Not much in politics upset Chuck Colson as he approached his 80th birthday late in 2011, but on his Breakpoint broadcast of Sept. 23 that year he said, “a recent political event left me deeply shaken.”
The event was a Republican presidential debate in California when Texas Governor Rick Perry defended the reputation of his state, which leads the nation in death penalty use. Moderator Brian Williams asked Perry whether he worried that some who were executed might have been innocent. The governor instantly replied, “I’ve never struggled with that at all.” Colson, who died seven months later, wrote that Perry’s response “deeply troubled” him: “The thought of taking another person’s life, however heinous their crimes, should give us pause. It’s never to be made lightly or casually.”
My light and casual reaction, at first, was, Big deal. We’ve had 50 million abortions nationwide since the 1970s, so why should we focus on Texas’s 500 executions? Later, I realized that it’s wrong to be cavalier about 500 people made in God’s image or 50 million, and dug up a Colson essay from 2004 in which he wrote that the death penalty “should be implemented only in those cases where evidence is certain, in accordance with the biblical standard, and where no other punishment can satisfy the demands of justice.”
That was my research agenda. What is the biblical standard of certainty, and do we follow it? When can some other punishment satisfy the demands of justice? Our cover story on page 34, based on studying the Bible and talking with convicted murderers in four Texas prisons, gives specific detail of some of my findings. I also looked at the evidence in many murder cases in Texas and outside, and saw that the biblical standard of at least two eyewitnesses to a murder is rarely met.
The cover story also reports on the lives of convicted murderers imprisoned without the possibility of parole. The most common prison environment—metallic, gray, and simmering with aggression—is one only Orcs would love. Prisoners have to take care not to be stabbed, shanked, or piped in day rooms, showers, chow halls, and yards. They have to find ways to avoid rape: The most authoritative studies of the problem, conducted by the University of South Dakota professor Cindy Struckman-Johnson, found that over 20 percent of prisoners overall are the victims of some form of coerced sexual contact.
Generations of songwriters have tried to convey the horror of life in prison. Blues singer Bessie Smith poured out a lament in 1927: “I done cut my good man’s throat … ninety-nine years in jail … So judge, judge, good kind judge, send me to the ’lectric chair.” Two generations later, Bruce Springsteen sang in “Johnny 99” about a convict also facing a lifetime sentence and telling the judge, “I’d be better off dead … let ’em shave off my hair and put me on that killin’ line.”
Texas convict Benjamin David, on a prison website called “Welcome to Hell,” came to a similar conclusion: “Your mind brings sweet thoughts of past moments of tenderness and then your mind jerks you down into a living hell knowing that you will never experience these things again. … Society may say that killing by lethal injection is punishment, but society is WRONG. For most, dying is an escape, a relief from the harsh life of day to day survival. … If society truly wants to exact punishment they would abolish the death penalty tomorrow and sentence men to life in prison without parole.”
The late pastor and theologian John Stott, commenting on the doctrine of individuals experiencing hell for eternity, argued for “annihilation” instead. Most evangelicals have seen conscious punishment as the Bible’s teaching, but when it comes to life on earth, many have said justice requires a sudden ending rather than decades of imprisonment.
Last word belongs to Camille Bell, the mother of a child murdered in Atlanta. She wrote in 1991, “When a person is dead, you’re no longer punishing him. … If a person ends up in prison and has to live each day just trying to survive, he will think of why he is there. That, in my opinion, is punishment. … I don’t want the person who murdered my child to be killed, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want him punished.”
Listen to Marvin Olasky discuss his cover story on the death penalty on The World and Everything in It: