On April 29, 2014, the state of Oklahoma attempted to execute Clayton Lockett, who pleaded guilty in 2000 to kidnapping, beating up and shooting 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman, before burying her alive. Lockett's execution commenced at 6:23 p.m. when he was injected with a drug cocktail. Thirty-three minutes after he first received the toxins, the process was halted. At 7:06 p.m. Lockett was declared dead after he went into cardiac arrest. Documents later revealed that there was an insufficient amount of drugs to finish the execution. A second execution scheduled later that night was put on hold.
Lockett's botched execution has once again resumed a long-running national debate over the morality of the death penalty. A practice implemented by British colonists who originally called for hangings for petty thieves and Benedict Arnolds alike, Michigan became the first state to place restrictions on the death penalty in 1846. Many states soon followed its lead and included their own restrictions for which crimes fell under capital punishment.
While the death penalty has long had its detractors, as technology has created new ways of taking the lives of perpetrators, such as the invention of the electric chair, later the gas chamber, and most recently lethal injection, increased support has often followed. Today, nearly four decades after the death penalty was reinstated, a 2013 Gallup poll suggests that 60 percent of Americans currently support the death penalty for convicted murderers. (This figure is the lowest number in more than 40 years; the high came in 1994 when 80 percent of respondents answered in the affirmative.)
Though the majority of Americans find capital punishment acceptable, Evangelicals and conservative Christians share little consensus on the issue and even some of its defenders are willing to acknowledge that the process may be less than ideal.
In 2004, Chuck Colson, the late Christian thinker, founder of the ministry for the incarcerated Prison Fellowship and longtime opponent of the death penalty announced an about face on his position. Colson wrote that despite his grave reservations about the way in which capital punishment is administered in the U.S. and his doubts about whether it actually served as a deterrent, his views on justice and mercy ultimately led him to change his mind.
"While we take no pleasure in defining the contours of this difficult ethical issue, the Christian community nevertheless is called upon to articulate standards of biblical justice, even when this may be unpopular," he wrote. "Capital justice, I have come to believe, is part of that non-negotiable standard. A moral obligation requires civil government to punish crime, and consequently, to enforce capital punishment, albeit under highly restricted conditions."
"Fallible humans will continue to work for justice. But fallible as the system might be, part of the Christian's task is to remind surrounding culture that actions indeed have consequences - in this life and the life to come," he concluded.
Dr. Albert Mohler, the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, voiced his support for the death penalty in an op-ed for CNN last week entitled, "Why Christians Should Support the Death Penalty," but not before acknowledging the shortcomings of the status quo including the "economic and racial injustice in how the death penalty is applied," and that while "the law itself is not prejudiced, the application of the death penalty often is."
"I believe that Christians should hope, pray and strive for a society in which the death penalty, rightly and rarely applied, would make moral sense. This would be a society in which there is every protection for the rights of the accused, and every assurance that the social status of the murderer will not determine the sentence for the crime," wrote Mohler.
"Christians should work to ensure that there can be no reasonable doubt that the accused is indeed guilty of the crime. We must pray for a society in which the motive behind capital punishment is justice, and not merely revenge," he stated.
Not all of his fellow conservatives have voiced such vociferous support as Mohler, who ended his column arguing that "God affirmed the death penalty for murder as he made his affirmation of human dignity clear to Noah. Our job is to make it clear to our neighbors."
WORLD Magazine, a conservative weekly publication last year published a multiple part-series where editor-in-chief Marvin Olasky personally talked with over a half-dozen inmates on death row and juxtaposed the U.S. capital punishment system against the Bible's. His conclusion?
"Capital punishment isn't wrong but life imprisonment without parole is a legitimate substitute," penned Olasky on November, 30, 2013, in his final column on the topic, dubbing it an issue where "subjects different sides can cite biblical backup, but careful study allows biblical conclusions — although differences of opinion remain."
Some have gone further than Olasky. In 2013, Jay Sekulow, who heads the conservative Christian advocacy group the American Center for Law and Justice, helped found Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty, which debuted at CPAC last year.
"Conservatives should question how the death penalty actually works in order to stay true to small government, reduction in wasteful spending, and respect for human life," noted Sekulow in a press release announcing the group's formation.
Sekulow also is quoted in CCDP's website arguing that although the death penalty may not be "unconstitutional per se," he nevertheless opposes it because of his "moral view, and that is that the taking of life is not the way to handle even the most significant of crimes."
"Who amongst anyone is not above redemption? I think we have to be careful in executing final judgment. The one thing my faith teaches me — I don't get to play God. I think you are short-cutting the whole process of redemption…I don't want to be the person that stops that process from taking place."
Other critics of the death penalty, are Bryan Stevenson, an African-American civil rights, public interest lawyer, and Christian, who spent much of his career representing death row inmates. Stevenson actively critiques the American criminal justice system at large, pointing out that the "the biggest factor that shapes the outcomes in the criminal justice system is actually not race but wealth."
"Alabama, even in death penalty cases, doesn't provide lawyers to people who are literally dying for legal assistance," Stevenson explained in an interview with AL.com in 2012. "We've got over a dozen people on death row today who cannot find a lawyer, and the state doesn't provide them with that. Half of the people on our death row were defended by lawyers who, by statute, could not be paid more than $1,000 for the time they worked on the case out of court. That creates a barrier to fair and reliable judgments."
Stevenson also challenged a system that he believes has sent innocent people to death.
"I say the question is not really, 'Do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit?' The question is, 'Do we deserve to kill if we have this kind of error rate?'"
According to a report from the National Academy of Sciences released in March, from 1973 to 2004, 1.6 percent of those sentenced to death in the U.S. — 138 prisoners — were exonerated and released because of innocence," according to The Associated Press.