I think that automatic life without parole is not a very good solution because many of these people over time will mature, will become very responsible people who can do something significant for society. I’ve been working on a project where I’ve been interviewing men and women serving life without parole in Pennsylvania. We have over 2500 men and women serving life without parole. In Pennsylvania the first degrees of murder are automatic life without parole. What it means is that many people at 14 and 15 and 16 who were living a really crazy, rebellious, out of control lifestyle, are now 50 and mature human beings. We’re still paying to have them locked up when they really could be making a contribution to society.
The Death Penalty is a Spiritual Issue
I regard the death penalty, in many respects, as a spiritual issue. You know, when we say we’re going to execute somebody, we say their life has no purpose, we say their life has no value, we say they’re beyond hope, they’re beyond redemption. My faith plays a role in encouraging me to reject that. I come from a world view that says, “No, that’s not true. Every life has purpose. Every life has value. There’s always hope for redemption.” And because that’s what I believe and that’s what I accept and that’s what I’ve always experienced, I’ve been representing death row people now for nine years. I’ve never met anybody who I thought was hopeless, who was beyond redemption, whose life didn’t have any purpose or value. Because of that, I have courage to say, “You’re wrong. I know that somebody’s committed a terrible, tragic, horrible, mindless act, but you’re wrong. There’s still some purpose here, there’s still some value in this life. And I’m prepared to struggle and find it, and I’m prepared to struggle to try to get you to see it, because I believe it’s not only important in saving my client’s life, but I also believe it’s important for your view of the world.”
“When Christians are tempted to think that support for capital punishment is compatible with their faith, they should consider carefully that they serve a Lord who himself was the victim of the death penalty. Jesus Christ was tried in the most moral country of his time. He was tried under a system of justice that, while harsh, was systematic and strove to be fair. This fact has much to teach us about the fallibility of human morality and justice, even at their best.” (Gardener C. Hanks)
Sister Helen Prejean tells how basketball coach Dale Brown of Louisiana State University changed his mind on the death penalty.
In Louisiana, everyone loves Louisiana State University basketball. Everybody also loves LSU basketball coach, Dale Brown. Brown is a great guy and a big hero.
Every year he took his basketball team to the Louisiana State Penitentiary, Angola, to play with the guys there.
So one day after LSU came to the penitentiary to play, at the end of the day, the warden asked Coach Brown, “Want to go to Death Row?”
Brown says, “Sure.”
So Brown and the team traipse on up to death row. Brown walks through. He looks in the cells. He comes out. He tells the warden, “Hey warden, you’ve got some pretty sleazy people in here. I’ll tell you what. Give me a baseball bat, and I’ll take some of them out for you myself and save you the electricity.”
Then Brown goes home, and keeps playing basketball games.
One of the men on Death Row, Leslie Loewenfield finally gets a date of execution. He is moved to the death house. Loewenfield sends Coach Brown a letter which says:
“Dear Coach Brown. I enjoyed very much when you came up to death row to see us. I am about to be executed. Would you give me just one little visit? I would very much like to see you.”
Coach Brown is a Christian man and so he responds. He goes to the death house and spends one hour with Leslie Loewenfield, about 50 feet from the electric chair. Loewenfield talks to Dale Brown, for about an hour before he is executed.
Dale Brown walks out of the death chambers and says, “This is barbarism. I am against the death penalty.”
If people of faith, people who understand what it means to be redeemed, people who understand what grace is about, don’t step forward and begin struggling against the problems that are so pervasive, we will not make any forward progress.
I’m confident that we will come to a time in this society when we won’t execute people. Because I think it reflects a lie about human nature. I think it reflects a lie about violence. I think it reflects a lie about race. I think it reflects a lie about poverty. Because I don’t believe that any lie can live forever, I know that, at some point, we will succeed. And one day they’ll write a history about how we evolved under this dark period when we really thought that we had to kill people to show that killing people was wrong, and emerged at some point where there was a little bit more light and we saw things a little bit more clearly. And we’ll wonder, “My God, how could we have ever done that?” I can see that now.