The Icon of the Crucifixion “Between the Two Thieves,” written in 1711 by Ioannis Moskos, is a multifaceted composition based on western works. In this portion of the icon the great cross with the Crucified is projected at golden depth, while black clouds are spread out around it. St. Dismas, on the left, is crowned by a flying angel, after being promised entrance into Paradise by the Lord. (Public Domain/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

               At the very moment I’m writing this, the state of Arizona was supposed to be taking Aaron Gunches from a surveillance cell at Florence Prison into a different room. In that second room, he was scheduled to be strapped to a gurney, where IV lines would be inserted. Once the lines were inserted and flowing with saline solution, a curtain was supposed to open, offering witnesses an opportunity to hear his final statement. Then, barring no last moment interventions, the warden of the prison was supposed to give a signal to an unknown person, who would begin the flow of pentobarbital into his veins, paralyzing him, slowing his breathing, and finally causing cardiac arrest. Several moments later, Gunches, a convicted murderer, was supposed to be pronounced dead. However, Gunches remains alive today because Governor Katie Hobbs has placed a hold on our state’s capital punishment statutes. As a Christian priest who has ministered to the imprisoned, I am hopeful executions never resume in our state. I also pray for an end to the death penalty in our nation.

               By the time you read this, it will be Good Friday (I am writing on Maundy Thursday, the day that would have been Gunches’s execution day). On Good Friday, we commemorate the unjust execution of the man we worship. Jesus, the Son of God, was put to death by the state in a brutal, shameful manner. While Jesus was not guilty and Gunches is, I still strongly believe that capital punishment is wrong. While many say that lethal injection is a “humane” way to end a killer’s life, is the final outcome any different than it would be if we still used older methods? In this country, the gas chamber, the electric chair, firing squad, and hanging are all still legal methods for carrying out executions. I understand capital punishment is a controversial issue. I understand there are a number of arguments in favor of executions. My graduate theses at the University of Notre Dame was a presentation and essay exploring these arguments. In my thesis, I reached a conclusion that it is time for us to end the practice of killing the incarcerated.

               I understand many good people continue to support capital punishment. I have no judgement for those who disagree with me, but I encourage them to explore the practice more closely. I will explore some of the pro-death penalty arguments with you, hopefully demonstrating that I do have compassion for victims, their families, and the system as a whole. Many people say they believe in the death penalty because it deters crime. This argument says if we keep the practice legal, then people will certainly think twice about committing a murder. And if we can save innocent lives by putting guilty people to death shouldn’t we do that? And my answer would be yes, if that were the case. But statistics do not show any correlation between active death penalty laws and decreased murder rates. In fact, if anything, crime rates are higher where executions are still legal. In our country about half of the states have legal death penalty statutes. Those states actually have higher murder rates than we see in their non-death penalty counterparts. Often when someone ends up on death row, it’s because of what we might call a crime of passion. For example, someone became angry and killed a family member. Other murderers are also the victims of abuse at a younger age, and many have mental illnesses. Whenever anyone takes the life of another, it is a tragedy. But usually in a crime of passion or in a situation of abuse or mental illness, there isn’t a whole lot of thought put into it. The killer is not thinking of consequences. And if they are thinking of consequences, they likely don’t care in that moment. The death penalty is not a deterrent for crime.

               What about ensuring someone will never harm anyone again? This is certainly a good argument. Maybe the death penalty doesn’t deter crime, but it keeps an offender from offending again. I would agree that at a point in our history, this would have been a good argument. Years ago, prisons were not secure. Prison breaks happened. People got out of prison and potentially killed again. But today, prisons are very secure. Higher risk inmates can be separated from lower security areas of the prison. We now have appropriate technology to ensure that someone can be imprisoned for life. Executing an inmate is no longer the only way we can ensure that the inmate will never commit a crime again.

               What about justice for the families of the victims? Certainly we want to show love and compassion to victims and their families. If the execution is healing to them, shouldn’t we move forward? Studies actually show that families of victims are much more likely to find closure earlier when the perpetrator is sentenced to life imprisonment. This is because the families can put the crime behind them and try to make some sense of a normal life. The average stay on death row is upward of a decade, and more than half of US death row inmates have remained on death row for more than 18 years after their convictions. Every time a death date is set or an appeal filed or a date changed, the families are reminded of the crime. It lives fresh in their minds. It doesn’t go away for years and years. And when it does, when we practice a “humane” execution like a lethal injection, they often say it wasn’t harsh enough. The person looked like they went to sleep and never woke up. The closure they awaited simply doesn’t seem to come.

               Well how about saving money? We certainly should execute criminals if it saves money. Why should we continue to feed and house criminals when they’ve committed the worst possible crimes? Again, a valid argument. But the cost of trying, convicting, and carrying out a death sentence in a capital case is significantly higher than the cost of life imprisonment. According to statistics, it costs more than $1 million per inmate in a death penalty case than in a case seeking life imprisonment. This is partly because there are mandatory appeals and countless hours spent trying to ensure we “get it right.” We wouldn’t want to execute an innocent person. Since 1973, 190 American death row inmates have been exonerated from their convictions. So even with all that expense, we can’t be certain we’re getting it right.

               There are number of other reasons to abolish the death penalty. Race is a big one. Although the black population in the United States is about 13 percent, the black population on death row is about 50 percent. The rate is even higher when the victim is white. The most common death row scenario is a black male killer of a white female victim. There is racial bias at play in the US justice system. The bias also is visible in financial brackets. Murderers who can afford to pay qualified lawyers often do not end up on death row. Sometimes they even have their convictions tossed. This isn’t true for poor people. As Sr. Helen Prejean says, “there are no rich people on death row.”

               I know this topic is controversial. And my feelings are not hurt if you do not agree with me. But I have seen firsthand how sitting on death row affects a human being. Death row at San Quentin Prison in California is eerie. As you approach the main gate, you can see the green smokestack vent sitting above the infamous gas chamber. When you enter death row, you see a hand-painted sign in bizarre calligraphy reading “Condemned Row.” The inmates are kept in solitary confinement 23 hours of each day. There are over 650 of them in California and over 110 in Arizona. They indeed committed crimes. In fact, many of them committed horrible crimes. Unthinkable crimes. Crimes that maybe even deserve to see them put to death. But in the chapel at San Quentin there’s an icon. The icon is of Dismas. Remember that on that Good Friday day, Jesus was executed next to two others. One, Dismas, was the penitent thief who asked for Jesus’s mercy. The other, Gestas, mocked Jesus. Jesus assured Dismas that “this day you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Dismas is the patron saint of the imprisoned. His is also my patron saint. When I was confirmed, I took the name Dismas. Why? Because I believe we’re all capable of redemption. None of us is as bad as the worst thing we’ve ever done. Because of Jesus’s promise, we know that Dismas made his way to heaven. While we can believe it’s fairly likely that other saints have made it there, we know with certainty that Dismas is there. On this Good Friday, the day we remember a tragic enforcement of capital punishment, I encourage all of us to be mindful of our criminal justice system and its problems. I commend Governor Hobbs for her decision. Remember that on Easter Day we will renew our baptismal vows together. When we do that, we remember our commitment to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (BCP p. 305). In my opinion, this means working toward ending the practice of capital punishment.

When is Justice Unjust?