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Panelists of four faiths explore views on death penalty

Death Penalty Panelists

"Honoring life" Interfaith Panel on the Death Penalty - from left: Sister Mary Ann Farley, Rabbi Michael Goldstein, the Rev Bill Ellis, and Venerable Thubten Chodron

In “Honoring Life: An Interfaith Panel on the Death Penalty,” Catholic, Jewish, Episcopal and Buddhist leaders recently gave an overview on values and moral issues related to capital punishment.  The Rev. Todd Eklof, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church, moderated the discussion at the Cathedral of St. John in Spokane.

Victoria Ann Thorpe, who founded  the Fellowship of Peace Foundation to educate people on the death penalty, organized the panel. 

She comes to the issue from the “nightmare” of her sister, Kerrie Lyn Dalton being on death row for 18 years. 

Video #1 Introduction (Thorpe and Ekloff)

Video #2 Venerable Thubten Chodron

Video #3 Sister Mary Ann Farley, SNJM

Video #4 The Rev Bill Ellis

Video #5 Rabbi Michael Goldstein

Victoria uses her experience as a journey of spiritual growth, does research and has written a book, CAGES, on her findings. 

“I had faith in the justice system until I went through my sisters’ trial and realized it was broken,” Victoria said.  “I saw someone I love dehumanized.  My sister was wrongly convicted of murder.  No one was declared deceased in her trial, but she has not yet received her appeal process.”

Legislation to end the death penalty will go before the Washington House and Senate in 2014, Todd said, noting that the death penalty does not deter killing, it is costly, it executes innocent people and it  is applied unequally to minorities.”

 He said most faiths believe killing is morally reprehensible.  Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, about 133 death row prisoners have been exonerated, and half of those executed were nonwhites.  Blacks are 12 percent of the population but 40 percent of those on death row.

Sister Mary Ann Farley
Sister Mary Ann Farley, SNJM

Sr. Mary Ann Farley, SNJM, a teacher, chaplain, ethicist and convent coordinator, grew up in a home with two loving parents who respected each other and their children.

“My religious and educational life set boundaries of right and wrong.  We gained tools and inner resources to carry us through life. We had opportunities I thought were normal,” she said, aware that most of the 3,000 people on U.S. death rows did not have those benefits.

“Catholicism teaches that people’s God-given dignity applies to both victims and offenders,” she said, noting that Sr. Helen Prejean, who will be in Spokane in October, supports both victims and perpetrators in the belief in the sacredness of every life.

The Catholic Church calls for ending the death penalty, which some once thought was the only way to protect the public, but keeping perpetrators behind bars for life also protects the public, Sr. Mary Ann said.

Since her church voiced opposition to the death penalty, support among members has dropped from 90 percent to 50 percent, with only 20 percent in strong support.

“Bishops oppose it because of what it does to those who are guilty and everyone in society,” Sr. Mary Ann said. “Why kill people to prove killing people is wrong?”

“We have much to learn about justice and respect,” Sr. Mary Ann said, concerned about the disproportionate number of minorities and marginalized people on death row.

Rabbi Michael Goldstein
Rabbi Michael Goldstein

Rabbi Michael Goldstein of Temple Beth Shalom, who lived in Israel and New Jersey before coming to Spokane three years ago, said the heart of religion is to make the world better.

A traditional Jewish perspective in the book of Exodus allows for revenge killing as punishment, but details of it are in the rabbinic code, he said.  In that code, a death penalty for premeditated murder requires society to investigate, try and sentence someone by the specific process outlined in the Talmud, the core of Jewish law. 

The process says there must be two unrelated witnesses, who saw the crime happen.  A judge interviews each privately, looking for inconsistencies.  Details must corroborate. For intentionally lying, a witness faces the same penalty as the accused.  The accused must have been warned that his/her actions would result in the death penalty.

So, Rabbi Michael said, the likelihood of a conviction was rare.

“If the requirements are not met, a person cannot be convicted of anything more than manslaughter, for which the punishment is imprisonment,” he said.  “A court that sentenced one person to execution in 50 years was considered a bloody court.

“In Israel, a society subject to many gruesome acts of terrorism, there has been only one case of capital punishment in 65 years: Adolf Eichmann, the mastermind of the final solution,” Rabbi Michael said.  “No one in Israel convicted of terrorism is on death row.” 

In Jewish law, plea bargains make a witness’ testimony suspect.  If a witness gains from the testimony, it is invalid, he said.

After a conviction, Talmud law also says there is “a moral obligation to be humanitarian to people on death row.  The time on death row should be brief.  The punishment should be quick and painless.”

The U.S. fails that standard, Rabbi Michael said.  Jewish law points to physical and psychological distress from delaying an execution and the loss of dignity by separating people onto a death row.  He’s aware that years of delay are designed so society can be sure it has not made a mistake.

The Rev Bill Ellis
The Rev. Bill Ellis

The Rev. Bill Ellis, an Episcopal priest who came to the Cathedral of St. John in 2006, said Catholic and Episcopal views are similar.  Since the U.S. Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty, the Episcopal Church USA’s Triennial Conventions have passed resolutions to end it.

In 200 years, attitudes have changed, he said.  Once people were executed for stealing horses.  Standards of proof were less rigorous.  Defense attorneys rarely made appeals.  Today, it’s legal in 35 of 50 states, even though it is expensive, costing $1 million or more per person, because of appeals to prevent executing innocent people.  Now the only capital crime is premeditated murder with aggravated circumstances.

“Of 3,000 on death row, 1,200 have been added since 1972, and 142 have been exonerated,” Bill said, wondering how many innocent people have been executed.

“The notion of an eye-for-an-eye and a tooth-for-a-tooth is not valid.  Many who favor the death penalty see it as revenge to provide closure for a victim’s family,” said Bill, noting that the death penalty instead victimizes the victim’s family, as they are pushed to justify killing the killer.

Forgiveness may not be possible, but the death penalty makes violence systemic, he said.

Bill believes society is becoming more ambivalent about it.  Ambivalence led Europe, except Belarus, to abolish it.  The only other governments that execute people are the People’s Republic of China, Saudi Arabia and Iran.  He prefers to live in a world that is ambivalent and where revenge does not justify adding a death to a death.

“To end the cycle of violence is the shorter path to justice,” Bill said.  “We as people can take one more step to a world that works for peace.”

Venerable Thubten Chodron
Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Thubten Chodron, a religious teacher and leader, an ordained Tibetan Buddhist nun, author, prison minister and abbess of Sravasti Abbey near Newport, said the real question may be, “How can we prevent and heal from violence?”

From ministry with someone executed nearly two years ago—maintaining his innocence—she believes public defenders could do a better job.

“That had a profound effect on me.  One day, I was talking to the person, and the next day the person was dead.  It was a planned murder.  I did not go.  I could not have watched one human being take the life of another human being and do nothing,” she said.

She asked an attorney who has seen 13 executions if it helps a victim’s family heal.  The attorney said it adds to the family’s trauma.  After their loved one was killed, the prosecutor encourages them to think justice will be served and they will heal if the perpetrator is killed. The family has support during the trial, but if they do not want the death penalty, they are not allowed to say so,
the attorney told her.

“At an execution, press and the attorney are in one room and the victim’s family in another.  After the execution, the family is herded outside to speak to the press, while they want to feel justice was done,” the attorney said.  “When they go home, many continue to grieve, feeling betrayed and used by the system to support the death penalty.”

Sister Helen Prejean wrote Dead Man Walking after counseling several people on death row in New Orleans. She told of Robert Lee Willie, who raped and killed Faith Holloway, an 18-year-old girl in 1980, and eight days later kidnapped a young couple.  He raped the 16-year-old girl, Debbie Morris, then shot and stabbed her 20-year-old boyfriend, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down.  Debbie later wrote Forgiving the Dead Man Walking.

“The justice system does not bring the healing forgiveness did,” Thubten Chodron said. “Faith’s family advocated for the death penalty but did not forgive and heal.  The idea that healing happens through capital punishment is bogus.”

Thubten Chodron suggests victims and perpetrators meet to hear each other’s stories so they experience restorative justice. 

“There is healing in talking to another perpetrator, not the one who killed the loved one, to hear the anguish of one who has taken a life and struggles to heal from his/her own action,” she said.

“In Buddhism, we don’t use the word ‘justice.’   Buddha said hatred is not solved by hatred, only by love,” she said.  “Capital punishment is not done out of love.  An eye-for-an-eye is not in Buddhism.  The goal is to heal from anger and prevent someone from doing a crime again.

Forgiveness does not mean excusing an act, she said. Murder is not okay, but society and victims need to heal from grief in another way that protects people and prevents perpetrators from hurting others.”

In Forgiving the Dead Man Walking, Debbie said once the men were behind bars, she no longer felt they had power over her:  “To forgive is not to absolve.  How I would live my life in the future was more important than what happened in the past,” she wrote.

Each offered closing comments:

Mary Ann said:  “Capital crimes are most often committed by people who live in poverty, who lack education, jobs or opportunities, who do not experience love and who see no hope.  The death penalty is no remedy for any of that.”

Rabbi Michael explained: “There is bad and evil in the world.  The foundation of Judaism is that just as I can do evil, I can do good.  Forgiveness and redemption are always possible.  They come from reflecting on our actions.”

Bill pointed out: “We are imperfect.  It’s hard to tell who has gone through a redemptive process and who is a sociopath.  How can we build a world where healing occurs and compassion flourishes?  In such a world, there will be more redeemed people and fewer sociopaths.”

Thubten Chodron said: “We tend to make big distinctions between ourselves and others, but we all have anger, greed, ignorance and arrogance.  So it’s important to do our own inner work and develop compassion.”

For information, call 230-3017. Videos of their presentations are available on Youtube:





Copyright © October 2013 - The Fig Tree