The coming session of the Wyoming legislature will debate whether and how the state should take the lives of people convicted by a flawed criminal justice system. They should also consider the morality and value of sentencing people to “life without possibility of parole.”
People of good faith, whether supporting or opposing the death penalty, acknowledge our criminal justice system doesn’t always get it right. Innocent people are convicted. Some die at the hands of a government unable to insure that the person is guilty as charged.
Recently Texas's highest court threw out another death sentence, finding the prosecutor withheld material evidence favorable to the defendant. Death sentences of another 144 defendants have been found to be wrongly issued since 1973 according to a study published in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.” Sometimes it’s an unethical prosecutor hiding exculpatory evidence, other times it’s incompetent defense attorneys. Sometimes it is inaccurate but persuasive “eye-witness” testimony.
One Oregon prosecutor took a novel approach, appointing a veteran prosecutor in his office to guard against wrongful convictions. Sadly not many other prosecutors are so interested in such cautionary steps.
Despite the system’s efforts, it cannot always produce a death verdict beyond a reasonable doubt. Now, it cannot even assure the methods used by the state to kill the accused are humane.
That should create enough reasonable doubt in legislators’ minds to warrant a lengthy inquiry into the practice. One of the problems with the debate is that many of those who oppose the death penalty are willing to exchange it for something nearly as bad; life in prison without possibility of parole.
Pope Francis recently raised this issue, saying not only should the death penalty be abolished but civilized societies should also end the practice of imposing life sentences with no possibility of parole. He called the latter “hidden death sentences.” He’s right.
Courts have long used life sentences to penalize some crimes. But previously there was a possibility of parole. A couple of decades ago death penalty reformers began suggesting that adding no possibility of parole to the end of those sentence would somehow be more humane.
That view demands a second look. The original idea was that life without parole would result in less use of the death penalty. Not so according to researchers. The numbers of death row inmates continue to grow even as greater numbers of inmates wait to die in a prison cell under a law that prohibits the state from determining whether the person has atoned and changed.
When Moses went to the mountaintop to receive the tablets, the people left behind committed a capital crime. They created and worshipped an idol. Under God’s law, that was punishable by death. "Whoever sacrifices to any god, save to the LORD only, shall be utterly destroyed.” (Exodus 20:22) And God sentenced the people according to God’s law. (Exodus 32)
Moses pleads for them. “Turn from thy fierce wrath,” Moses said to God. God, the Bible says, “repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people.”
In a state where most people give at least lip service to something they hail as “Judeo-Christian” ethics, should it not be thought possible that the God we worship has the potential to change the hearts of these men and women?
Practical reasons exist for reconsidering the use of life sentences without parole. Prison cells are expensive. They should be reserved for those we are afraid of and not used for aging men and women who no longer pose a threat. What more than vengeance is to be gained by locking up a young person and throwing away the key? What is served by denying there is ever a possibility that hearts change?
“Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19). The story of our relationship with God is filled with redeemed lives and new hope.