Religion

NEW VOICES: Partner of Murdered New Hampshire Police Officer Now Opposes Death Penalty

New Hampshire, which is considering a bill to repeal the death penalty, only has one inmate on death row--Michael Addison, who was convicted of killing a police officer. Now that officer's former partner, John Breckenridge (pictured), has had a change of heart about the death penalty and is calling for an end to capital punishment. Initially, Breckenridge supported a death sentence for Addison, and even spoke in favor of the death penalty before the state's death penalty commission. However, he said his religious faith and conversations with Sister Helen Prejean led him to change his mind: "Given the Catholic view on the sanctity of life and our modern prison system and the means we have to protect society, it became clear to me that as a Catholic I could not justify the very pre-meditated act of executing someone who – for all the evil of his crime and all the permanent hurt he caused others – still lives ... in the possibility of spiritual redemption. That’s where my journey brought me. Do I want to visit Michael Addison or invite him into my home? I do not. Do I occasionally pray for him and his family? I do." Read the op-ed below.

King's Daughter Says Death Penalty Perpetuates Cycle of Violence

Bernice King, the youngest daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., encouraged New Hampshire to repeal the death penalty, saying that even though she lost her father and grandmother to murder, "I can’t accept the judgment that killers need to be killed, a practice that merely perpetuates the cycle of violence." She called the death penalty "unworthy of a civilized society," and warned that "retribution cannot light the way to the genuine healing that we need in the wake of heinous acts of violence." She also pointed to the number of people freed from death row after being exonerated as "evidence that mistakes can and do get made in a justice system run by fallible human beings." She invoked her father's message of nonviolence, quoting from his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “'Nonviolence is the answer to the crucial political and moral questions of our time: the need for man to overcome oppression and violence without resorting to oppression and violence.'" Read her op-ed below.

PUBLIC OPINION: Support for Death Penalty Low Among Christians, Particularly Younger Members

A new poll by the Barna Group found that only 40% of practicing Christians supported the death penalty, and support was even lower among younger Christians. According to the poll released on January 17, only 23% of practicing Christian "millennials" (i.e., those born between 1980 and 2000) agreed with the statement: "The government should have the option to execute the worst criminals." Without regard to their regular practice of their faith, only 42% of Christian baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and only 32% of millennials agreed with the use of the death penalty. Roxanne Stone, the vice president of publishing at Barna, said, "This parallels a growing trend in the pro-life conversation among Christians to include torture and the death penalty as well as abortion. For many younger Christians, the death penalty is not a political dividing point but a human rights issue." 

Ohio Religious Leaders Express Views on Capital Punishment

Religious leaders from a variety of faiths spoke about their religious objections to the death penalty at a recent meeting in Columbus, Ohio. The meeting included leaders from several Christian denominations as well as Jewish leaders. Jack Chomsky, cantor at Congregation Tifereth Israel, said he hopes more of his colleagues will join him in speaking out about Jewish tradition, which opposes the enforcement of the death penalty. Jerald Freewalt, of the Office for Social Concerns at the Roman Catholic Diocese of Columbus, said, "No matter who you are and what you’ve done, human life is sacred. I just hope that we can all come together and work as a community of faith to reach out to victims and their families, and to inmates and their families, and build more of a community based on love and hope." Ohio's death penalty has recently gained scrutiny as a task force reviews the states practices. The task force is expected to make reform recommendations later this year. 

BOOKS: Contemporary Religious Views on the Death Penalty

Anthony Santoro has written a new book about religious perspectives on the death penalty, Exile and Embrace: Contemporary Religious Discourse on the Death Penalty. In describing the book, John D. Bessler, a law professor at the University of Baltimore, said, “Santoro tells the stories of everyone from death row chaplains to bloggers and Bible study participants. In discussing transgression, retribution, and ‘the other,’ he skillfully demonstrates how executions say more about us than about the offenders.” Santoro is a postdoctoral fellow at Heidelberg University in Germany.

NEW VOICES: Cost and Impact on Victims' Families Among Concerns for Conservative Christians

A recent article in the Liberty Champion, a publication of Liberty University, discussed the concerns some conservative Christians have about the death penalty. The article by student Whitney Rutherford focused on the financial costs of the death penalty and its emotional toll on murder victims’ families: “Rather than providing victims, their families, and the family of the accused an expedient result, these groups are dragged through the emotional upheaval of waiting and watching the justice system work.” The author also quoted James R. Acker, a distinguished professor at the School of Criminal Justice at the University of Albany, who questioned the role of capital punishment in a recent Colorado case. Acker asked, “Would the time and money devoted to achieving this man’s death not be better spent on services and law enforcement initiatives meant to repair and prevent the mindless devastation of criminal homicide?” The article concluded, “Christians may support capital punishment without negating their beliefs, but the modern approach to capital punishment is an expensive and emotionally destructive path. The death penalty has become a pit of money and lost years without providing the justice that victims expect.”

BOOKS: "Where Justice and Mercy Meet: Catholic Opposition to the Death Penalty"

A new book, “Where Justice and Mercy Meet: Catholic Opposition to the Death Penalty,” offers a comprehensive discussion of Catholic teaching on capital punishment. It explores a wide range of issues related to the death penalty, including racism, mental illness, and economic disparities. The book is edited by Trudy Conway and David Matzko McCarthy, both professors at Mount St. Mary’s University, and Vicki Schieber--the mother of a murder victim. It includes a foreword by Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking. Joseph A. Fiorenza, Archbishop Emeritus of Galveston-Houston, said the book "is a treasure trove of information on the necessity and urgency to abolish an antiquated approach to capital crimes."

PUBLIC OPINION: American Values Survey Shows Even Split on Death Penalty, with More Catholics Opposed

According to the 2012 American Values Survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute, Americans are now evenly divided on whether the death penalty or life without parole is the appropriate punishment for murder, while Catholics more strongly favor life sentences. The September survey found that 47% of respondents favored life without parole, while 46% opted for the death penalty.  The poll showed that life without parole was favored by Democrats (57%), African-Americans (64%), Hispanic-Americans (56%), and millennials (age 18 to 29) (55%). Support for the death penalty was stronger among Republicans (59%), Tea Party members (61%), and white Americans (53%).  Catholic respondents favored life without parole by a greater margin (52% to 41%) than the general population. Moreover, Catholics who attended church at least once a week were even more opposed to the death penalty (57% to 37% favoring life without parole) than those who attended less frequently.

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