Cover Story
ROOM FOR JUSTICE: The execution chamber at the prison in Huntsville, Texas, seen from the room where the victim’s family can witness.
Kadir Van Lohuizen/Noor/Redux
ROOM FOR JUSTICE: The execution chamber at the prison in Huntsville, Texas, seen from the room where the victim’s family can witness.

Dead seriousness

Death Penalty | Rethinking the death penalty: The Bible sets a very high bar for capital punishment, and the American legal system today rarely reaches it

Issue: "Rethinking the death penalty," Oct. 19, 2013

Editor’s note: This article contains graphic descriptions of prison life. 

BEAUMONT and HUNTSVILLE, Texas—Jack Vian Jr., sentenced in 1991 to life in prison, was eligible for parole last year. Robert Dawson posted a plea for Texans to voice their opposition to the request, since Vian had stabbed Dawson’s 26-year-old sister, Barbara, 13 times. He had cut her throat and the throat of a young man who was dating her.

The parole board said no. This summer I interviewed Vian and eight other men convicted of murder and living out their lives in four Texas prisons. Some had spent years on death row but escaped it because they were under 18 when they killed, or had other mitigating factors. Kristin Houle, who heads the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, says everyone should escape.

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Is she right? Is it good that the number of executions is declining in the United States generally and Texas specifically? (Texas has been the capital punishment capital of the United States, executing 503 of the 1,343 persons executed nationwide since 1976.) What does the Bible say about the death penalty and alternatives? Follow-up questions: What is a life spent in prison like, and is that adequate punishment in the light of biblical teaching?

This article focuses on the Bible and the convicts. I refer here only briefly to public policy debates involving deterrence, discrimination, and arbitrariness, and am posting on wng.org pieces concerning such issues. (Also, hundreds of books deal with such topics, and I recommend some in "Death reads.") My task here is to bring out how the prisoners see their lives and how the Bible sees them.

CHAPTER 9 OF GENESIS includes two verses that many proponents of capital punishment cite: “From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” God further explains in chapter 21 of Exodus, “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” and repeats that several times in later passages.

The Christian left has condemned such a standard: The United Church of Christ, for example, called eye-for-eye an “outdated and barbaric practice.” The Jewish left has offered similar scorn, with David Sperling saying, “As a Reform Jew, I think … when biblical texts do not say what we would like them to say, that is when we part company with these texts.” 

Ironically, those who part company with the Bible with the goal of making capital punishment rare are hurting their own cause, for the biblical standard regarding the death penalty is set much higher than most American ones. To start with, five times—Numbers 35:30, Deuteronomy 17:6, Deuteronomy 19:15, Matthew 18:16, 2 Corinthians 13:1—both the Old Testament and the New stipulate that a capital punishment verdict could not be based on circumstantial evidence: Testimony from two or three eyewitnesses is essential. Few of the death penalty cases I’ve reviewed have that many witnesses.

Furthermore, chapter 19 of Deuteronomy stipulates that witnesses had to be so sure of an accused murderer’s guilt that they would risk dying themselves. If a witness “has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. … And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you.” In addition, avengers might have to chase through the wilderness a person heading to a city of refuge, one of six places in ancient Israel set aside as havens for those who unintentionally killed a person.

MANUEL MENDEZ IS 35. Eighteen years ago, when he shoplifted a pair of running shoes, the store manager followed him out of the store. Mendez shot and killed him: He says it was unintentional, but “it was around Wheel of Fortune time. I was using weed and cocaine, drinking a lot, and things happened.” 

Now he lives in a cellblock with three tiers and 26 cells in each tier, 156 people in a world of metal and concrete. Each cellblock has a day room, where inmates spend much of their time sitting and watching one of two televisions (one usually showing sports, the other movies). It’s one of the many cellblocks that make up Ferguson Unit, which houses some 2,263 inmates, about 10 percent in for murder but three-fourths for burglary or robbery.

Separated by a glass screen, we faced each other in a hot visiting room with still air and flies circling around us. Mendez described his life: “Every day’s the same. Wake up, wake up again. Same metal bench, same cell. … Everyone’s out for himself. … Guys fight over ramen noodles or a piece of cheese. … You got to show that no one’s gonna take something from you. … If you don’t say anything, it’s not a piece of cheese next time. It’s guys playing gay games.”

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