The Abolitionist New  
Vol. 2, No. 9
September 2014
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Are You Willing To Drop Your Stone?


Reverend Stacy Rector

Executive Director


     Eleven men are currently scheduled to be executed in my home state of Tennessee beginning on October 7, 2014-an unprecedented number for a state that has executed only six men since 1960. Recent decisions by the Tennessee General Assembly have made the source of the state's lethal injection drug supply confidential and mandated the use of the electric chair if those drugs become unavailable. In the past few months, inmates in Ohio, Oklahoma, and Arizona died by executions that went horribly wrong while in North Carolina, two men, who spent three decades in prison and on death row for crimes that they didn't commit, were finally freed when DNA identified the actual perpetrator.


     The evidence continues to mount that the death penalty system cannot be trusted. The death penalty is not applied fairly but instead affects mostly the poor, is racially biased, and is too often determined by the county in which the crime occurs. In Tennessee, 40% of our state's death row comes from Shelby County while half the counties in Tennessee have never sentenced anyone to death. The death penalty is far more costly to taxpayers than the alternatives and provides neither swift nor sure justice to victims' families, often taking decades for the sentence to be carried out if, ever. Still, even with the protracted legal process that accompanies a death sentence, the execution of the innocent is a real risk.  


     As a follower of Jesus, I not only see the death penalty as a failure from a policy standpoint but find it to be theologically troubling as well. One scripture that has been particularly helpful in informing my understanding comes from John 8: 1-11, where Jesus is confronted directly with the issue. In the text, we meet a woman threatened with stoning because she is caught in the act of adultery. She stands charged capitally for her participation in the act, but her partner in crime is nowhere on the scene. Not unlike our current system, there appears to be disparate sentencing for those involved in the same crime. 


     Conceding the unfairness of the situation, the woman we meet is guilty, and her execution is legal. Those gathered to exact justice are not a vigilante mob, but ones with the legal authority to carry out the sentence. When asked what they should do with her, Jesus in the often quoted line responds, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." With his response, he reframes the issue. Jesus is not primarily concerned with what this woman deserves. She is guilty. According to the law, it is within the legal right of those gathered to execute her.  However, Jesus seems less concerned about whether this woman deserves to die and more concerned about whether those holding the stones deserve to kill her. 


     Jesus reminds us here that the use of the death penalty may say less about the offenders and more about us. We are the ones holding the stones today and are confronted with how we respond to a brother or sister who commits an act that offends our conscience and sparks our outrage. In the wake of a horrific murder, there is naturally horror, fear, and anger. We all are offended by such violence and the senseless taking of life. But what do we do with those impulses? This seems to be what Jesus is asking.


     Now is the time to ask ourselves the hard questions about our nation's death penalty. Is the death penalty system the best we have to offer to support victims' families and heal the community? Does it actually prevent violent crime or does it only compound the violence? Are we who follow Jesus, himself executed by the state, called to another way of responding?


     If you believe that the time has come to move our nation away from the death penalty, get involved in the repeal work going on within your state. Write a letter to your state lawmakers with your concerns. Send a letter to the editor to your local paper to educate your community about the system's failures. If you are in Tennessee, please sign the open letter to Governor Haslam asking for a halt to executions while the system is reviewed. The clock is ticking, and every person's voice matters. Make your voice heard. 


Rev. Stacy Rector is a graduate of Rhodes College and Columbia Theological Seminary, and an ordained Presbyterian minister. In 2006, Rev. Rector became Executive Director of Tennesseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (TADP), an organization whose mission is to honor life by abolishing the death penalty. She currently serves on the Committee on the Preparation for Ministry of the Presbytery of Middle Tennessee. 

 Will Supreme Court Justice Scalia Atone For His Error?


     Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun decided in 1994 that he would no longer "tinker with the machinery of death" in America; he reversed his previous opinions and declared the death penalty unconstitutional. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia defended the death penalty and cited a North Carolina case to bolster his argument, although it was not relevant to the case under discussion.

Justice Scalia

     Last week in North Carolina, two half-brothers, Henry Lee McCollum and Leon Brown, were released from prison after thirty years of incarceration for a crime they did not commit. McCollum had spent his thirty years on death row, longer than anyone in North Carolina history.


     The two mentally disabled men were teenagers when police coerced them into pleading guilty to raping and killing an eleven year old girl in 1983. Over the years, North Carolina officials were aware of evidence that might have cleared the two men, but failed to act upon it. Finally, DNA evidence tests were conducted on a cigarette butt found at the crime scene proved that McCollum and Brown were not guilty; the real perpetrator was already in prison for another rape and murder committed after McCollum and Brown were arrested.


     The intersection of Justice Scalia and McCollum occurred in the case in which Justice Blackmun voted against the death penalty. Scalia maintained in his written dissent, although McCollum was not under discussion, that the brutality of the North Carolina case justified retaining the death penalty. Scalia wrote that lethal injection was better than "the case of an 11-year-old girl raped by four men and then killed by stuffing her panties down her throat. How enviable a quiet death by lethal injection compared with that!" (Two other men were never indicted.)

Judge Blackmun later responded to Scalia, "That our system of capital punishment would single out Buddy McCollum to die for this brutal crime only confirms my conclusion that the death penalty experiment has failed," he wrote. "Our system of capital punishment simply does not accurately and consistently determine which defendants most 'deserve' to die."


     Scalia is now faced with a dilemma. He's now confronted with the fact that a "crime" he considered so heinous that he cited it as a reason to retain the death penalty was based upon falsified evidence and police malfeasance. Now that it comes to light that the men were innocent, what does Scalia do or say now? What if McCollum had been executed?


     Perhaps Scalia has already answered these questions in another opinion: "Like other human institutions, courts and juries are not perfect. One cannot have a system of criminal punishment without accepting the possibility that someone will be punished mistakenly. That is a truism, not a revelation. But with regard to the punishment of death in the current American system, that possibility has been reduced to an insignificant minimum. This explains why those ideologically driven to ferret out and proclaim a mistaken modern execution have not a single verifiable case to point to, whereas it is easy as pie to identify plainly guilty murderers who have been set free. The American people have determined that the good to be derived from capital punishment--in deterrence, and perhaps most of all in the meting out of condign justice for horrible crimes--outweighs the risk of error. It is no proper part of the business of this Court, or of its Justices, to second-guess that judgment, much less to impugn it before the world, and less still to frustrate it by imposing judicially invented obstacles to its execution." (Kansas v. Michael L. Marsh, II)

True Stories From The Valley of Death

(Death Penalty News From Across The Country)


     California- Support for the death penalty has drop 12% in the past three years, according to a survey conducted in August 2014. Currently, 56% of the
respondents favor the death penalty, 34% favor abolishing it, and 10% have no
opinion. Earlier this year, a federal judge ruled the California death penalty
unconstitutional because it took too long to implement. The state of California is appealing the decision.

     Pennsylvania- The ACLU and four media outlets are suing the state of Pennsylvania for failing to release the drugs used in lethal injections. The suit alleges that the state is violating the First Amendment by refusing to release the information, which prevents citizens from being fully aware of issues related to the death penalty. The state maintains that identifying the drug would prevent its supplier from continuing to develop the drug for future executions. In a news release the ACLU stated, "In light of the recent string of horrifically botched executions, the public is entitled to know how the state obtained the drugs it plans to use to carry out executions here in Pennsylvania."  The legal action is being played out against the September 22 execution date for Hubert Michael.


     Missouri- New evidence has emerged that Missouri is administering midazolam prior to prisoners being executed. The drug, which is used in several states as part of the lethal injection cocktail, is administered a few minutes prior to the execution. In a dissenting opinion to a last minute appeal to save the life of Earl Ringo on September 9, Judge Michael E. Gans wrote that the drugs violated the law because it impaired the decision making ability of the recipient. He wrote, "Missouri has taken great pains to distance itself from the use of midazolam during executions, but without plausibly explaining how administering large doses of the drug just minutes before a death warrant takes effect is meaningfully different from using the controversial drug as part of its actual execution protocol. The explanation that the drug is merely a pre-execution sedative loses its meaning when the drug is administered at the discretion of the state instead of at the inmate's request, and when the effects of these last minute intravenous injections last into the execution itself. In light of Missouri's checkered past regarding its implementation of the death penalty, which I have noted before, I believe the legitimate concerns now raised about Missouri's current practices need a full examination beforenot after-Mr. Ringo is executed." Ringo was executed September 10.

    Texas- After a four-month hiatus in the Lone Star State, executions recommenced on September 9 with the execution of Willie Trottie. The Texas Attorney General ruled earlier this year that the Department of Corrections did not have to disclose its source of phenobarbital, the sole drug used in Texas executions. Nine additional executions are slated in Texas by March 2015.


If you've never seen the inside of a maximum security prison, you now have the opportunity. A Texas inmate's lawyer filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act and was supplied pictures of death row by the Texas Department of Corrections. You can see the images at "Minutes Before Six," the blog site of a Texas death row inmate.

Outside Of A Dog, A Book Is A Man's Best Friend...


     Inside of a dog it's too dark to read! Grouch has a good point, but read wherever you can--just read!


New books are being published regularly on the death penalty. Here are a few that you might like to read as fall approaches:

Groucho Marx

Women Who Kill Men by Gordon M. Bakken and Brenda Farrington


One final thought from Groucho, "I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book."