Impending Execution of 'Crips' Co-Founder Renews Capital Punishment Debate

The impeding execution of a convicted murderer and co-founder of one of the nation's most notorious street gangs is bringing renewed attention to the ongoing debate over capital punishment.

At issue for supporters of Stanley Williams, 52, who has been in San Quentin State prison in California since 1979, is whether a man who has reformed his life while in prison should die by lethal injection on Dec. 13 as ordered by a judge after a recent Supreme Court appeal was denied. On the Christian front, some opponents of the death penalty say any execution is an affront to human life, while others approach the issue as “an eye for an eye” matter.

"I think our role as Church people is every time an execution comes up, we need to be there opposing it. Because each of those people is significant,” said Father Chris Ponnet, pastor of St. Camillus Pastoral Care Center in Boyle Heights in Los Angeles, according to diocese newspaper The Tidings.

However, others say that the Bible is clear on the issue, allowing for the court to decide.

"Principally, from a conservative biblical approach, if you shed a man's blood, by man your blood should be shed," said Kevin Lewis an assistant professor of theology at Biola University, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Williams, also known as "Tookie," co-founded the “Crips” street gang in 1972 and was convicted in 1981 of killing a 7-Eleven clerk and 12 days later, two motel owners and their daughter. Since then, he has written nine children’s books decrying street gangs, and has encouraged the youth to stay out of them. The last resort for Williams is for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to spare his life by granting him clemency.

Although Williams has maintained his innocence regarding the murders he was convicted of, law enforcement official Steve Cooley, the L.A. County District Attorney, called him a “cold-blooded killer,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death

As of July 1, 2005, there were over 3,400 prisoners on death row in the United States, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Last week, U.S. Catholic bishops released a document called "A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death," affirming their opposition to capital punishment.

"While the Old Testament includes some passages about taking the life of one who kills, the Old Testament and the teaching of Christ in the New Testament calls us to protect life, practice mercy, and reject vengeance,” states the document.

In support of that position, the document cites an example in the book of Genesis where Cain is allowed to live but is exiled for life after killing Abel. They also cited the example of the woman accused of adultery, which Jesus would not condemn, "reminding us to be cautious in judging others and to have hope in the possibility of reform and redemption,” the document stated.

However, the death penalty is not absolutely excluded. The document says the act is not “intrinsically evil” as in abortion when an “innocent life” is taken or through euthanasia. Also, according to the document, Church teaching says that when the State can protect its citizens through other non-lethal means as it can in contemporary society, it should not use the death penalty.

On Nov. 14, at a meeting with African American columnists, Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, spoke out in support of the death penalty but said it was not being fairly applied in the United States.

"If you are going to support the death penalty then you have to be as supportive of its equitable and just application," he stated, adding that it would be immoral to support it otherwise, according to the Baptist Press. He said that in the United States, a person is much more likely to be executed if he or she is poor instead of wealthy and and if the convict is a person of color.

An SBC resolution made in June of 2000 cites Genesis 9, and Romans 13 as the biblical basis for supporting the death penalty. In the first reference, God tells Noah that "whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed..." In the latter passage, the Apostle Paul speaks about submitting to the earthly authorities which God has established to carry out punishment.