The topic this paper will focus on is how conservative Christians have influenced policy formulation surrounding capital punishment in the United States (US) and how this influence is not necessarily explicit, but rather, a part of the US political system that is so ingrained it is often taken for granted. It will also demonstrate the numerous flaws in such policy decisions, and the impact of these failings, primarily in the area of intellectual disability (which herein will be referred to as mental retardation in order to be consistent with American terminology). The main issues that will be examined are the Contract with America, and following from that, the Limitations of Death Penalty Appeals for Capital Crimes Bill. This bill ultimately resulted in the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Bill, which will also be analyzed. The influence of the Christian Coalition party will be explored, as will the stance on capital punishment of two prominent former and current US governors. Capital punishment is a divisive issue that has caused rifts within Christendom in the US. Therefore, notable figures within Christendom involved in the debate over the Death penalty will be discussed, as will the effects that such people have had on policy formulation in this area.
CONVERGENCE OF DEMOCRATIC AND REPUBLICAN OPINION
House Republican leaders first made the Contract with America public in Washington on September 27, 1994. This so-called contract was in fact a party manifesto presented in the guise of a contract between the Republican Party and the general public. The principles set forward in this "contract" were "readily identifiable as the hallmarks of current conservative ideology".1)
Policies that were obviously identifiable as those of the far Christian Right were not included in the contract, in order to avoid alienating middle-of-the-road voters. There were strict new bills concerning crime, and these were set out under the heading "Promises Made, Promises Kept," and were part of the policy agenda contained within "Restoring the Dream" (the House Republican sequel to the Contract with America). One of these bills was the Limitations of Death Penalty Appeals for Capital Crimes, which "places a one-year limitation on the filing of death penalty appeals. This act will facilitate the swift execution of convicted cold-blooded murderers, such as those responsible for the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City".2) This bill, like the five other ones that came under the "Promises" headline, did not become law in its own right, but was included in more in depth legislation that was passed by both Houses and signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996.3)
In April 1996, President Clinton signed the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Bill into law, in order to accomplish the goals detailed in the Limitations of Death Penalty Appeals for Capital Crimes Bill. That is, a one-year deadline for filing habeas petitions was created, and successive appeals were restricted.4) One major omission of this legislation is that it did not include any requirement for adequate legal representation of poor capital defendants. Approximately 99% of death row inmates are indigent, and as a result, cannot afford adequate legal representation. It is incredibly difficult for a defendant's appellate attorney to prove that inadequate defence caused the jury to reach a guilty verdict, when there are numerous variables in each case, which cause juries to reach certain decisions.5) This has serious implications for capital defendants, especially those who are mentally retarded. With the support of victim rights groups, several governors, including past and present governors of Texas, have vetoed bills that aim to prevent the execution of mentally retarded offenders. Defence lawyers must be able to prove to the jury that the defendant is mentally retarded if they are to avoid a death sentence. It seems, and will be discussed in more detail further on, that without adequate legal representation, this is very difficult.
Two US governors will be examined in this section, the first of which is former Texas governor George W. Bush. Bush served as governor of Texas from 1994 to 2000. He was aligned with the Christian Coalition in the fact that he was pro-life. However, he did make "a broader and more moderate ideological pitch than do most in the (Christian Coalition) movement".6) Another issue on which the Texas Christian Coalition and Governor Bush agreed was the necessity of capital punishment. During his tenure as governor, Bush oversaw 152 executions, which included the execution of the mentally retarded, for example, Mario Marquez (IQ of 65) in 1995,7) and David Oliver Cruz (IQ of 64-76) in 2000.8) On April 20, 1999, the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee passed the bill SB 326, 5 votes to 0. This bill was an initiative by Democrat Senator Rodney Ellis. He commented that "as a supporter of the death penalty, I know that prohibiting the death penalty against the mentally retarded is the right thing to do . . . it is time for Texas to . . . stop executing the mentally retarded".9) This bill would ban the use of the death penalty against offenders with an IQ of 65 or under. Earlier that week, the Texas Senate had voted 23-7 to pass that bill.10) However, Governor Bush vetoed it. Bush's decision on the execution of mentally retarded offenders met with a lot of opposition. Former Christian conservative allies, such as the founder of the American Christian Coalition, Pat Robertson, voiced this lack of support. In 2000, Robertson said that he supported a moratorium on the death penalty because it is not always applied fairly.11) Other conservative Christians did not share Bush's attitude to the execution of mentally retarded offenders. For example, in 2001, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life sponsored a public debate on the morality of capital punishment. Representing the pro-death penalty side was Barrett Duke, the vice president for research at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Conference. He commented that "there is a point at which we must say that a person is not mentally competent to really have been able to understand the consequences of his actions, and that that should be taken into consideration",12) This attitude indicates that although the Christian Coalition of America, and indeed, Christian conservatives in general usually support capital punishment, they do not naively assume that the application of the death penalty is the culmination of fair occurrences within the criminal justice system. In the US, only 1-2% of murderers are sentenced to death, and only a small percentage of these people get executed.13) This tiny fraction is unlikely to be made up of the most evil, unrepentant murderers. It is virtually certain to only consist of offenders who are poor, and as Attorney Millard Farmer comments, "defendants who have a history of child abuse . . . or who are mentally retarded".14)
It is important to attempt to understand the reasoning behind Bush's vetoing of this bill. Academics such as James Q. Wilson have suggested that Bush foresaw the problems that can arise when attempting to define mental retardation. His decision not to accept the Ellis Bill indicated his faith in juries being able to assess the mental competency of offenders, rather than experts being required to do this.15) A spokesperson commented soon after Bush vetoed the Ellis Bill that "Governor Bush believes that the jury should consider all the evidence regarding mental impairment and decide whether a death sentence is appropriate".16) As previously demonstrated, the indigence of capital defendants leads to them having incompetent legal representatives. Therefore, this outlook is problematic because it hinges on defence lawyers being competent enough to be able to prove mental impairment in their client, and typically, this is not the case. Bush's stance on capital punishment during his governance of Texas can, at least in part, be attributed to the influence of conservative Christians in that state. There is a definite trend for the Texas Republican Party to be considerably conservative on economic, and more recently social, matters.17) It seems that this conservatism can be attributed to the influence of churches in Texas, including many Baptist and fundamentalist congregations. These churches have provided "fertile ground for mobilization by the Christian Right".18) The influence of such groups in this state is so entrenched that it is almost taken for granted that conservative Christian values will permeate politics and policy making.
Another state that is interesting in regards to conservative Christian influence on politics is Florida. Florida has had 56 executions since 1976, making it the state with the fifth highest number of executions, behind Missouri, Oklahoma, Virginia and Texas.19) However, the influence of Christian conservatives on criminal justice, and indeed, other policy areas, in this state is not nearly as significant as in Texas. Florida is seen to promote values of individualism, and as a result, the sense of group membership and common interests is underdeveloped in this state. This is detrimental to the influence of conservative Christian groups, which require at least some degree of concurrence in values amongst supporters. Therefore, in Florida, it has been "difficult to inject religiosity into politics".20) Although Florida Governor Jeb Bush is a firm advocate of capital punishment, this stance has not been immensely influenced by pressure from conservative Christian groups, as has been the case in Texas. Governor Bush has also taken a different stance on the execution of mentally retarded offenders from former and current governors of Texas. Florida does not permit the execution of such offenders, which, as previously demonstrated, is more in keeping with the views of many conservative Christian groups and individuals than Texas' position is.
CHRISTIAN OPPONENTS AND PROPONENTS OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
As previously mentioned, more conservative Christian individuals and groups tend to support capital punishment. The Christian Coalition of America is one such organization. This political party has state affiliates, including the Christian Coalition of Texas. According to the homepage for the Christian Coalition of Texas, "capital punishment is a useful tool for our legal system . . where the crime committed by the accused is so evil as to warrant the execution of those found guilty".21) Since 1976, Texas has executed 304 death row inmates. The state closest behind Texas is Virginia, with 88 executions in the same period.22) There is no doubt that that conservative Christians have influenced policy surrounding capital punishment in this state. In fact, conservative Christians from groups such as the Texas Christian Coalition have used the Republican Party as an avenue for advocating their ideals.23)
Although it may seem that the issue of capital punishment has been a divisive force within Christianity, there is actually more agreement than first appears. Far-right Christian movements tend to support capital punishment but there is now "a remarkable consensus against the death penalty held by the widest range of organizations in America".24) In 1999, the US Catholic Bishops proclaimed their opposition to the death penalty, saying that "we see the death penalty as perpetuating a cycle of violence and promoting a sense of vengeance in our culture".25) Most religious communities in the US now oppose the death penalty. In a study by the National Council of Churches, it was found that "Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Disciples of Christ, Mennonites, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Catholics agree . . . that capital punishment is wrong".26) Notable anti-death penalty figures in the Christian community have attempted to influence public opinion and policy making in this area. For instance, during the 1980s, the four Catholic Bishops of Massachusetts spoke out publicly and vigorously against the death penalty. Despite this, in November 1982, citizens of Massachusetts (the majority of whom are Catholic) voted to bring back capital punishment, although this was eventually vetoed by Governor Michael Dukakis.27)
Another religious figure who is prominent in the anti death penalty movement is Louisiana nun Sister Helen Prejean. Prejean, who has been heavily involved in providing spiritual counseling for death row inmates, as well as working to promote the rights of families of murder victims, has commented that "those who justify (capital punishment) can cite as authority numerous passages in the Bible . . . I can't accept that God . . . goes about trucking in retaliation . . . I can't accept that any group of humans is trustworthy enough to mete out so ultimate and irreversible a punishment as death.28) Prejean currently heads the Moratorium Campaign in the US. This movement challenges proposed legislation that seeks to uphold capital punishment, while supporting that which encourages a moratorium. For example, the Moratorium Campaign is lending its support to the National Death Penalty Act of 2003, which is sponsored by five Democrats, including Russ Feingold. This bill aims to place a moratorium on executions by the Federal Government, and urges the States to do the same. Under this bill, a National Committee on the Death Penalty would examine the fairness of the imposition of the death penalty. On January 9, 2003, this bill was referred to the Senate committee, read twice, and then referred to the Committee on the Judiciary. To date, this is the last major action that has taken place in relation to this bill.29)
It is evident that capital punishment is a controversial issue that has caused division in the US along political and religious lines. Although there has been agreement between Democrats and Republicans on legislation pertaining to capital punishment, this concurrence has usually occurred in exceptional circumstances where differences between individuals' opinions due to party affiliation become far less significant. For example, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Bill saw a convergence of opinion between Republicans and Democrats because this legislation came about in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. Usually, however, capital punishment tends to be most heavily favoured by conservative Christian groups, and Republicans who hold conservative Christian values. This is especially evident in Texas, where past and present governors have overseen the execution of 304 offenders. The Christian Right has immeasurably influenced Texas state politics, whereas in other states that retain the death penalty, this is not necessarily the case. There is also a religious as well as a political divide, in the sense that many religious groups are now denouncing capital punishment. This anti-death penalty movement is becoming an increasingly significant force, with legislation now before the Committee of the Judiciary proposing a moratorium on the death penalty. Even conservative Christians who have traditionally supported capital punishment are now criticizing it on the grounds that it is not always fairly applied. The controversy about the morality of the death penalty in general has extended to specific issues such as the execution of mentally retarded offenders. States that still allow the imposition of the death penalty on such offenders often do so on the grounds that they believe juries are able to determine the mental capacity of an offender, rather than an expert doing this. This view vests a lot of faith in defence lawyers being able to prove mental retardation to the jury. Because nearly all capital defendants are poor, they cannot usually afford skilled lawyers who are able to do this. It seems that the broad issue of capital punishment, and the more specific issues contained within it are divisive in a political and religious sense. Religious opponents and proponents of capital punishment have both had immense influence on policy formulation in this area. Religious groups that disapprove of capital punishment are attracting a growing number of supporters. However, it seems that the influence of the Christian Right is so deeply embedded in US political life that it will continue to have a profound effect on policy-making concerning capital punishment.
- Lord Windlesham "Politics. Punishment and Populism" ©1998 Oxford University Press, Inc p125
- Ibid, pp129-130
- Ibid, p131
- Ibid, p138
- Helen Prejean, C.S.J, "Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States" ©1993 by Random House, Inc., New York p47
- John M. Bruce `Texas: A Success Story, at Least for Now' in Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox (Eds.) "God at the Grass Roots, 1996: The Christian Right in American Elections" ©1997 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, United States of America p45
- "Executing the Mentally Retarded" http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?did= 165&scid=1 (date unknown)
- "Texas Execution Information Centre" http://www.txexecutions.org/reports/227.asp (10 August 2000)
- "Ellis Bill to Ban Death Penalty for Mentally Retarded Clears House Hurdle" www.senate.state.tx.us/75r/senate/ members/distl3/pr99/p042099b.htm (date unknown)
- "Catholic World News: Robertson Endorses Moratorium on Death Penalty" http://www.ewnews.com/Browse/2000/04/12685.htm (10 April 2000)
- "Religious Groups' Policies about the Death Penalty" http://www.religioustolerance.org/execut7.htm (July 2001)
- Helen Prejean, C.S.J, "Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States" ©1993 by Random House, Inc., New York p50
- "Executing the Retarded: How to think about a new wedge issue" By James Q. Wilson http://www.nationalreview.com/flashback/flashback-wilson062102.asp (July 23, 2001)
- "Executing the Mentally Retarded Even as Laws Begin to Shift" (from the New York Times) http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?scid=17&did=439 (August 7, 2000)
- Ibid p39
- John M. Bruce `Texas: A Success Story, at Least for Now' in Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox (Eds.) "God at the Grass Roots, 1996: The Christian Right in American Elections" ©1997 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, United States of America p33
- "Execution Statistics Summary -- State and Year (as of 05/16/03)" http://people.smu.edu/rhalperi/summary.html, May 19, 2003
- Kenneth D. Wald and Richard K. Scher `Florida: Losing or Winning? The Odyssey of the Christian Right" in Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox (Eds.) "God at the Grass Roots. 1996: The Christian Right in American Elections" ©1997 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, United States of America p81
- Texas Christian Coalition Websitehttp://www.texascc.org/issues.htm#Capital (date unknown)
- "Execution Statistics Summary -- State and Year (as of 05/16/03)" http://people.smu.edu/rhalperi/swmary.html, May 19, 2003
- John M. Bruce `Texas: A Success Story, at Least for Now' in Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox (Eds.) "God at the Grass Roots, 1996: The Christian Right in American Elections" ©1997 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, United States of America p35
- Robert F. Drinan "The Fractured Dream: America's Divisive Moral Choices" ©1991 The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York p114
- "A Statement of the Administrative Board of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops" http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/national/criminal/appeal.htm (April 2, 1999)
- Robert F. Drinan "The Fractured Dream: America's Divisive Moral Choices" ©1991 The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York p107
- Ibid, p108
- Helen Prejean, C.&J, "Dead Man Walking An Eywitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States" ©1993 by Random House, Inc., New York p123
- "The Moratorium Campaign" http://www.capwiz.com/moratorium/issues/bills/?bill=1235571&size=full (date unknown)
Bruce, John M. `Texas: A Success Story, at Least for Now' in Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox (Eds.) "God at the Grass Roots, 1996: The Christian Right in American Elections"
©1997 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, United States of America
Drinan, Robert F. "The Fractured Dream: America's Divisive Moral Choices"
©1991 The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York
Prejean, Helen. "Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States"
©1993 by Random House, Inc., New York
Wald, Kenneth D. and Richard K. Scher. `Florida: Losing or Winning? The Odyssey of the Christian Right" in Mark J. Rozell and Clyde Wilcox (Eds.) "God at the Grass Roots, 1996: The Christian Right in American Elections"
©1997 by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, United States of America
Windesham, Lord. "Politics, Punishment and Populism" ©1998 Oxford University Press, Inc
"The Moratorium Campaign" http://www.capwiz.com/moratorium/issues/bills/?bill=1235571&size=full (date unknown)
"Catholic World News: Robertson Endorses Moratorium on Death Penalty" http://www.cwnews.com/Browse/2000/04/12685.htm (10 April 2000)
"Executing the Mentally Retarded" http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?did= 165&scid=1 (date unknown)
"Executing the Mentally Retarded Even as Laws Begin to Shifl" (from the New York Times) http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?scid=17&did=439 (August 7, 2000)
"Executing the Retarded: How to think about a new wedge_ issue" By James Q. Wilson http://www.nationalreview.con/flashback/flashback-wilson062102.asp (July 23, 2001)
"Execution Statistics Summary - State and Year (as of 05/16/03)" http://people.smu.edu/rhalperi/summary.html, May 19, 2003
"Religious Groups' Policies about the Death Penalty" http://www.religioustolerance.org/execut7.htm (July 2001)
"Ellis Bill to Ban Death Penalty for Mentally Retarded Clears House Hurdle" www.senate.state.tx.us/75r/senate/ members/distl3/pr99/p042099b.htm (date unknown)
Texas Christian Coalition Website http://www.texascc.org/issues.htm#Capital (date unknown)
"Texas Execution Information Centre" http://www.txexecutions.org/reports/227.asp (10 August 2000)
"A Statement of the Administrative Board of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops" http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/national/criminal/appeal.htm (April 2, 1999)