Today is the second Boston Marathon since the bombings in 2013. Tomorrow begins the penalty phase of the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Dzhokhar is pronounced “Joe-Car,” but most of the people he knows call him Jahar). Jahar was found guilty of all 30 charges brought against him…. Many of which carry with them the possibility of the death penalty. The trial is happening in Boston, but because Massachusetts has outlawed the death penalty over 30 years ago, Tsarnaev has been charged under Federal law in order to insure the death penalty as a possible punishment.
There are a lot of reasons why people might want to see Dzhokhar Tsarnaev put to death. It’s clear to anyone who has seen pictures from the streets of Boston after those two bombs went off two years ago that this young man and his older brother did something horrible that day. They spread misery and fear, killing three people and wounding over 100 more—some losing limbs. It was a heinous act that deserves punishment…. But the question I’m asking is this: What possible good comes out of taking another life because of this tragedy? What sense does it make to kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong. The answer is this: It doesn’t make any sense.
There are all kinds of practical, non-religious reasons to be against the death penalty. Here are a few:
- China, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia…. These are the names of the other countries in the world’s top five in numbers of executions. Is this really the sort of company we want to keep with human rights practices?
- There is well-documented racism involved in who receives the death penalty. Black folks make up 13% of the U.S. population, but they account for 34% of the executions. In addition, even though since 1977 about half of all homicides have been black folks getting killed, 77% of the times the death penalty was handed down it was for killing a white person. Also, 82% of all the executions that have taken place since 1976 have occurred in the South.
- We’re sentencing innocent people to death. In the past 42 years, 140 people have been released from death row due to evidence coming forward of their wrongful conviction. During that same period of time, the United States has executed over 1200 people. Innocent people are being killed in order for us to quench some sort of ancient thirst for “eye-for-an-eye” style justice.
- It costs way more to kill people. In Tennessee (where I live) death penalty trials cost 44% more than ones seeking life in prison. In California, having the death penalty as an option costs them about $125 million extra every year.
- It doesn’t work. States without the death penalty have consistently lower levels of violent crime than those with the death penalty. Here is what that looks like on a graph:
Beyond the pragmatic reasons for ending the barbaric practice of killing people for killing people, in Jahar Tsarnaev’s trial the defense is making the case that Jahar was pressured by his older brother Tamerlan into helping carry out this crime. Many times in capital punishment cases, they give the accused the option to plead guilty in exchange for taking the death penalty off the table. In this trial, that was not offered, so there was no reason for him to plead guilty (allowing for a more lengthy appeals process if they decide to sentence him to death). They knew the evidence was overwhelming, and his attorney is just trying to save his life. Doing that will depend on the jury believing a narrative in which Jahar was pushed down a dark path by his brother. But how could we ever know this for sure? A man is either going to live or die based on whether or not his defense can show his dead brother’s influence more clearly than the prosecution can portray his autonomy. I just can’t wrap my head around this….
And I am aware I am in the minority in this country because of my stance on the inherent immorality of the death penalty. People in the United States LOVE their death penalty. When Hospira (the maker of the sodium thiopental that is a crucial part of the three drug cocktail used in lethal injection) decided to stop producing the drug, a nationwide shortage began. The maker of the drug decided to stop making it because they didn’t want a drug they developed to help people being used to kill people…. Go figure. Now people are writhing in pain while they are being put to death when they are trying to use a substitute, and courts are halting some lethal injections because it might be “cruel and unusual.” But that is just a small setback in our quest for death as a punishment. Here in Tennessee, they passed legislation making the electric chair legal again. In Utah, they are bringing back the firing squad.
And the craziest part of this whole issue–to me, at least–is how many people who identify themselves as Christians argue for state-sponsored killing. You’d think that people who follow a man who was brutally and unjustly killed by a state-sponsored execution would be at least a little bit suspicious of the death penalty. We follow a man who died forgiving his murderers. We worship a God who has–multiple times–chosen to use murderers as his representatives and mouthpieces and leaders here on earth….
People like Moses.
People like David.
People like Paul.
And the saddest part about this “Pro-Death” stance by so many Christians is how utterly hopeless it is. It doesn’t believe that God is powerful enough–that love is strong enough–to redeem the lives of murderers (certain murderers, that is. The death penalty is applied very arbitrarily. “Of the 15,000 to 17,000 homicides committed every year in the United States, approximately 120 people are sentenced to death, less than 1%”). Imagine if Paul had been “brought to justice” and put to death for the crimes he committed as Saul before the road to Damascus. Paul presided over a group whose JOB it was to persecuted and kill Christians. People look at the horrors being committed against Christians by ISIS right now, and they cry out for swift and brutal justice against the people doing the killing…. But do you know who those people are? They’re Saul. They’re Saul before he was Paul. They’re Saul BEFORE he met Jesus.
Very recently, I have sat down and talked with murderers. They are living with the consequences of their actions, but they are living. And they are being redeemed. They are still worthy of love, whether they believe it or not. This death penalty stuff should make no sense for any of us, but it should be ESPECIALLY foreign to those of us who claim to follow the one who said, “You have heard it said…. But I tell you.” We leave behind “an eye for an eye.” We are the people who even love the ones who hate us. That’s what makes us different. And we do it because we believe in a God who loves his enemies as well. You might be able to rationalize wanting to send Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to hell as soon as possible, but if this is you, I’ve got some news for you–You’re not following Jesus. If I know anything at all about Jesus, it’s that….
Shane Claiborne wrote about speaking with a death row inmate. Here is what he said:
“He confessed to having done something terrible, which he will regret for the rest of his life. But then it got even more interesting. He told me the story of his trial. During the course of his sentencing, the victim’s family argued that his life should be spared, that he should not be sentenced to death. “They were Christians… so they talked a lot about mercy,” he told me matter-of-factly, as if every Christian was against the death penalty. He went on, “They believed that Jesus came not for the healthy but for the sick. And they argued that God may not be done with me yet. So I was spared the death penalty because of the victim’s family.” Finally he said, “I wasn’t a Christian then. But you better believe that I am one now.”