Recent events have put the death penalty and wrongful conviction on center stage in America. Last month, a California man made headlines for being pardoned after spending 39 years in prison. In his case, DNA evidence revealed that his own DNA did not match that found at the crime scene. Last year, Donald J. Trump stirred up controversy by maintaining that the Central Park 5 was guilty despite that another individual confessed to the rape and beating. Back when the crime first took place, Trump purchased full-page ads in newspapers calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York. Such high-profile cases offer ammunition for critics of the death penalty, but they need to be packaged in a way that makes sense to a broader audience, including Christians and political conservatives.
Abolitionists in America seek to bring about the death of the death penalty itself. Often, abolitionists are characterized as “bleeding heart” liberals and progressives who misunderstand the principles of both God and country. By extension, the labeling also applies to those involved in innocence projects, which seek to exonerate individuals from prison or death row. Some of the divide is due to Abolitionist preaching, which often is not necessarily aimed at real choirs. Instead, abolitionist circles tend to be in conversation with themselves. This must change. Advocates must repackage their message for wider American consumption. Specifically, they can expand the base by targeting Christians and conservatives, who might be rightly seen as natural allies.
Of course, this is not to say that religious folks are not against the death penalty. Catholics and evangelicals have indeed worked to end state killings. The Commandment “Thou shall not kill” is a favorite among opponents. Perhaps most famously, Sister Helen Prejean has been outspoken about the insurmountable ills of capital killing, which has been widely publicized through the film, Dead Man Walking. The film was based on her personal experience of trying to help a man escape Louisiana’s death row. Pope Francis has even called for a change in Catholic teachings on the death penalty, claiming that the practice is contrary to the Gospel.
Despite these religious outlooks, the death penalty enjoys relatively robust support among religious adherents. For example, a Pew Gallup Poll found that 71% of Protestants and 66% of Catholics support the death penalty. Even the darling of evangelicals, Donald J. Trump, has continued to be an outspoken supporter, and has recently called for the death of a Muslim attacker who used a van to kill at least eight pedestrians in New York City. Paradoxically, Trump’s statements may have prejudiced the attacker’s criminal case to such a degree that he may never receive the death penalty, despite what are likely to be multiple murder convictions.
Perhaps the greatest irony in Abolitionist messaging is that it invariably fails to get much mileage out of the “greatest story ever told.” Indeed, the Jesus narrative stands as a powerful message to convey the problems of wrongful conviction and capital execution. As a model, it depicts an individual arrested by Roman officials, convicted for exercising free speech, tortured, and eventually executed by the state.
Hence, it is a potent example that has been largely untapped by abolition advocates. Jesus was, by today’s standards, wrongfully convicted, wrongfully punished, and ultimately executed. The simplicity of the story is breathtaking and sits at the core of abolitionism: An innocent man was put to death.
There are likewise conservative points to support the cause that have gone largely unspoken. Without doubt, it may be argued that being anti-death penalty is a politically conservative posture. In the Declaration of Independence, a cherished cornerstone of American political values, there is a clear indication that anything like a death penalty would be abhorrent to Americans:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The meaning here is clear—life is sacred—God gives humans life, and no one can take that away. These words ring even more loudly in their political context. Consider that when the Declaration was written, the King of England had already embarked on a terror campaign that left many American, and even British subjects, dead. Hence, this document was a clear repudiation of the king’s killings, and stood for the proposition that the new republic would be free from such tyranny. In his edited volume, The Killing State, Austin Sarat asserts that folks on the right “can say that the most important issue in the debate about capital punishment is one of fairness not one of sympathy for the murderers; they can position themselves as defenders of law itself, as legal conservatives.”
In addition is fiscal conservatism, which by default is at odds with American capital punishment since killing costs taxpayers a lot of money. According to reporting by the New York Times, states waste millions of dollars on winning death penalty cases. Such cases require more expensive trials and pretrial procedures, a 15-to-20-year appeals process, not to mention that keeping an individual on death row can cost up to $90,000 a year more than it costs to keep a prisoner in the general population. Over the course of 20 years this can add up to millions of dollars. Hence from a fiscal perspective, the death penalty represents wasteful government par excellence.
The time is right for death penalty foes to increase the base by repackaging their message. Today, the death penalty holds the lowest support in America than it has in decades. The real question is whether advocates can capitalize on this moment by presenting arguments that pull at different heart strings and forge new alliances.