Brian Edwards Media

Chain Gangs Tomorrow, Lethal Injections the Day After. Couldn’t Happen Here. Could it?

The State of Virginia will tomorrow almost certainly put to death 41 year old Theresa Lewis for hiring two men to kill her husband and her stepson. The actual killers, Lewis’ lover Matthew Shallenberger and his accomplice Rodney Fuller, were given life imprisonment in return for early guilty pleas. However, the fact that Lewis had initially denied involvement in the crime went against her and the judge handed down the death sentence.

 Lewis, it turns out is a gullible woman of limited intelligence and, according to Fuller,  the real instigator of the killings was Shallenberger.

Commenting on the disproportionate sentences, crime novelist and former trial lawyer John Grisham, wrote in the Washington Post that Lewis’ sentence had less to do with justice than ‘the assignment of judge and prosecutor, the location of the crime, the quality of the defence counsel, the speed with which a co-defendant struck a deal, the quality of each side’s experts and other factors.’ Such inconsistencies, he said, ‘mock the idea’ that the US system is based on equality before the law.

Though Messrs Garret, McVicar, Hide et al, would disagree, most thinking people would share Grisham’s view of America’s record in its treatment of serious offenders as being medieval and barbarous. Where length of imprisonment is concerned the Yanks have pipped even us at the post.

However, we at least do not put people to death. There were 3261 people on death row in the US at the beginning of this year. The State of Virginia has executed 107 people since the restoration of the death penalty in 1976, second only to Texas where the figure is 463. Lewis, as Grisham observes, was kinda unlucky to live in that state and to not be very bright. Well, them’s the breaks.

Interest in the Lewis case has been widespread since she will be the first woman to be put to death in the United States since 2006 and only the 12th since the resumption of capital punishment 34 years ago. Less than 2% of the country’s death row population are women.

Lewis’ last hope of seeing her 42nd birthday was erased when Governor Robert McDonnell refused to commute her sentence. He said he could find ‘no compelling reason’ for clemency.

He will of course be a professing Christian, since that is a prerequisite to obtaining high office in the United States. But the thing about Christianity is that you can pick and choose your texts. Jesus would certainly not have approved of strapping a woman to a gurney and injecting her with a lethal cocktail of drugs until she was dead. His was a message of love and forgiveness. But the Governor, whose real reason for killing this woman is fear of losing electoral support, can take comfort in the Old Testament precept of ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. Yet, curiously and inconsistently, even the Americans do not rape rapists or torture torturers or cut off the hands of thieves.

I described my reasons for being opposed to the death penalty in an earlier post Death out of Season. If you’ve got this far, I’d really like you to read it, since there is nothing that exercises me more.

The state-sanctioned, premeditated and cold-blooded killing of a woman is an abomination. But it is no more an abomination than the state-sanctioned, premeditated and cold-blooded  killing of a man. The gender of the person who is to be put to death is an irrelevant distraction from the inherent inhumanity of what is being done.

Such distractions are dangerous. They legitimise one evil by reference to what is seen as a lesser evil: It’s OK to execute a man, but not OK to execute a woman. Similarly, the argument that the death penalty is wrong because an innocent man or woman may be put to death, though it has merit, is predicated on the belief that it is OK to put a guilty man or woman to death.

There is a widespread view that we will never return to the death penalty in New Zealand. I do not accept that view. Once you believe that it is acceptable to strip offenders of all humanity and self worth, whether by confining them like animals in metal boxes or displaying them to the citizenry in chain gangs, you are only one step away from believing that it would be simpler, more efficient and certainly cheaper to follow in the footsteps of the Chinese and dispose of murderers, rapists, people with three strikes for violent offences and other ‘worthless non-humans’ with a quick trial and an instant bullet to the brain.  Trust me, there’d be votes in it.


  1. I grew up thinking the death penalty could never be brought back here simply due to it being so utterly and repulsively wrong. I’ve long since lost that faith.

    Between the bitterness and lack of compassion of one sector of the population, and the complete apathy of another, anything is possible.

    I can only hope that those who want the death penalty brought back hypothetically would baulk at it in reality.

  2. I don’t usually look to discuss theology in an avowedly secular context such as this, but as you raised the subject, Brian…

    Funny how, ‘an eye for an eye’ gets quoted in the sense of retribution in revenge.

    In reality, it meant compensation to the equivalent vaqlue of the damage inflicted. I poke out your eye in an act of avoidable carelessness, I then must provide compensation of equivalent value to made good the loss.

    That, and it also functioned to stop blood feuds, or utu against both the perpetrator, and his kith and kin, of an excessive and on-going nature. It acted as a restraint on revenge, not an accelerant.

    Whatever else can be said about what the Scriptures instruct concerning the death penalty (and there is a reasonable, although not overwhelming argument Christ revoked that particular requirement in the Torah), a proper understanding of the lex talionis would be a good starting point for the debate.

    • Thank you, Kimbo. I’m aware that this interpretation exists in Judaism. It’s supported by passages from Exodus. But, as I said, the great thing about Christianity (and I really should have said, all religions based on the Bible) is that you can choose the text that suits your position. So here’s the definitive text from Leviticus 25, verses 17 to 20:

      17; And he that killeth any man shall surely be put to death.
      18. And he that killeth a beast shall make it good; beast for beast.
      19. And if a man cause a blemish to his neighbour; as he hath done, so shall it be done to him.
      20. Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again.

      Pretty unambiguous really.

  3. at what point do you kill a human?
    should he have been alive for trial, would you have sanctioned hitler being sentenced to death?
    at what point is it acceptable? only the most obvious?
    the threads (and swathes) of hypocrisy through judicial systems, worldwide, makes us know that capital punishment is too risky for truly great nations to indulge in.

    • at what point do you kill a human? should he have been alive for trial, would you have sanctioned hitler being sentenced to death?

      Good question. I might well have felt like killing Hitler. But I would not have sanctioned it under the circumstances you describe, that is as the judgement of a court. At that point he could do no more harm. An argument can be advanced for killing him while he was still in power, to prevent the suffering and deaths of millions of other people. The same distinction would have applied with Sadam Hussein. His assassination (by his own people) could have been defended. But anyone who saw the film of his execution would surely have doubt about capital punishment under any circumstances.

  4. Brian, the difficulty with your argument is this. The more one stresses the value of a human life as an argument for opposing capital punishment, the more one is left with nowhere to go in respect of an adequate response to the taking of a life. For if a life is so sacred, then surely capital punishment as the ultimate sanction is the only reasonable response to the taking of one. Unless of course the life of the perpetrator is somehow of greater worth than the life of the victim.

    • Brian, the difficulty with your argument is this…

      Tony, the difficult with your argument is this – it is totally devoid of logic. It goes like this: Life is sacred, it must not be taken; we must therefore take the lives of people who kill. Like you I abhor the taking of human life. Logically therefore I must abhor capital punishment. This is not to say that I approve of murder. But there are many other options for punishing murderers. If you haven’t already done so, have a look at my earlier post Death out of Season.

  5. @Tony: spare me.

    If you hold that taking of life is wrong, therefore taking a life is wrong. If it wrong for an individual to take a life, then it is just as wrong for a state to do so. Your agreement is a race toward the lowest common denominator.

  6. tony- and there is the problem. you start with a definite “only reasonable response” and then branch of into the fuzzy world of judging people’s deeds/stature. toilet cleaner less worthy than lawyer? beaten husband more worthy than drunken womaniser,…
    as a hope of being a well developed state, i feel victim’s families/friends have to be acknowledged in a far better way than is presently our culture (turn away in pity) and protecting people from dangerous killers should be a priority. (assisted by efficient sharing of agency hard data, to better identify those that are serious threats- could certainly also be preventative.)

  7. Was Ghandi who said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”?

  8. You seem to have lost faith in the legal profession since your post on voluntary euthanasia in which you denounced the “slippery slope” argument by expressing confidence in the ability of of law and courts to prevent abuses. I agree that the taking of human life is an “abomination”, but wonder how that stand correlates to related moral issues such as voluntary euthanasia and abortion.

    • You seem to have lost faith in the legal profession since your post on voluntary euthanasia in which you denounced the “slippery slope” argument by expressing confidence in the ability of of law and courts to prevent abuses.

      I can’t follow your reasoning. There is nothing voluntary about the death penalty. The comparison between the two situations is entirely invalid. Nor is this primarily an issue about the legal profession. Lawyers both prosecute and defend killers. It is an issue about legistaion and therefore about the public will. American states which have the death penalty have it becaus that is what a majority of voters in those states want. Governors of those states place their careers in jeopardy if they go against the wishes of the voters. Conscience and principle are even less evident in American politics than they are here.

  9. I do not disagree with anything you say.

    However state sanctioned killing of the terminally ill appears to be acceptable in the eyes of many, even though it may be at the wish of the person who is ill and it still requires third party complicity.

    It is also acceptable in New Zealand that 11,000 unborn children are killed every year on the specious excuse that the mother may suffer some mental harm and we now have a Labour MP wanting to remove even that fig leaf and extend the term during which an abortion can be performed, so that children who could live with medical help will be aborted.

    As you accuse Christians of being selective over the texts they use there are many who are selective as to who they think it is alright to kill. If it is wrong to kill a human being there should be no ‘convenient’ exceptions.

    • However state sanctioned killing of the terminally ill appears to be acceptable in the eyes of many, even though it may be at the wish of the person who is ill and it still requires third party complicity.

      ‘State sanctioned killing of the terminally ill appears to be acceptable in the eyes of many…’ Expressed like that, I doubt you would find many supporters of the proposition. Those like me who favour voluntary euthanasis, believe in the right of a terminally ill person suffering great physical or emotional pain, to end their own lives or to be assisted to do so.

      I don’t want to get into the abortion debate. My view is that both positions on abortion have merit.

  10. @ Janice

    …yeah, but as my first post detailed, Gandhi, like most, misunderstood the essentially restorative rather than retributive nature of, “an eye for an eye”.

    …and yes Brian, you are right that some texts are utterly unambiguous. Good theology and a good dose of humility (not always the strong suit of the Church!) means the texts we choose should be more than merely buttressing an existing prejudice. Tui billboard moment!

    One option in regards to the Leviticus text you’ve chosen is that it was a staging post in progressive revelation. Because of “hardness of heart” Moses allows social evils within the faith community like divorce and capital punishment as a temporary measure, until greater spiritual resource comes in Christ (no offence to Jewish readers intended!).

    Christan fundamentalists already do this – Leviticus bans the consumption of shellfish, but there is a ready acceptance of the temporary nature of the prohibition. If you want to stop capital punishment in the USA, I’d suggest this is the battle ground that has to be won, rather than legal or media ‘victories’, that simply entrench the views of the Bible Belt.

    Segue: I’ve always remembered an article you did in the Listener a few years ago looking back on Lloyd Geering’s 1967 heresy trial. Loved your conclusion: Glad he beat the wrap, but he was as guilty as sin, and you actually want Christians to believe and stand for what the good book says (apologies for over-simplification).

  11. The comparison between the death penalty and voluntary euthanasia is the ability of the legal process to prevent abuses and errors. I agree that judges and lawyers (and doctors) are variable in competence, make mistakes, or may even have malicious intent or ulterior motives – in the case of the death penalty the result is that innocent people die, and for voluntary euthanasia the same result may occur for people who are misdiagnosed or highly depressed.

    Is this an invalid comparison?

  12. Brian quotes John Grisham. Those who support the death penalty might want to read his work. Yes, really.

    No, I don’t mean his novels, thumbed through on a dull wet day at the bach. I refer to “The Innocent Man”, a work of non-fiction, the true story of a man convicted of murder, in Oklahoma. Read about how the authorities can get it so wrong, read about death row, read the court documents (fair trial? ha!), read about the irrelevance of truth to the verdict, and then tell me you support the death penalty.

    It’s a compelling case. If you want the state to commit murder, then you must know that the state can kill the innocent. Under what moral code is that acceptable?

  13. I simply dont believe that the State – any State – should be putting its own citizens to death. It seems contrary to a civilization’s founding principles. It is easy to understand why individuals who have been wronged want vengeance, but should the state be reduced to the same level? It seems inconsistent and downright incongruent for a body politic like the ‘state’ whose principles avow the protection of life to be also participating in the termination of said lives.

  14. so, brian, you are opposed to cold blooded killing by the state? eg. hitler, saddam -but a bullet to the head when in power, perhaps addressing the people in a powermongering way, was okay?
    you are opposed to state killings unless the state is threatened seriously and currently by the killer’s existence?
    trouble is , these people usually control the state so it would be a moral, but illegal, act committed by individuals opposed to the governing body.
    as another issue.we live in a more liberal world. we are freer to live as we wish (eg. stigma attached to unmarried mothers all but gone, etc) but we are freer to kill now, too. all concoctions of murder and torture are on t.v. x box games are generally stalking and killing, rampaging and killing. our country’s kill rate is up too from the last generation.we are more desensitized to news of murder these days.
    at what point does this all transfer to the psyche of the population, thus creating the future state. a state who kills.who knows, huh.civilisation is a merry go round.

    • I’m always amused by correspondents – whether in letters to the editor or in comments on blogs – who begin with ‘So…’ It’s an invariable indication of smug superiority. Rather like sayng ‘Gotcha!’

      Your first paragraph is mere sophistry. What I said of brutal dictators like Hitler and Sadam Hussein was, ‘An argument can be advanced for killing him while he was still in power, to prevent the suffering and deaths of millions of other people.’ I imagine you sitting among a group of Jews in Auschwitz advancing clever arguments as to why killing Hitler would be an immoral thing to do. I suspect you’d have got short shrift.

      I’m unaware that we are ‘freer to kill now. As far as I know, the sanctions against murder in this country have remained the same for generations.

  15. i was actually saying it’s really hard to define when it is moral to kill and querying your stance in a wondering way. sorry, didn’t intend to appear smug. just contemplating. not stating.
    i believe killing hitler, had anyone had the opportunity, was the moral thing to do. no discussion.
    i think our liberalised society does make killing more frequent -as we are not so bound by church, society, community, family structure.murders were a major 25-30 years ago but now a person is reported murdered each week, or more than that.

  16. For me, the first time I’ve looked at your blog. Over the years, I have found myself either in passionate agreement or disagreement with you, mainly because I start with the sacncity of all human life principle.

    However, that sees us in total agreement on this issue; for the state to claim the right to callosuly take a life is for it to descend to the level of the criminal. Then, who is setting the standards?

    I am a Christian, but I was taught alwys to read the OT in light of the new, and the new in the light of the Gospels. One – I guess among a few – thing that still has the potential to see me lost my rag completely is to encounter arguments from supposed followers of Christ who not only accept, but promote, the death penalty.

    I wouldn’t normally go to Brian for a scripture lecture (:)) but on this, you’re dead right. The Jesus who met the woman at the well, who encountered the proposed stoning, and who delivered the sermon of the Mount would, I know, have some very harsh things to say to today’s Pharisees who cannot see the scriptral wood for the trees.

    An excellent, and local, relevant book is “Beyond Retribution: A New Testament Vision for Justice, Crime and Punishment (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2001)” by VUW’s Chris Marshall.

    I hope you’re wrong about the course of the debate in NZ but like you, cannot write off the possibilty. In which case, see you on the front lines!

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