Death penalty cases said to have 'enormous complexity'

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (BP) -- With death penalty cases making headlines in Arkansas, California and Alabama, pastors in the affected states have expressed diverse views on capital punishment while underscoring the "enormous complexity" of the issue.

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In Arkansas, three convicted murderers -- Jack Jones, Marcel Williams and Ledell Lee -- have been executed in the past week, according to media reports, with Kenneth Williams scheduled to die April 27. Originally, the state sought to execute eight inmates before a sedative used in its lethal injection process expired at the end of the month. Four of the executions are on hold as inmates' final appeals are considered.

California, which has not executed anyone in 11 years, "could come close to resuming executions in the next year," according to an Associated Press report.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday (April 24) in an Alabama death row case hinging on whether the state must provide defendants with mental health experts to assist in their defenses.

Amid the flurry of capital punishment news, Arkansas pastor Ronnie Floyd issued a blog post April 24 noting "10 biblical realities to consider about capital punishment." Among his arguments:

-- "According to Scripture, capital punishment is permissible if the evidence about the accused is more than clear, overwhelming, and just. (Genesis 9:6; Romans 13:4)";

-- "The justice system must be equitable and just regardless of race, class, or culture. (Deuteronomy 19:15; Deuteronomy 1:17; Leviticus 19:14)";

-- "Every person should always be treated with the highest dignity, including those who receive capital punishment, by administering it in the most benevolent way possible. (Genesis 1:27)";

-- "Eternal salvation is possible for anyone awaiting capital punishment, through their personal repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ and Him alone. (Ephesians 2:8-9; Romans 10:9-13)"

The "simplicity and clarity" of a brief list of principles "does not diminish the enormous complexity of this issue," wrote Floyd, immediate past SBC president and pastor of Cross Church in northwest Arkansas. "As we wrestle through this issue, we do so with humility and honesty, not with arrogance or judgment toward anyone."

Speculation that California could resume executions was prompted by the approach of an April 26 court-ordered deadline for corrections officials to submit revised lethal injection rules to state regulators. The deadline was imposed in response to a request by families of murder victims angered at California's three-year delay in issuing revisions and the resultant delay in executions, according to AP.

The proposed rules call for lethal drugs to be administered a maximum of five times in 10-minute intervals. If an inmate is still alive after five lethal doses, his or her execution will be halted and medical assistance summoned, AP reported.

In a related case, the California Supreme Court is scheduled to rule by August on challenges to a 2016 ballot initiative in which voters called for speeding up the death penalty process by a 51-percent majority.

Miguel Rodriguez, director of Gateway Seminary's North Bay School of Theology for inmates at San Quentin State Prison, told Baptist Press the restart of executions would be a "negative" development. San Quentin, located some eight miles north of Gateway's former main campus in Mill Valley, Calif., is the site of California's death chamber.

"The biblical argument [for capital punishment] is based on the Old Testament largely," said Rodriguez, pastor of Lincoln Hill Community Church in San Rafael, Calif. Jesus "challenged" the "eye for eye" approach to justice and urged His followers to respond "to violence in a nonviolent way."

While "the state is the instrument of God in carrying out justice," Rodriguez said, referencing Romans 13:4, some calls for capital punishment seem to be based on "vengeance rather than justice." Executing criminals will not yield "restorative justice," he said.

At oral arguments in the Alabama case, the U.S. Supreme Court's nine justices "appeared closely divided," according to NPR, with Justice Anthony Kennedy appearing "likely to cast the deciding vote."

At issue is whether James McWilliams, a convicted murderer with alleged mental health challenges, was entitled to his own psychiatric expert at sentencing or whether a single court-appointed mental health expert could provide evidence and conclusions for both sides.

Justice Stephen Breyer of the court's liberal bloc argued McWilliams "certainly did not get" the legal help required by law while Justice Neil Gorsuch of the court's conservative wing suggested requiring a separate state-appointed defense expert could lead to a slippery slope of requirements for other types of expert witnesses, NPR reported.

Since McWilliams' sentencing, Alabama has begun assisting defendants with mental health experts, but the state argued his sentence need not be overturned, according to NPR.

The SBC, speaking in a 2000 resolution, "urge[d] that capital punishment be administered only when the pursuit of truth and justice result in clear and overwhelming evidence of guilt." The resolution said capital punishment is "a legitimate form of punishment for those guilty of murder or treasonous acts that result in death" and called for "vigilance, justice, and equality in the criminal justice system."

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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