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Calling time on capital punishment

12 May 2017

Christians must protest more vociferously against the death penalty, says Audrey Wells


JUST before midnight on 20 April, the state of Arkansas executed an inmate of death row, Ledell Lee. A convicted murderer still protesting his innocence, he was killed by lethal injection a few minutes before his death warrant was due to expire. The state Supreme Court had refused any further stay of execution.

This was part of an unprecedented plan by the state to execute six (originally eight) men in 11 days during April, because the expiry date on its supply of midazolam, one of the three drugs used in lethal injections, would be passed by the end of the month. The appalling prospect of “conveyor-belt executions” prompted widespread protest, to seemingly little effect.

Two more executions were carried out in swift succession on 24 April. Three days later, there was a fourth. The other executions have been temporarily stayed or appealed against. All of the executed men, convicted of murder, were from impoverished and violently abusive backgrounds.


CHRISTIANS, whose faith centres on Christ’s unjust execution, have a special moral obligation to protest strongly against the death penalty. If the leaders of all the Churches in the United States condemned capital punishment loudly and clearly, and urged their congregations to campaign against it, there might be more progress towards its abolition — not only in the US, but in developing countries that are influenced by the US’s example.

Indeed, church leaders have already played an influential part in the abolition of the death penalty. For example, in 2009, the Roman Catholic Bishops in the US lobbied the Governor of Illinois, Pat Quinn, also RC but a supporter of the death penalty, to sign into law an abolition Bill. After two months’ reflection, he signed the Bill, and Illinois became the 16th state to abolish the death penalty. He had consulted Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Sister Helen Prejean, the nun who is a spiritual adviser to convicts on death row, and wrote the bestseller Dead Man Walking (Vintage Books USA, 1996).

There is no empirical evidence that capital punishment is an effective deterrent. Indeed, when US states with the death penalty were compared with those without it, homicide rates in the former (during the two decades between 1980 and 2000) were shown to be 48 per cent to 101 per cent higher.

Moreover, innocent people, as well as those who are too poor to afford the good legal defence that might secure a reprieve, are sometimes executed. Furthermore, as Pope Francis, calling for a worldwide moratorium on the death penalty, pointed out, it denies the prisoner time to “repent or make amends for the harm caused . . . to reach an encounter with God’s merciful and healing justice”.

Nevertheless, 31 US states and the federal government still provide for capital punishment, whereas throughout Europe it has been abolished, save in one state, Belarus. Although electrocution, hanging, shooting, and gassing continue to be methods used in the US, most executions are by lethal injection, which is supposed to be more humane.

This it certainly is not. Since 2011, when the European Union imposed an export ban on the drugs used for lethal injections in the US, untried cocktails of drugs have been used on prisoners. The result can be prolonged agony. In 2014, for example, Dennis McGuire’s execution in Ohio took 26 minutes. It was described by the priest present as “evil”.

A further aspect of executions by lethal injection is that they sometimes involve doctors in killing. If the prisoner has been a drug addict, or is struggling, finding an appropriate vein can be difficult. Some states, such as Georgia, insist, therefore, that doctors are present not only to pronounce on death, but, if necessary, to initiate the lethal process, in contravention of the Hippocratic oath.


IT IS time for Christians in the UK to galvanise Churches in the US with which they often have close ties (not least because of a shared language) to protest more vociferously against capital punishment.

Research carried out last year by the Pew Research Centre suggested that support for it in the US was the lowest in four decades: only about 49 per cent of Americans surveyed favoured it for murderers. White Evangelical Protestants continued strongly to support its use (69 per cent), as did white mainstream Protestants (60 per cent).

In contrast, 43 per cent of Roman Catholics supported capital punishment, while 46 per cent opposed it. A survey conducted by Pew in 2010 found that, in the US, RCs heard more about the death penalty in church than Protestants did.

It is to be hoped that, repulsed by the attempt at mass execution in Arkansas, Christian leaders — and especially those in the UK — will privately urge their counterparts in the US to condemn publicly the use of the death penalty, and encourage them to get behind Pope Francis’s campaign for a worldwide moratorium on this barbaric form of punishment.


Dr Audrey Wells is an Honorary Research Associate in the History Department at Royal Holloway College, University of London, and a committee member of Action by Christians Against Torture-UK. www.actuk.org.uk

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