A few years back, there was a TV show called “In the Heat of the Night.”  It was a spin-off of the movie by the same name. The series starred Carroll O'Connor as Chief William O. 'Bill' Gillespie and Howard E. Rollins Jr. as Chief of Detectives Virgil Tibbs.

The events of last week (the execution of Troy Davis) have unsettled me in a way I did not think was possible.

In one of the shows entitled; “A Trip Upstate” (1989) George Brownlow sends word to Bill Gillespie that he wants to see the Chief at Parchman prison on the day of his execution. George was the driver in a bank holdup. Two bank robbers killed a guard and a customer before Bill killed them in return. As an accomplice, George was sentenced to die.

Religion blog: Reflections on Troy Davis

At Parchman, Bill sees George, who persuades Gillespie to stay until he is gone. The execution is devastating to the Chief. (Thank you to Internet Movie Database).

When the Chief returns, he and Detective Tibbs have a conversation about capital punishment and if it is the right thing to do. Tibbs points out the U.S. Constitution makes reference that no cruel or unusual punishment can be administered. It’s at this point the Chief relates his experience with the person who was executed. After hours of listening and watching the condemned man, he comes to the conclusion there is no way to invoke the death penalty and have it not be cruel or unusual.

He then gives this example (I couldn’t find the script, so I’m paraphrasing this from memory).

“You take the man who is about to be executed for his crime and you sit him in a chair in front of you. You then tell him he is forgiven and that he is free to go. Then in the moment you see in his face the relief, the happiness at such good fortune, you tell him he is free to leave and go home.  As he stands and turns to leave for his newfound freedom, you step up behind him and shoot him in the back of the head.”

I was stunned. In that bit of TV writing I recognized there is no way to kill another human being without being cruel or unusual.

At 6:30 p.m. last Wednesday on CNN, it was announced that the execution had been put on hold as the U.S. Supreme Court gave the case a final consideration. His final hours were exactly what torture is all about. The sad thing about it is the State of Georgia was really trying to do the right thing by waiting.  According to Georgia state law they didn’t have to, they could have proceeded.

So, now I sit here and think, “damn, this was a cruel execution.”

Thanks to Amnesty International and their website for some basic facts about the death penalty.

“Since 1973, over 130 people have been released from death rows throughout the country due to evidence of their wrongful convictions. In 2003 alone, 10 wrongfully convicted defendants were released from death row,” according to AI.

Factors leading to wrongful convictions include:

Inadequate legal representation
Police and prosecutorial misconduct
Perjured testimony and mistaken eyewitness testimony
Racial prejudice
Jailhouse “snitch” testimony
Suppression and/or misinterpretation of mitigating evidence
Community/political pressure to solve a case”

How on earth can we continue to fight for a system of such a final solution if it has been wrong 130 times and maybe 131 times if you count Mr. Davis? How can “we the people” allow the government to kill even one person if the system is that broken? Those who are constantly harping about us being a Christian nation do not get this.

At least Governor George Ryan of Illinois, in January 2000, said, “I cannot support a system which, in its administration, has proven so fraught with error and has come so close to the ultimate nightmare, the state’s taking of innocent life… Until I can be sure that everyone sentenced to death in Illinois is truly guilty, until I can be sure with moral certainty that no innocent man or woman is facing a lethal injection, no one will meet that fate.” Thereby “declaring a moratorium on executions in his state, after the 13th Illinois death row inmate had been released from prison due to wrongful conviction. In the same time period, 12 others had been executed.”

I shudder to think how many people have been executed for a crime they did not commit.

How about this little factoid: In a 1990 report, the non-partisan U.S. General Accounting Office found “a pattern of evidence indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing, and imposition of the death penalty.” The study concluded that a defendant was several times more likely to be sentenced to death if the murder victim was white. This has been confirmed by the findings of many other studies that, holding all other factors constant, the single most reliable predictor of whether someone will be sentenced to death is the race of the victim.

Wow, the system is not only broken but it appears to have a deep bias. The most troubling thing for me is that “Capital Punishment” is about as far from a Christian response as one can get.

In the book, “The Shack”, the main character Mac is having a conversation with God about his inability to forgive the man who brutally raped and murder his very young daughter. The character of God says this in response to Mac’s trouble with forgiveness;

“For you to forgive this man is for you to release him to me and allow me to redeem him.”

I know this is not a scriptural quote but isn’t that really what Jesus taught? There is no real way we can decide a person should die and be justified.  All of the New Testament is about “agape,” unconditional love and forgiveness.  So as Christians, how do we come to the conclusion that someone is beyond God’s reach and it’s ok for us to come up with all kinds of fancy ways to kill them?

People who commit heinous crimes against others are a reason that calls for us to get revenge, get even, to get a pay back.  However, while that may be our knee jerk reaction, that is not what we are taught… instead, we are taught to let the first one without sin cast the first stone. We are taught to forgive not once but seventy times seven.

Forgiveness acknowledges that a wrong was committed.
Forgiveness changes us from a victim to a victor.
Forgiveness takes the power from a bad act and turns the act to good.
Forgiveness is the only road to freedom.

Jesus, as near as I can tell, never made the act of forgiveness a bargaining chip for revenge and judgment.

I did not know Troy Davis, nor did I really know a lot about his particular case, except that he was convicted of shooting an unarmed off-duty police officer. Was this crime anymore heinous then the fella in Texas who dragged a black father to his death and was then executed on the same day as Troy Davis?

I also know there was enough hell raised around Mr. Davis’s case to know that something was terrible wrong.  I also know there was no hell raised about the execution of the man in Texas and this too says something is very wrong.  Has our lust for blood, retribution and power become such we now want God’s job? Do we get to decide a color code for heinous crimes and then ignore our faith teachings and kill?

A presidential candidate recently bragged about how many people had been put to death in Texas, while claiming to be a born again Christian. The audience was filled with Christians and they cheered his accomplishment. Really? Oh my God, really?

This might be a stretch here but I would guess most of the folks in the audience and the presidential candidate himself are also what some would call “pro-life.” How does this square with “Capital Punishment”? I mean, if all life is sacred and cannot be terminated; does that not make these folks who support “Capital Punishment” nothing more than “late term abortionists”?

Our Christian faith and its leader Jesus are very clear on this point. We do not have the ability to make clear judgments which allow the government to take a life. 130 plus wrong convictions is all the evidence we need.

I wonder who in this whole debacle showed more mercy and justice? Troy Davis, who asked for a polygraph test and was denied, said as his final words; “The incident that night was not my fault, I did not have a gun… I did not personally kill your son, father and brother. I am innocent. Those about to take my life, may God have mercy on your souls, may God bless your souls.”

Was the State of Georgia merciful in waiting to see if there was some “legal” reason to stop the execution or were they just covering their political ass?

Today, I am heart-broken and weep at the thought there are those who really believe it is okay to play God. I am heart-broken that in the end there are far more than a few who can see past forgiveness and a direct command from Jesus; “Love one another as I have loved you,” and find creative ways to come up with all kinds of justification as to why it is ok to ignore the teachings of the one that Christians call Savior.

I have a better understanding of why Jesus sat on a hill outside of Jerusalem and wept. May God have mercy on us all.


Rev. Paul M. Turner is the Senior Pastor of Gentle Spirit Christian Church of Atlanta. For more information, please visit www.gentlespirit.org or e-mail info@gentlespirit.org.