Dead Seriousness: Rethinking the Death Penalty

Marvin Olasky | Editor in Chief, WORLD Magazine | Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Dead Seriousness: Rethinking the Death Penalty

Editor's note: This article contains graphic descriptions of prison life.

(WNS) -- Jack Vian Jr., sentenced in 1991 to life in prison, was eligible for parole last year. Robert Dawson posted a plea for Texans to voice their opposition to the request, since Vian had stabbed Dawson’s 26-year-old sister, Barbara, 13 times. He had cut her throat and the throat of a young man who was dating her.

The parole board said no. This summer I interviewed Vian and eight other men convicted of murder and living out their lives in four Texas prisons. Some had spent years on death row but escaped it because they were under 18 when they killed, or had other mitigating factors. Kristin Houle, who heads the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, says everyone should escape.

Is she right? Is it good that the number of executions is declining in the United States generally and Texas specifically? (Texas has been the capital punishment capital of the United States, executing 503 of the 1,343 persons executed nationwide since 1976.) What does the Bible say about the death penalty and alternatives? Follow-up questions: What is a life spent in prison like, and is that adequate punishment in the light of biblical teaching?

This article focuses on the Bible and the convicts. I refer here only briefly to public policy debates involving deterrence, discrimination, and arbitrariness, and am posting on pieces concerning such issues. My task here is to bring out how the prisoners see their lives and how the Bible sees them.

Chapter 9 of Genesis includes two verses that many proponents of capital punishment cite: “From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” God further explains in chapter 21 of Exodus, “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth,” and repeats that several times in later passages.

The Christian left has condemned such a standard: The United Church of Christ, for example, called eye-for-eye an “outdated and barbaric practice.” The Jewish left has offered similar scorn, with David Sperling saying, “As a Reform Jew, I think … when biblical texts do not say what we would like them to say, that is when we part company with these texts.”

Ironically, those who part company with the Bible with the goal of making capital punishment rare are hurting their own cause, for the biblical standard regarding the death penalty is set much higher than most American ones. To start with, five times — Numbers 35:30, Deuteronomy 17:6, Deuteronomy 19:15, Matthew 18:16, 2 Corinthians 13:1 — both the Old Testament and the New stipulate that a capital punishment verdict could not be based on circumstantial evidence: Testimony from two or three eyewitnesses is essential. Few of the death penalty cases I’ve reviewed have that many witnesses.

Furthermore, chapter 19 of Deuteronomy stipulates that witnesses had to be so sure of an accused murderer’s guilt that they would risk dying themselves. If a witness “has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. … And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you.” In addition, avengers might have to chase through the wilderness a person heading to a city of refuge, one of six places in ancient Israel set aside as havens for those who unintentionally killed a person.

Manuel Mendez is 35. Eighteen years ago, when he shoplifted a pair of running shoes, the store manager followed him out of the store. Mendez shot and killed him: He says it was unintentional, but “it was around Wheel of Fortune time. I was using weed and cocaine, drinking a lot, and things happened.”

Now he lives in a cellblock with three tiers and 26 cells in each tier, 156 people in a world of metal and concrete. Each cellblock has a day room, where inmates spend much of their time sitting and watching one of two televisions (one usually showing sports, the other movies). It’s one of the many cellblocks that make up Ferguson Unit, which houses some 2,263 inmates, about 10 percent in for murder but three-fourths for burglary or robbery.

Separated by a glass screen, we faced each other in a hot visiting room with still air and flies circling around us. Mendez described his life: “Every day’s the same. Wake up, wake up again. Same metal bench, same cell. … Everyone’s out for himself. … Guys fight over ramen noodles or a piece of cheese. … You got to show that no one’s gonna take something from you. … If you don’t say anything, it’s not a piece of cheese next time. It’s guys playing gay games.”

A good day for Mendez is “when I can work in the fields. That’s the only time I get to taste, smell, see the outside — and when it’s 90 degrees you get three water breaks.” A good day is also “when I can watch Law and Order. They all want to watch Jerry Springer.” Mendez got in trouble in July for cussing at a guard and had, he says, a good week in solitary: “No mattress, two sheets, lying on the floor, they bring meals to you. They gave me two pens, 20 sheets of paper, and 20 envelopes.”

Other than those breaks from routine, Mendez feels he’s “living inside a nightmare and can’t wake up. I’m gonna die here and that will be a good day.”

Opponents of capital punishment note that God told Adam he would surely die if he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Since that did not happen physically, some interpret the death as spiritual, but others point to the exile from Eden as an alternative death when compared to the life Adam could have had. Repeatedly in the Bible, the formal punishment of death gives way to the actual punishment of excommunication — and God declares in Ezekiel 33:11, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.”

God often in Scripture not only tells but shows — yet He provides zero examples of killers receiving death penalties. Cain expected to die after murdering Abel, but God instead gave him a life sentence of exile. Simeon and Levi killed all the males of a city and lived on, but under their father’s curse. Moses murdered an Egyptian and spent 40 years in the wilderness. David conspired to kill Uriah the Hittite and lived with the shame of that and many family repercussions, including at least three dead sons.

Oddly, the one time we see the biblical demand for two or more witnesses followed, the right process leads to an unjust result. As chapter 21 of 1 Kings relates, King Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard so Queen Jezebel commanded elders to “proclaim a fast, and set Naboth at the head of the people. And set two worthless men opposite him, and let them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out and stone him to death. And the men of his city, the elders and the leaders who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them.”

Christopher Quiroz, 36, also entered prison at age 17. He and his uncle, Jesus Aguilar (executed in 2006), had murdered two people in a drug smuggling feud, but Quiroz because of his age at the time of the crime is in for life. He lives with his Wynne Unit cellmate in a 5-by-9 cell with a metal sink, a toilet, and a thin mattress with a built-in pillow on a metal bunk. For our interview, he got a chance to sit in a prison guard’s office and reflect, “I’ve been here since I was a kid. There’s no point living in prison, it’s dead time. I don’t want to get old in here. They can kill me and I’ll donate an organ.”

Jean Paul Sartre famously wrote that “hell is others,” and Quiroz would second that: “Can’t trust nobody here. … You either stay down or you’re gonna ride underneath somebody. … A lot of sick people here. Dudes like to jack off in front of a female officer. … Last night two cellies got in a fight. Pepper spray everywhere. … I live off the land. … Wash clothes for people. Two soups for a shirt, two for pants. … I get privacy on the toilet by using popsicle sticks to rig a little curtain. The guards let us get away with it as long as you move a hand to show you’re still there and still alive. … Most of the time I’d just as soon be dead.”

Jesus was clearly citing Scripture when Matthew 5:38-39 quotes Him saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil.” It may seem that Jesus was opposing the Old Testament and asserting a new pacifist doctrine, but the tip-off is Jesus’ speech itself: He said, “You have heard” rather than “it is written.” Jesus customarily used the former when He referred to rabbinical interpretations not necessarily justified by Scripture, but the latter when He cited the Bible (as in the previous chapter of Matthew, while turning aside Satan’s temptations).

The “eye for an eye” phrase is a quotation from Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20, and Deuteronomy 19:21, and Jesus did not refute anything from the Old Testament — but He did refute those who distorted Old Testament teaching and took it out of context. Pharisees believed God had given Israel two torahs, the written one but also an oral one — and they believed the latter outlined death penalty procedures.

The Talmud later recorded the rabbinical understandings against which Jesus spoke. Opponents of capital punishment quote famed death penalty critic Rabbi Akiva of the main Jewish court, the Sanhedrin, but Tractate Sanhedrin of the Talmud suggests that the anti-capital-punishment position was a minority view. Dozens of pages of that tractate lay out procedures for execution by burning, decapitation, stoning, or strangling, and give specific detail such as Rabbi Yehudah’s explanation of “the procedure for those who are burned: They would submerge him in manure up to his knees. … One pries open his mouth with tongs against his will, and the other lights a wick, throws it into his mouth, and it descends into his stomach and burns his intestines.”

Jesus apparently did not favor such practice, and He also taught His followers not to resist with arms when they were persecuted for their faith. One of the first deacons, Stephen, soon put Christ’s teaching into practice when Sanhedrin members stoned him, a practice that was less throwing rocks than dropping boulders on top of a person 12-18 feet below them. Stephen set high the bar for not resisting: He and the many martyrs who followed Christ’s advice had such an impact that Tertullian in the second century famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”  

Jack Vian Jr., 42, is still trying to come to grips with the blood he shed when he stabbed the young woman he desired and the young man who seemed in the way. He’s one of 2,874 inmates in the Mark Stiles Unit east of Houston. More than 1,000 of those inmates have been found guilty of sexual assault or abuse, sometimes with a child — and 255 are in for homicide.

Most of his fellow inmates have troubled family pasts, but Vian is particularly troubled about his lack of trouble before the double murder in 1991: “This was my first and only offense. Never been arrested. I was more or less a suburban kid. My mom and dad made sacrifices early on.” He grew up going to a Baptist and then an Assemblies of God church, and now “I’m here for killing two people. … They didn’t deserve what happened to them. … It’s kind of haunted me since then.”

Vian then was a University of Houston student. He says he was going to punch his romantic competitor and “had the knife, like holding a roll of quarters to give me some force. … When I started swinging, something else kicked in.” Vian’s life in prison also started with showing the willingness to fight: “They beat you up two or three times and you’re still willing to fight, then they leave you alone. … You become a wood.” “Wood” is short for “peckerwood,” in this context a prisoner who doesn’t pay protection and doesn’t “ride” (submit to homosexual acts).

Vian says he’s proved he’s a “wood” rather than a “ho,” and he wryly acknowledges getting good at prison time-passers like dominos. He says if he hadn’t gone to prison he would have transferred to Rice University, earned a degree in English and studied French with the idea of traveling to parts of west Africa, and eventually gone into politics: “Even though I didn’t get the death penalty, the whole life I had died that night. Just like their lives ended. Whatever life I had up to that point, it ended.”

Does God forbid government’s use of capital punishment? Nothing in the Bible orders a ban. Romans 13 notes that government “does not bear the sword in vain” and “carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” The harder question is whether God demands the death penalty for murderers. God in chapter 9 of Genesis does “require a reckoning for the life of man,” but the reckoning throughout the Bible is a severe punishment short of execution. “Put to death” is a common refrain from Exodus through Deuteronomy when God is laying out civil law for ancient Israel, but in universally applicable Genesis only “a reckoning” is required—and life in prison is clearly a huge reckoning.

Scholars debate whether the subsequent verse in Genesis, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image,” is prescriptive or descriptive. The “shall” suggests a command, but translators (English Standard Version, New International Version, New King James Version) set off that phrase as a descriptive poetic quotation, similar to the way they set off a quoted saying in chapter 17 of Acts. The biblical context is important: Earlier in Genesis, Cain’s descendant Lamech boasts to his wives, “I have killed a man for wounding me, a young man for striking me.” Such boasting, and carrying through on it, became epidemic: When one person sheds blood, others shed his.

Scholars debate another hard question: Are the later “eye for an eye” prescriptions literal requirements or limiting devices? (No more than an eye for an eye.) They note that Lamech was looking for vengeance out of proportion to the offense — “If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold” — and was laying out the future of fighting from the Hatfields and McCoys to the start of World War I following the assassination of an archduke. Since man’s vengeance and counter-vengeance almost always lead to damage far greater than what started the battle, God allows comparable but not greater retaliation.

Roy Kendrick, 47, shot to death a fellow drug user in 1995, and took from him $40 and a food stamp card. While in prison Kendrick was also found guilty of murdering a cab driver and his wife in 1985: It was a cold case, but Kendrick’s father testified against him. With a glint in his eye and a grin, Kendrick matter-of-factly tells of how he’s been in many fights during his 16 years in prison, stabbing and being stabbed. Many of them were racial, white against black. He has broken jaws and recently had a punctured lung. He never has visitors. His brother is also serving a life sentence.

He grew up near the Big Thicket area of east Texas less than an hour’s drive north of where he now sits in the Stiles Unit thicket of metal and cement. He’d love to “go back in the woods and live there. Get me a squirrel dog, farm, hunt deer.” That is highly unlikely to happen. He has escaped death row and is suffering a living death.

It’s like that as well for other prisoners I interviewed. Anderson Hughes, who killed a policeman, has been in prison for 39 years, the first seven of them on death row: “Maybe it would have been better to die. … Now, I wake up, do the same thing as the day before. … I can’t remember when I had a good day, maybe years ago.” Arnold Johnson, now 37, remembers his time on death row: “At 19 you don’t think they’re really going to kill you. … Now I know I’ll die here. Every day I think about what I did. I replay everything in my head.”

The oldest prisoner I interviewed, Jesus Suttles, 66, lived all his life in San Antonio until in a drunken rage he murdered his ninth wife (four by law, five by common law) in 2002. He’s been a forced teetotaler since then and says prison saved his life: If he were out he’d still be drinking and dying from cirrhosis of the liver or something else. He hasn’t received a visit from any of his ex-wives or his three living children. He’s miserable, but alive.

Understanding the death penalty as a maximum rather than an obligation helps to explain what otherwise are biblical puzzles. Why does the Bible prescribe capital punishment in many situations but stipulate evidentiary standards that make it almost impossible to put into practice, unless corrupt people distort the law as Jezebel and her conspirators did? Why does God give us no examples of the process working? Why does God spare those who deserved death, starting with Cain? At a time when most human beings lived on plains, God sent people off to the wilderness: Now, when people live everywhere, even in wildernesses, is excommunication sending a person to prison for life?

Two chapters after the “eye for eye” directive comes a solemn warning that is often repeated in later chapters: “You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit” (Exodus 23:6). Lawyers I’ve spoken with cannot remember rich persons receiving the death penalty: Like O.J. Simpson and many others, wealth buys expensive lawyers who find ways for their clients to avoid maximum penalties and sometimes any penalties at all. The absence of good or even competent counsel in many cases perverts the justice received by a poor person accused of murder. Racial and ethnic discrepancies in sentencing used to be rampant but no longer are: Money rather than skin color now talks.

I’ll discuss other issues online, and explain my positive view of life-without-parole sentencing: will have new posts on capital punishment every weekday from Oct. 7 to Oct. 18. Please join me and add comments of your own. To close, here’s the story of one prisoner sentenced to life without parole who showed a different attitude than the others. James Zarychta, 41, imprisoned since 1993, gets up at 2 a.m. and goes to work at 3 in the Ellis Unit’s law library. Beginning at 4:15 he helps 15-20 inmates through a 2½ hour law library session, then clerks for a second session that begins at 8:45, and a third starting at 1:45. He’s obtained an electric typewriter on which he’s writing a prison self-help guide, a second book on filing petitions, and a third book of fiction.

On the death penalty vs. life imprisonment debate, he says, “I understand people thinking we should suffer as the people we killed suffered,” but “execution is the easy way out. … With the daily grind of being incarcerated, it consistently runs through my head: ‘What was I thinking? Why did I do it?’ What keeps me from going crazy is the thing I’ve learned: Jesus is the one way to heaven.”

c. 2013 WORLD News Service. Used with permission.

Publication date: October 9, 2013

Dead Seriousness: Rethinking the Death Penalty