"The Cycle Of Violence Has To Stop Somewhere": 6 Voices Against The Death Penalty

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This afternoon, twelve Boston jurors will begin deliberations over whether Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should be put to death. The same jury found Tsarnaev, now 21, guilty of all 30 charges against him for his role in the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon. Now, in the final phase of the months-long trial, they will decide whether he lives out the rest of his life in prison or gets put to death by the state.

Tsarnaev's case has been prominent, but he's just one of many that have revived the argument around the death penalty in this country. As of now, 18 states have banned the penalty entirely — a third of those in the past seven years. A botched lethal injection in Oklahoma (plus Utah's recent decision to permit, once again, death by firing squad) only intensified calls for a nationwide ban.

Where do people find grounds to oppose capital punishment? The reasons range, from faith-based (it violates the sanctity of life) to pragmatic (an execution actually costs more than life in prison). The parents of a boy killed in the bombing made their case against the death penalty in the Boston Globe, arguing, among other things, that a death penalty ruling would prevent closure for the victims, because of the inevitable years and years of appeals that would follow.

As the jury’s decision looms, we found a range of opinions — rooted in philosophy, ethics, religion, and law — against capital punishment. Here's why these leaders oppose it.

This post was originally published on April 28, 2015.
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Illustrated by Ly Ngo.

Murphy Davis
Presbyterian minister 

“There’s a story of the daughter of man who committed murder, who asked, 'They say my daddy killed somebody. Now, they’re going to kill my daddy — but who’s going to kill the people who killed my daddy?' The cycle of violence has to stop somewhere. Taking life from living, breathing human beings doesn’t help, it doesn’t heal; it only creates wider and wider circles of violence. 

“I hate the word 'closure' — it’s as if another killing will fix people who have been terribly wounded. We promise these victims, 'This will make you feel better.' Maybe. Maybe for a minute, but tomorrow, you’ll still have the same aching, awful loss in your life. We need to focus on healing, restoration. If we applied the Bible the way the Hebrews wrote it, we’d just be killing people all day long. There’s no basis, in any faith tradition, to say that execution is a creative response, that this will make us better...that this will heal us.”

Karen Clifton
Executive director of the Catholic Mobilizing Network

"Using violence to solve violence is against our Christian moral teachings. We don't rape rapists, we don't steal from thieves; why would we kill someone who kills, to teach them killing is wrong? Our faith teaches us to focus on the victims. We feel that whole judicial system is wrong in that it's focused on the perpetrators. We should be focused the injured, on healing their communities."
Illustrated by Ly Ngo.

 Diann Rust-Tierney
Executive director of the National Coalition To Abolish The Death Penalty

“The first question shouldn’t be 'Why not use the death penalty?' but 'Why use it?' There’s no good reason. First, we’ve already protected ourselves. This individual has been separated from society; he’s not able to hurt us again. If we execute this young man, it will not protect us against a future tragedy. The things that keep us safe are preventative, that address the root causes of crime — making sure people have mental health services, an education, helping families that are at risk. 

"The Northeast has had the lowest number of executions, and they have the lowest murder rate in the country. The Southern states, which execute more people than any other region, have a higher murder rate.” 

James Clark  
Amnesty International USA’s senior death penalty campaigner

"In 2014, use of the death penalty across the world spiked, because many countries were using it to combat a real or perceived threat of terrorism — and what we found in [Amnesty International’s recent] report is that there is no evidence that it deters or reduces terrorism in any way. In the United States, we’ve seen that it’s a broken system. A broken system can’t work in one case; it’s broken from top to bottom.

"Even the practical reasons don’t hold up: Every study that has examined the state’s death penalty has found that it costs more than alternative punishment. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s true." 

Illustrated by Ly Ngo.
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Marcello Di Bello
 Assistant professor of Philosophy at Lehman College,City University of New York.

“[A] common defense of the death penalty is that those who commit crimes as hideous as the deliberate killing of other human beings deserve to have their lives taken away. There are three problems with this. First, upbringing and socio-economic factors influence people’s propensity to commit violent crimes. Why would those who committed hideous crimes deserve to die if what they did was partly due to external factors not entirely up to them? The second problem is that the criminal justice system makes mistakes. We grudgingly accept that some innocent people will be convicted and punished. But, since the death penalty is an irrevocable decision to end people’s lives, are we willing to accept that the lives of some innocent people will be irrevocably ended? 

"Reducing crime rates? Ensuring safety and order? Demonstrating disapproval of a hideous crime? Compensating the families of the victims? There is no strong evidence that the death penalty is the best method to achieve any of these goals. The burden is on the defenders of the death penalty to prove that it is the best method. But, they haven’t met their burden of proof."  
David P. Gushee
Distinguished university professor of Christian Ethics, Mercer University

"The most egregious cases make for the best tests of where one’s principles really lie. I am fundamentally opposed to the death penalty because I think, in the end, it violates the sacred worth of the human being rather than protecting it. That is a hard-won conclusion coming from a Christian perspective, because the Old Testament mandates the death penalty. But, read in light of the New Testament, and the message of Jesus and the meaning of his life and death and resurrection, I have come to the conclusion that the death penalty is incompatible with Christian faith. 

"There are some factual considerations that inform my perspective, notably the constant failure of governments to employ the death penalty fairly. The abuse of the power of the state to kill its own citizens has been constantly repeated through human history, and the way in which our criminal justice system in this country is so affected by race and class bias, and the arbitrariness of the way the death penalty is enforced in different states and different parts of the country. Even if none of that were true, I would still be against it, but all of that has deepened my own opposition to the death penalty."  
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