalty News From Across The Country)

     Columbus-- A federal judge has extended the moratorium on Ohio's death penalty slated to expire this week through January 15, 2016, as questions continue to arise over the drugs being used to implement the state's death penalty law.  Two high profile executions in other states that used the same drug combinations as Ohio prompted the moratorium extension. In both cases, the inmates' deaths were botched by the states. 

     Corsicana--Texas officials continue to be bombarded with information that an innocent man was executed in 2004, based on the lies of a jailhouse snitch who now recants his story. 


Todd Willingham was convicted in 1991 of setting his house on fire, in which three of his daughters died. His conviction was based on a faulty fire investigation and the testimony of jail informant Johnny Webb. (See full story in March 2014 edition of The Abolitionist)



New evidence has now surfaced in a taped interview with Webb in which he states that former prosecutor John H. Jackson promised him a reduction in his sentence and financial support from a wealthy Texas rancher if he would testify against Willingham. The newly uncovered letters and court documents show that Jackson apparently kept his word. The data shows he tried to speed Webb's parole, secure clemency, and move him to a jail closer to his home. Financial support continued after Webb was paroled from prison


Webb said, "I've been wanting to come forward with this ... for a long, long time about certain specific things that no one's ever known. This has been something that's pretty much destroyed my life for 22 years."


The Innocence Project and Willingham's family asked the Texas Parole Board for a posthumous pardon, but were denied. 


For more information, see The Marshall Project.


     District of Columbia--Kevin Martin, who spent twenty-six years in prison, was exonerated for his alleged crime last month when it was proven through DNA analysis that the evidence used to convict him was incorrect. Martin was paroled in 2009, but worked with several organizations to clear his name.


His conviction was based on hair samples found at the rape and murder scene of Ursula Brown in 1982. Martin sought DNA testing in 2001, but was told the evidence had been lost. A decade later the evidence surfaced at a new facility, although the hair samples were missing. Nonetheless, other genetic materials were found, and the DNA matched inmate William D. Davidson, currently serving a term of sixty-five years to life for an array of offenses.


The Martin case is the fifth hair sample mistake the FBI has made since 2009.


     Phoenix--Arizona, Ohio, and Oklahoma have made headlines in the past few months due to the botched executions of inmates in all three states. Even though this triumvirate captured the spotlight, state officials in four other states have been quite active, too. 


The United States has executed 27 people in 2014, with an additional 11 scheduled before the end of the year.


The Death Penalty Information Center has a complete list of executions and pending executions for 2014.

Fervent Prayers Of The Righteous Availeth Much


     Trying to stanch the headlong rush to kill death row inmates in the United States sometimes becomes discouraging. Despite the best efforts of anti-death penalty groups and individuals, the executions continue unabated. Americans are allowing basic human rights violations to occur without raising any dissent.


     Political, social, and religious leaders are voicing outrage about human rights violations in other parts of the world, yet these same individuals are mute over the rights of death row inmates in America.  "What can I do?" is the often-heard refrain.


    One action that everyone can take is to include prisoners in your daily prayers. The Book of Common Prayer offers an excellent supplication for your consideration:

Lord Jesus, for our sake you were condemned as a criminal: Visit our jails and prisons with your pity and judgment.  Remember all prisoners, and bring the guilty to repentance and amendment of life according to your will, and give them hope for their future.  When any are held unjustly, bring them release; forgive us, and teach us to improve our justice.  Remember those who work in these institutions; keep them humane and compassionate; and save them from becoming brutal or callous.   And since what we do for those in prison, O Lord, we do for you, constrain us to improve their lot.  All this we ask for your mercy's sake.  Amen.


     The psalmist states clearly that the Lord sets prisoners free.  Let us pray daily for every incarcerated soul and ask God to touch them with His mercy and justice.