Is the Death Sentence on Death Row?

06/08/2015 06:17 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2016

"The Times They Are A-Changin'," sang Bob Dylan, America's de facto poet-troubadour of years gone by:

"Come writers and critics, Who prophesy with your pen, And keep your eyes wide, The chance won't come again . . . For the times they are a-changin'."

Do Mr. Dylan's words apply to our time and American sentiment pertaining to capital punishment? According to a Gallup Poll published in Time magazine, 63 percent of Americans support capital punishment, down from 80 percent in 1994, when 16 percent opposed it; today opposition to the death sentence has doubled to 33 percent. The number of executions in the U.S. in 2014 was the lowest in 20 years, and only 14 have been carried out in 2015 through May 13. (1)

Is the death sentence on death row?

Jeanne Bishop, an attorney in the Office of the Public Defender in Cook County, Illinois (Chicago), thinks it should be. Contributing a chapter to the edited volume, Religion and the Death Penalty, the Counselor argues that the promise of closure to the family is false. Citing lengthy delays in the court process often lasting years, combined with the never-ending sting of grief when a loved one is lost to murder (her pregnant sister and brother-in-law were murdered), Ms. Bishop recommends a different path of hopeful closure for the victim's family: forgiveness. Admittedly, she concedes, this option may be harder, but in the long run healing comes sooner. Besides, she argues, no life is worth the life of a lost loved one. (2)

Lengthy trials, appeals, lawyers' fees, court costs, judicial review, and personal costs to families, both financially and to health, often run into millions of dollars. Life in prison without parole is a drastically less expensive option. One study in Florida revealed that executions cost the state 6 times more than a life sentence, while a federal commission found the national expense soars to 8 times greater than life in prison. (3)

In California where 750 prisoners await execution, only 3 have been put to death in the past 10 years. Only half have even begun their appeal process as they wait for an underfunded state government defense to provide them a lawyer. (4) More than 60 federal prisoners await execution on death row, but only 3 have met their fate in the past 50 years. (5) Tight state and federal budgets already strained by aging populations requiring retirement benefits, and Medicaid and Medicare payouts could use all available additional funds.

Fallibility of human judgment calls for sober assessment of the death sentence, as well. From 1997-2002, Illinois executed 12 persons. During the same period of time, however, 13 persons on death row were released, having been found innocent before their executions could be carried out. (6) Across the Land, more than 150 innocent death row inmates have been freed since 1975. (7)

The trend is fewer executions in America. After a history of hangings, firing squads, gas chamber, electric chair and lethal injection, capital punishment is clearly declining in the U.S. Conservative Nebraska recently abolished the death penalty, as did Pennsylvania, earlier in the year.

Although 32 states allow capital punishment, few are actually administering it. Since 2014, all but two of the nation's 49 executions occurred in five states. (7) Even in Texas where the penalty has been enacted most since 1976 (peaking with 40 in 2000), only 7 have been carried out this year, with 0 new death sentences handed down at this point. (8)

Former federal prosecutor, Mark Osler, currently law professor at St. Thomas School of Law in Minneapolis, and author of the book, Jesus on Death Row, has long denounced the inequity of sentencing in America based upon race and socio-economic standing. In addition, he points out, the 1993 Supreme Court case of Herrera v. Collins yielded a ruling that "a person on death row should not be set free on a writ of habeas corpus simply because new evidence shows him or her to be innocent." (9) In other words, one sentenced to die may not necessarily be released even if evidence of his innocence is presented. The Governor decides.

Is capital punishment legal? Yes. Is it constitutional? Yes. Does the Bible allow it? Yes. Some might even argue that the Bible mandates the death sentence in certain situations:

"If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death. (Leviticus 20: 9)
"If a man commits adultery with a married woman . . . both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death." (Lev. 20: 10)
"If a man sleeps with a man as with a woman . . . they must be put to death." (Lev. 20: 13)
"Whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord is to be put to death." (Lev. 24: 16)
"If a man kills anyone he must be put to death." (Lev. 24: 17)
"Whatever he has done is to be done to him: . . .eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth." (Lev. 24: 20.)

Most today would not support the death penalty for one who curses his parents, commits adultery, has a homosexual relationship, or blasphemes the Lord. Such modern reasoning allows, I presume, for the rejection of the death penalty for the killing of another person, as well. Lewis Smedes points out, the admonition, "an eye for an eye," would never be taken to mean a rape for a rape, or a theft for a theft. (10)


"What do we know about Jesus and executions? He stopped one," answered Garry Wills.

Of the story Wills references (the woman caught in adultery), Jeanne Bishop notes, "He (Jesus) never said she didn't deserve to die; he suggested instead that those standing in judgment didn't deserve to kill her." (11)

So, considering all, how are we to think? Is the death sentence on death row?

You be the judge and the jury.

1. Time (magazine), June 8, 2015, p. 29.
2. Religion and the Death Penalty: A Call for Reckoning, edited by Erik C. Owens, John D. Carlson, and Eric P. Elshtain. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co: Grand Rapids. 2004. "The Problem of Forgiveness: Reflections of a Public Defender and a Murder Victim's Family Member," (Jeanne Bishop), p. 267.
3. Time, June 8, 2015, p. 32.
4. Time, p. 30.
5. Time, p. 28.
6. Religion and the Death Penalty, p. 269.
7. Time, p. 29.
8. Time, p. 28.
9. Mark Osler, Jesus on Death Row: The Trial of Jesus and American Capital Punishment, Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2009, p. 104.
10. Lewis Smedes, Mere Morality, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co: Grand Rapids, 1983, p. 122.
11. Religion and the Death Penalty, p. 273.