Arguing with Capital Punishment

“Arguing with Capital Punishment”
Rev. David Carl Olson

Happy Easter! That’s a greeting that is easy to say on the street on a morning like this, but the same words can be challenging in a Unitarian Universalist congregation. What does Easter mean for a theologically diverse community like ours?

In many UU churches, today is a celebration of Spring, and certainly Easter is that. Flowers are breaking through whatever is left of winter—at my home, the crocus emerged two weeks ago, the daffodils are blooming now, and green leaves of hyacinths and tulips are now emerging, and as they do my heart is filled with hope and joy. Easter is a celebration of Spring—no doubt about that.

In some UU congregations, we’ll link Easter to all the Spring religious festivals, to the northern goddess Oestra (or Ostara) and the fertility rituals around the vernal equinox, when bunnies, the nocturnal animals which represent the moon and the fertile and Divine Female lay eggs which represent the sun and the male and the seed. We’ll tell the Greek story of Kore, the maiden-daughter of the Grain-Mother Demeter. Kore was stolen by her uncle Hades to the world of the departed spirits to become Persephone, no longer a maiden; she is permitted each spring to return to her mother’s world, to earth and to us. We’ll tell of Isis lovingly putting the broken parts of Osiris together as he lay dead on the riverbank. Mother Nile returns bringing nourishment to the great fields of grain, and Osiris is brought back to life. Babylonian Ishtar rescues Tammuz from the Underworld. Phoenicians tell a similar story of Adonis and Aphrodite.

And in some UU churches, we’ll tell stories this morning about spring cleaning, about feeling the warm sunshine, about getting out of Winter’s confinements so that our bodies and minds might be set free. Easter, we might say, is about renewal and liberation, rescue and revivification.

But I say, Easter is also about our friend Jesus. A Jesus who we have long called our leader. (You can see it written right there, on the wall!) Easter is about the aftermath of Jesus’s experience of being put to death by the state. Easter is about capital punishment.

This session of the Maryland General Assembly has been about capital punishment. Our senators and delegates have outlawed capital punishment in Maryland, our Governor gave this issue his highest attention and will soon sign the bill into law. From one perspective the matter is now settled, capital punishment has been replaced with life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. We needn’t bother to talk about it any more.

But I imagine that we yet have something to say about the death penalty. I imagine we will have an extended conversation among our citizens in the next 18 months as supporters of the death penalty organize to take this law to popular referendum, as they have sworn to do.

In Maryland, a recent Washington Post poll reports that about sixty per cent of Marylanders think we should have some form of death penalty. The poll shares some expected data: that men tend to be stronger supporters of the death penalty than women; that white people tend to be more supportive than people of color; that Republicans by a very slim differential tend to be more in favor of capital punishment than Democrats. But overall, even in as Democratic Party-dominated a state as ours, fewer than forty per cent of the people think that the death penalty should be abolished, that capital punishment should be replaced by life in prison.

As a matter of fact, many people think that the law adopted three years ago limiting the death penalty to those with a positive DNA identification, with videotaped confessions or video footage that proves the guilt of the person committing a heinous crime makes the death penalty in Maryland flawless. With such evidence, they say, the state will never make a mistake.

And yet . . .

And yet, every day the Innocence Project identifies new cases of people sitting on Death Row where verdicts were proved by current forensic standards to be wrong. Most infamous in Maryland was the case of Kirk Bloodsworth, who was convicted in 1985. He spent 8 years in prison, two on Death Row, before being exonerated 20 years ago. Eyewitnesses misidentified Bloodsworth, the government misconducted its case, and ultimately more modern DNA testing disproved his involvement in sexual assault, rape and first degree murder. Bloodsworth was the first person exonerated from Death Row due to post-conviction DNA testing; he was released from prison and later pardoned.

Many argue that as our current law provides a much higher evidentiary standard, so no innocent person will be sentenced to death according to this theory. Yet what this law does is to make the evidence available in a case more important than the crime. Once, the nature of the crime put someone at risk for capital punishment. The most heinous crimes would result in the most extreme punishment.

If the factor that leads to the death penalty is not the crime but the available evidence—DNA, video recording, etc.—then the application of a sentence of death becomes frivolous. Many Death Penalty opponents already argue that capital punishment is not applied evenly, that poor people and people of color and especially people of color who committed crimes against white people are far more likely to face the death penalty. The law as it has stood in Maryland for the past three years has not addressed this concern. Instead, it has added its own set of inequalities.

Some argue, “If you take a life, why should you be allowed to keep your own life?” This is not consistent with how we attempt to find justice under our law. If you are an arsonist, for example, the state does not set fire to your house. If you are a belligerent, the state does not beat you up. If, forgive me, you are a rapist, the state does not rape you.

Our system seeks to find justice by depriving you not of your life, but of your freedom. Liberty has a high value in our culture, and depriving someone of their liberty is a high penalty for the commission of crimes against people, against property, against the state.

For these reasons, I stand in support of the law passed by our legislature on March 15. I share Holly Near’s sentiment when she asks the question:

Why do we kill people who are killing people
to show that killing people is wrong?
What a foolish notion that war is called devotion
When the greatest warriors are the ones that stand for peace.

I believe that this is consistent with my own sense of my own worth and dignity, my sense of the worth and dignity of each person, the offended, the offender, the victim, the executioner. I struggle with this, but I believe that my faith has called me to this position; and I have signed a statement that if someone were to take my life, I would not want the state to take the offender’s life.


The Jesus story that we tell on Easter includes this beautiful mosaic, this icon, that stands before us each week, this picture of our Rabbi, our teacher, our leader (the sign says). Look at that—this is a story of invitation: a welcoming chalice at the center of a welcoming table. All are welcome, even, in this iconography, those who are confused, those who are indifferent, those who are excited, those who will betray, who will participate in the death of the teacher, will offer the teacher up to be handed over to the state for execution.

The Jesus execution story itself is riddled with challenge. Was the trial fair? Could it have been? The story is told of a mute defendant, a silent Jesus arrested and dragged to trial, railroaded by a complicated court system—a religious court making one finding, an imperial governor asked to carry out the execution. Even a frivolous application of the sentence of death is there in the story. Governor Pontius Pilate asks the crowd: who shall I kill and who release? Two Jesuses are before you. Shall we kill the one who calls himself the Son of [Hu]man[ity], or shall we kill Jesus bar-Abbas (Jesus the son of the Father)? And the crowd says, “Set the son of the Father free; set the son of the Father free; kill the son of humanity!” It is a frivolous decision. It could have gone either way, the capital punishment in this story, it could have gone either way. The story connected to that mosaic says that it was the son of the Father who was released, the son of humanity that the crowd chose to be killed.

In 1919, in the United States, in the wake of World War I and in the midst of a severe economic recession, and especially after the consolidation of the Russian Revolution, immigrants with radical political views began to rounded up in the cities of the United States to be deported to other countries that would take them. This wave of anti-immigrant hysteria was headed by Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer with his rising special assistant J. Edgar Hoover. President Woodrow Wilson, who sang in the choir of this church when he was a student at Johns Hopkins, said that immigrants “had poured poison into the very arteries of our national life. . . . Such creatures of passion, disloyalty and anarchy must be crushed out.”

In South Braintree, Massachusetts, a robbery occurred on payday at the Slater-Morrill shoe factory. A payroll clerk was killed. The police quickly settled on two immigrants, two Italian activists, Bartolomeo Vanzetti and Nicola Sacco. When they were taken in for questioning, they were evasive, fearful in the anti-immigrant political climate, and halting in their use of English. Anarchist and union literature was found in their homes and the car they were using to visit worksites—to agitate—and they were quickly identified as the prime suspects.

The Sacco and Vanzetti Defense Committee included Gertrude Winslow, a founder of the Community Church, an early Universalist and Unitarian congregation. Guided by their social vision, Mrs. Winslow and her co-religionists raised funds for Sacco and Vanzetti’s defense, translated their letters, wrote their own opinionated letters to the editor, and gave English lessons to the men in prison and to their community. When the trial ended in convictions for first-degree murder, Mrs. Winslow sought grounds for appeal, and later clemency. After Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on a newly-constructed electric chair, as 20,000 people gathered on Boston Common to hold vigil and protest, and then after more than 10,000 people marched in a funeral cortege that took two hours to pass, Mrs. Winslow and her Committee began to raise questions not only about the trial, but about the judicial system in Massachusetts and the death penalty itself. Four months after the executions, a judicial commission charges with examining the case questioned Judge Webster Thayer’s refusal to grant a new trial, and recommended a change to practice, that the Supreme Judicial Court be given the authority to call for a retrial over the objection of lower courts. They questioned a number of judicial and police actions, and expressed doubt that Sacco and Vanzetti should have been executed.

Mrs. Winslow mounted a broad campaign to do away with the death penalty in Massachusetts. This campaign energized a generation of activists, and began a movement that led to the repeal of the death penalty in Massachusetts and seventeen other states and now, for the first time south of the Mason-Dixon line, in Maryland, the Free State.


It feels like something hopeful. It feels like a possibility for the human family. It feels like a resurrection.

Easter, in my mind, is about hope. Hope that in spite of the many challenges we human beings encounter, hope that in spite of the many mistakes our human systems engender, hope that in spite of our confusions and fears, we humans have the capacity to change things. We have the capacity to hold to the vision of a Beloved Community which will inspire lives of hope: corrective action beyond mistakes, richer knowing beyond misunderstanding, cooperation beyond mistrust, maybe even life beyond death; Easter is about hope. What we learn from many instances of capital punishment can inspire us to be another people, can encourage us to do it another way.

And then I may say, in even as theologically diverse and welcoming place as this, “Happy Easter,” “Happy Easter,” and fully mean it. Blessed be. 

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