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Big Issues Revisited at the Turn of the Millennium:
The Death Penalty
From Cycles of Evil to Circles of Healing
Larry Reimer
April 9, 2000

Matthew 5:38-44; Romans 12:14-18; Micah 6:6,8

Capital punishment is the third in our series of big issues we are re-visiting at the beginning the Millennium. I want you to recognize right from the start that while I am actively opposed to the death penalty, I realize that the majority of you may not necessarily agree with me. I cherish your willingness to honor my conscience and faith in following a cause that you do not choose as your own. Today in the Memory Garden many people will be sharing information on causes dear to them. The activism of this church’s members, and our respect and acceptance of differences are key elements in our spiritual vitality.

Listed after this sermon are my responses to all the arguments I have heard in support of the death penalty. I encourage you to look at them. I encourage you to discuss and ask about them in the seminars on the death penalty this and next Sunday and the Sunday after Easter.

I always believe that a strongly held faith commitment needs to be backed up with data that confirms the morality of that position. Faith for me requires two hands. In one hand I hold the bible. In the other, I hold the newspaper, journals, and research of the day. This is true whether the issue is war, civil rights, gay rights, freedom of choice and abortion, or economic justice.

This, however, is a sermon, not a seminar. So I want to tell you how I got involved in opposition to the death penalty and why I believe in it, especially in terms of Ray Meeks.

There’ s a story about a fire that started on some grasslands near a farm. The county fire department was called in, but it was more than they could handle. Someone suggested calling a nearby volunteer fire company.

The volunteers arrived in an old truck. They rumbled straight towards the fire, drove right into the middle of flames and stopped. The volunteer firefighters jumped out and frantically started spraying water in all directions. Soon they had snuffed out the center of the fire, breaking the blaze into two easily controlled parts.

The farmer watching this was so impressed and grateful that his farm had been spared, that right there he presented the volunteers with a check for $1,000.

A local news reporter asked the volunteer fire captain what the department planned to do with the funds.

"That ought to be obvious," he responded, wiping the ashes of his coat. "The first thing we’re gonna do is get the brakes fixed on our truck."

I wound up involved in the death penalty a little like a fire truck with no brakes. I didn’t intend to get into the middle of it.

I never thought too much about capital punishment until I came to Florida, which was one of the first states to resume executions after they had been banned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1972. At nearby Raiford, John Spenkelink, a drifter who killed a man who had sodomized him and forced him to play Russian roulette with a loaded pistol, was set to be executed.

I’m going to share two scriptures that my father, a Mennonite, taught me, which became foundations of my faith. (Matthew 5:38,43-45

Jesus said, "You have heard it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ …You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Mother-Father God in heaven’ for God makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.

Romans 12: 9,14-18.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good…

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all…Do not be overcome by evil; but overcome evil with good.

Everything in these scriptures sent me to protest that execution like a fire truck with no brakes. It was clear to me that to bind up a man, set a time and day for his death, march him to the place of death and kill him was not the call of God. I stood outside the Florida State Prison at dawn and on May 25, 1979, as John Spenkelink was executed. And I prayed. I prayed for his soul. I prayed for his victim. And I prayed for us, who allow the state to do this in our name.

Since Spenkelink was executed, Florida has killed 45 other men. I have stood outside the prison to protest most of them. I stand in those vigils because I do not want them to die without anyone praying for them. I want to witness to my belief that this is wrong, and I seek to overcome evil with good. I also want to remember the victims and their families in prayer.

A year after John Spenkelink’s death warrant was signed, Susan Cary called and asked me to begin visiting a young man named Ray Meeks on death row. And that’s when my fire truck truly rolled into the center of the fire. At that time Ray was 25. I was 33. Ray grew up outside Marks, Mississippi, the town that made Martin Luther King, Jr. cry and then organize the poor peoples march on Washington.

When Ray was about five, his father died from a case of the flu which was never treated by a doctor. His family continued working as sharecroppers in the cotton fields. As a baby, Ray was thrown by one of his sisters to another, fell to the hard earth, and suffered a permanent mental disability. Ray never learned to read in school. When he was eighteen he drove to Florida and worked in a fruit packing plant in Umatilla. He sent his money home to his mother.

After the fruit season ended, Ray began the drive back to Mississippi. In Perry, Ray’s car broke down. He went to sleep in his car on the side of the road. He awoke with a sheriff shining a flashlight in his face. The sheriff put him in jail without charging him with anything.

Nothing like this would happen to those of us here, who are bright, have money, and know people to contact. The police would wake us and help us, or we would know how to get help.

Ray was never charged with any crime. After two weeks in jail he was finally released. The police, however, had impounded his car and he owed over $100 to get it out. He had no money and no place to live.

His cellmate, Homer Hardwick, took him in and helped him earn money to get home. The town of Perry at this time was filled with racial turmoil. There had been a race riot with rock throwing at a baseball game. A judge’s house had been firebombed. For recreation, white men regularly rode through black neighborhoods and shot dogs that belonged to black families.

In this highly charged atmosphere, a white state trooper was then kidnapped and murdered. Ray was in no way implicated in this incident. It simply set the stage.

Then a convenience store clerk was murdered. Ray and Homer had been seen walking near the store. Under intense interrogation, to avoid the death penalty himself, Homer testified that Ray had shot the clerk. All who know the two would veriify that Homer was an aggressive young man with a history of violence. Ray is a quiet, passive man with a childlike personality. But Homer was from Perry and Ray was an outsider.

No local lawyer would defend Ray. The judge appointed John Howard, who had just moved from Ft. Lauderdale to Perry in order to hunt, fish, and practice law part time. The judge told Howard that if he wanted to practice law at all in that county, he had to take Ray’s case. Howard had never tried a criminal case, let alone a capital one.

This is unfortunately, quite common for death row inmates. People with representation by paid private attorneys seldom get the death penalty. Like most on death row, Ray was poor, black, and an outsider. In fact a white person has never been executed in Florida for killing a black person.

John Howard made no attempt to change the location of the trial, even though he now acknowledges there was a virtual lynch mob mentality in Perry at the time. His records show that he spent a total of seven hours preparing for the case. No one could testify that Ray and Homer were together at the time of the crime. Three witnesses stated that Ray was somewhere else, but they had not been prepared by counsel and thus appeared confused. Ray’s family was never contacted, nor were any character witnesses brought forward. In fact Ray’s family did not even know of the trial until he was on death row.

Ray’s attorney made no attempt to give any evidence of Ray’s documented mental disabilities.

A witness identified Ray from a line up in which five men were dressed in black and Ray was dressed in bright yellow. A photocopy of that line up is on the bulletin board outside. Ray’s lawyer raised no objection to that line up, although he said at a recent hearing that Ray stuck out like a sore thumb.

At the sentencing phase of the trial, when the judge asked if there were any mitigating circumstances which might help Ray, defense counsel presented nothing. Homer Hardwick received a life sentence with possibility for parole after twenty-five years. Ray was sentenced to die in the electric chair.

Soon after this murder, there was another convenience store murder in Perry. Ray was convicted of that murder on even slimmer evidence. His attorney never even met with him between trials.

We want to keep the death penalty for the likes of Danny Rolling and Ted Bundy. But Ray’s story is unfortunately more typical of death row cases. Murder seldom leaves witnesses. Evidence is often the word of one partner testifying against another to save his own life. With each individual person on death row, certainty about their guilt peels away like the never-ending layers of an onion.

I believe Ray is innocent of first-degree murder. Since 1972, twenty-one people have been released from death row in Florida because of probable innocence. If those politicians who want to limit appeals and speed up executions had their way, those innocent men, including Ray, would be dead today.

In 1992, Mike Radelet of the University of Florida published a landmark study of executions in America, In Spite of Innocence, in which he provides twenty-three examples of people who were executed in America in the twentieth century despite strong evidence of innocence.

No matter how much we refine our legal system, it will never be perfect. The death penalty, however, allows for no imperfection. Its damage cannot be undone. It is inevitable that we will kill innocent people. Is there a proportion of innocent people worth killing in order to have our revenge upon the worst of the worst inhuman killers? I don’t think so. We can effectively protect society from these killers by keeping them in jail for life.

I have known Ray for twenty-five years. During this time he has taught himself to read, to paint, to crochet. He has read the whole bible at least four times, verified through a correspondence course which quizzes him on content. He likes books like The Incredible Journey, especially the way that cat and dog looked out for each other. He reads National Geographic and loves animal shows on public TV.

He lives in a 6X9 cell. Map off that space around you. He gets out of that cell to exercise for an hour, twice a week. There is no air conditioning in that cell and no window. He’ll be forty-seven years old this June and has developed high blood pressure. He suffered heat stroke when his cell reached 118 degrees last summer and he had to be taken to the infirmary.

He was placed in solitary confinement for 60 days a few years ago after one our visits for giving me a Christmas card he had drawn. Rules state that nothing with writing can be passed from inmate to visitor. Since there was only artwork and no text on his card, he and I both thought it was legal. Other than that he has never committed an offense requiring any further restriction while in prison.

I do not visit him because I believe he is innocent. I would visit him even if he had been involved in these murders. I visit him because I do not believe it serves any purpose to kill him or any of the other people on death row. I visit him because I believe in repentance, and I believe that God both redeems and judges.

I visit him and oppose the death penalty because no one has proven that killing these people does anything to stop the violent crime in our society.

I pray for the victims and their families. I do not judge their anger and pain. I do not believe, however, that the healing that God has to offer them lies in killing those who killed their loved ones. I believe that healing for the families of victims lies in knowing that the perpetrators of these horrible acts are languishing in a 6x9 cell. They will never see the moon and stars. They will never walk on soft grass. They will never eat a meal with another human being again in their lives. They will never spend a night with wife, husband or children.

Evidently the state of Florida wants more punishment than this. The new secretary of corrections, Michael Moore, is now taking away the last privileges of death row inmates. They can no longer order or do any kind of hobbies such as painting or crocheting. They will not be allowed to take out the few books they have been permitted from the library. Department of Corrections is now taking away all contact visits with family and friends, and perhaps even clergy and lawyers.

The prophet Micah once pondered the question of what God requires of us. Does God want perfect worship? No. Does God want radical sacrifice? No. What does the Lord require of us? We are to do justice, love mercy, and walking humbly with our God.

In the case of murder, true justice cannot be done. True justice would restore the life that was taken. When we can’t do justice, according to Micah, God calls us to love mercy.

Right now 80% of all executions worldwide are carried out by China, the Congo, Iraq, Iran, and the U.S. Even Russia and Saudi Arabia have joined all of Europe in abolishing the death penalty. I believe that the day will come when we will end executions. And when that day comes we will look back in horror at this the killing we allowed in our name in much the same way we look back in horror at slavery. Until that time, I will stand in silent vigil at executions. I will visit Ray and ask those of you who are willing to support him at Christmas and on his birthday in June. I will work and pray for the end of the death penalty. I believe that in doing this I am following God’s call to me in ministry, responding to the words of Jesus: "When I was in prison you visited me…" I believe I am following the challenge of the Apostle Paul, to "overcome evil with good." I believe I am following the Compact of our church which calls us to "follow even imperfectly, the way of Jesus in personal involvement with one another." I believe I am following the call of Jesus, "to be merciful even as your heavenly father mother God is merciful."

Prayer –

O God we hear your call to touch the human heart, and in so doing, we touch your heart.

We focus on the causes, the commitments we believe in most deeply. And we pray for them. We pray for hope. We pray that we may continue to have the courage to overcome evil with good. And we thank you that you have given us these causes to give our lives meaning.

We pray for trust in the midst of our struggles, peace for our own troubled lives, and love to come find us as we send it out to others.

We pray for those in need.

We pray for our own place in this journey of lent, that we not let the time between now and Easter go by without opening our hearts to the sufferings around us that we may rise to mercy and kindness.

Capital Punishment Arguments – Pro and Con
Larry Reimer

  • The bible permits it in the doctrine of "And eye for an eye…"

The bible justifies it in the doctrine of an "eye for an eye." These words are the only scripture given to justify capital punishment, but they should be taken seriously. This statement comes from early Jewish law, namely the book of Exodus. It was meant to limit not extend retaliation. According to this law of wandering Jewish tribes, if someone knocked out your tooth, you could not legally break their neck.

The death penalty was permitted in early Jewish history, but largely for practical reasons. They were traveling tribes. There were no jails in which people could be held for the protection of society. By the second century Judaism, the rabbis said that any court, which executed a person even every 70 years, was known as a destructive court.

Judaism’s ethical code developed far beyond "and eye for an eye" and of course Jesus said, "You have heard it said, ‘and eye for an eye… love your neighbor and hate your enemy…’ but I say to you love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you." (Matthew 5:38,43)

  • The death penalty is a deterrent to crime. The knowledge that one can be executed for murder stops more people from murdering.

There has never been a definitive study stating that the death penalty deters crime. Crime is higher in the U.S. with its death penalty than in Europe, which does not have it. It is higher in death penalty states than in non death penalty states, and it is highest in the states with the most executions.

I have heard legislators who defend the death penalty then say, "Well once he’s dead, he sure won’t kill again. Isn’t that a deterrent?"

No it isn’t. It stops one person from killing, but so does life imprisonment without parole. Deterring, or preventing someone from killing is not the same as stopping someone from killing again.

  • The death penalty teaches society the seriousness of crime and violence. It is the way a civilized society shows its reverence for life.

The death penalty teaches us that we can solve our problems by taking another life, thus diminishing our reverence for life.

  • There are so many safeguards now in place in our American judicial system that it is virtually impossible to think that the state might execute an innocent person. The number of death row inmates freed on appeal demonstrates that the system works.
  • Our judicial system is still far from perfect. If those who want to speed up the process and eliminate appeals had their way, most of those later proven innocent would already be dead.
    • The families and loved ones of the victims have a right to closure, to put this chapter behind them. They have a right to know that the perpetrator will be punished as severely as their loved one and that the person who killed their loved will never walk free again.
  • The necessity of adequate appeals and the congestion of our legal system means that it takes it takes years to execute a convicted killer. Some death row inmates will remain there for the rest of their natural life. It would be better for families to not make their own healing dependent upon the perpetrator’s execution, simply because of the time it takes. Furthermore, the death of another person is a hollow victory which serves no healing purpose.
    • We shouldn’t spend the money to keep a killer alive for the rest of his or her natural life.
  • The estimated cost of each execution in Florida is $3.2 million. The estimated cost of life in prison without parole is $600,000.
    • The death sentence is the only way to adequately insure that these people will not kill gain.

    We have the ability to sentence convicted killers to life without eligibility for parole. They can be kept in secure quarters without possibility of escape.