I have had very serious doubts about the practice of capital punishment in America for decades. I know the arguments for it quite well. I fell back on those arguments, and the Old Testament texts that can be used to support them, until I felt the whole issue crumbling under my feet about 15 years ago. Like so many similar changes in my thinking I processed my thoughts, read more widely, studied the Scripture much more carefully and just listened a great deal. I read the classical texts on the issue from church history and the modern arguments by supporters and opponents. Like so many of these kinds of issues there is a great deal of emotion involved in coming to any conclusion. Most of the time your mind will go to the worst case scenario and leave it there. But the worst case scenario argument was finally resolved for me by watching a new film, At the Death House Door. Let me explain why.This remarkable film is the story of Rev. Carroll Pickett, a Presbyterian minister. After serving as a local pastor in Huntsville, Texas, where he performed the funeral of two ladies in his congregation who were taken hostage and brutally killed in a 1970s attempt by two men to break out, Pickett became more involved in the prison. He eventually become the prison chaplain and left his local parish ministry. moving into a small home across the street from the prison. He would also lose his marriage in the process, a sad testimony to the stress he lived under for decades. He ended up spending the remainder of his entire ministerial lifetime working in and out of the famous Texas penitentiary at Huntsville. The story the film presents is that of dealing with capital punishment. Pickett was the minister who was there for 95 inmates who were put to death when the Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was not "cruel and unusual punishment" and Texas began to put criminals to death more than any other American state. The number of Texas executions now numbers over 400. There is a brief clip on this film of former-governor George W. Bush explaining why he believed in this action of the state. (Bush has no sympathy for ending capital punishment even though it has been proven, beyond any reasonable shadow of doubt, that innocent people have been executed in Texas!)
At the Death House Door is not fun to watch but I would urge every serious Christian to see it. Not only is Carroll Pickett's story remarkable but the way he tells it is moving. (There is a fascinating account, told by Pickett, of his being told in seminary that he would be a minister who would care for the dying in an unusual way! I believe that such prophetic words are often spoken in ways that can prepare us for what it ahead.) Pickett lived alone for many of the years that he shared these death house experiences. To talk out his feelings he made tape recordings. Some of these are now made public in the film. They are very, very moving accounts of what he saw and felt. For anyone who thinks people die painlessly by lethal injection they ought to hear the truth that Pickett reveals. (Pickett witnessed the first lethal injection ever performed in the world.)
But no execution troubled Pickett like that of Carlos De Luna, a young man who Pickett believed was innocent. Do not misunderstand, Pickett makes it clear that men who confessed their crimes to him would later say, as their dying words, "I am innocent." They had so blinded themselves that they could not face reality. But De Luna was innocent. The story is convincing and the evidence abundant. The film tracks two Chicago Tribune reporters who pursued the De Luna story and proved his innocence. De Luna's two sisters appear on the film. One is a leading advocate for ending the death penalty.
In a moving scene at his dining room table, with his two daughters and one son present, Pickett finally reveals how he came to view capital punishment after his being present at the death of 95 people. When asked what should be done with those who were convicted of capital crimes he says they should get life in solitary confinement, a fate far worse than death, especially in their view. This practice would also allow new evidence to spare their lives if they had been wrongly convicted. (We have a capital crime case in my county that is nationally known. After many years in prison new evidence showed clearly that the man convicted of a little girl's death did not commit the crime. He is now free while the real killer, who admitted the crime many years ago, is now on trial for it.)
So why did this film push me over the edge? The arguments made here are clear and emotionally compelling. Capital punishment does not allow for a change in decision, a change that is often called for in the light of new evidence. Second, it is the kind of end to life that many criminals desire. Third, it does not really prevent murder as many argue. Fourth, most of those put to death are poor, black or Hispanic, and were afforded no powerful defense in a court of law. Most importantly, the death penalty is unjustly administered in America and there is no good reason to believe that we can reform this practice in the foreseeable future. Finally, the appeal to Old Testament arguments do not hold up in the light of the way we unjustly administer the law or in the light of clearer New Testament principles. (This would require a book length article so I am not going to work this one out in a short blog.)
Whether you believe in capital punishment or not see At the Death House Door. You cannot be the same after you watch, I promise. If you have an ounce of compassion, mixed with your sense of the need for real justice, you will be moved and maybe even troubled. It is a powerful film that leaves you thinking long after you have seen it. The film has been nominated for the 2010 American Library video awards. I got it from my public library and would guess many readers could do the same.
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Thanks, John, for letting us know about the film. I will certainly check it out.
This is a hard one for me. Here in North Carolina we just had a 5 year old girl raped and murdered by her captor who has been apprehended. It would be hard to convince me that this man should be supported by tax dollars even in solitary.
Yet, I also know that the justice system is too often unfair and that innocent people are it’s victims. Clearly, to me anyway, there is something more fundamental that needs to occur besides stiffening or eliminating the death penalty.
At any rate I welcome this opportunity to look at it from Rev. Pickett’s viewpoint.
Thanks for the post, John. While I’ve not seen this film, I’ve been opposed to capital punishment for several years, now. (I suspect my journey to this position was similar to yours.)
In principle, at least, I agree with life-long incarceration for those convicted of what we now recognize as capital offenses. I’m not sure, though, that solitary confinement is desirable. While I’m only familiar with the anecdotal evidence, I’m under the impression that in many if not most cases, solitary confinement leads to severe mental illness (insanity). At any rate, such forced isolation deprives one of his humanity, does it not? If that’s the case, is there a way that the church can work to assist even the worst criminals to regain their humanity by realizing it in Jesus, the true human?
Superb piece, John. You’ve hit the nail on the head, the problem with capital punishment is that it is irrevocable and therefore for it to be administered justly it requires (a) evidence that is not merely ‘beyond reasonable doubt’ but absolutely irrefutable, and (b) it requires a perfect justice system to implement it. Criminal confessions are notoriously unreliable and ought not to be admissible evidence.
My own view is that the principle of ‘a life for a life’ is biblical, fair and just, it fits the crime and accords with the essential dignity of those created in the image of God. It should, therefore, remain on the statute books as society’s approval of the principle. Those guilty of a crime deemed punishable by death should receive that sentence, but it should be immediately commuted to life imprisonment.
Terrible though miscarriages of justice are, there is a Court which has access to irrefutable evidence and a Judge who is perfectly just. Appeals lodged there will receive a fair hearing, and all wrongs and injustices will be corrected. We should be grateful that the ultimate sanction of eternal death is only at His disposal.
Perhaps when thinking of this issue we think too little of the victims of summary justice (police shootings, self-defence, etc.) or of the Christian martyrs, of whom our lifetime has seem many thousands.
Revelation 6:9-10: When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”
I will definitely check out the film! Sounds like one I need to see. But whatever the answer to how to deal with criminals, solitary confinement is not it! And the idea that we can keep a person in solitary for an extended period such as this mentions (one month is brutally extended in solitary!) and then just let them out if “new evidence” comes out is silly. As Richard Wattenbarger said above, a person is totally rewired in solitary. And not for the better!
Netflix subscribers can watch this fine movie online for free…
Surf around this web site: http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/religion-and-death-penalty