Russell Brewer & Troy Davis: Should Your Christian Conscience be More Troubled by the Execution of the Guilty than of the Innocent?
By Michael P. O’Connor
On Wednesday, September 21, 2011 two men were executed. One was put to death by the State of Texas and another was put to death in Georgia. Both had been convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death, but there are not many other similarities to the cases.
Texas executed Lawrence Russell Brewer, a purported white supremacist, for the grisly hate crime murder of James Byrd, Jr. Despite the ghastly nature of this crime and the highly publicized trial that followed, the Texas execution generated relatively little publicity and was carried out with minimal protest. Georgia, on the other hand, executed the celebrated Troy Davis, believed by many around the world to be an innocent man unjustly condemned to die. His case generated tremendous publicity and his execution was met with vociferous and sustained protest.
Unlike Davis, few doubt Brewer’s guilt and fewer still found in him a compelling enough figure worth expending energy to save. (To their everlasting credit, members of his victim’s immediate family were among those few to advocate for the life of Russell Brewer.) As a lawyer who has worked on many capital cases throughout our country, it did not surprise me at the “sympathy gap” that existed among the general public concerning these two condemned men. As a Catholic, however, I found myself unable to sleep the night after these executions pondering why a nation that largely claims to adhere to Christian teaching could so readily accept our role in the death of a man who we believe committed a heinous crime.
Should not our beliefs caution us to be more fearful of taking the life of a guilty man – one who we have reason to believe may not be in a state of grace?
First, scripture is clear that human beings are inherently poor judges of God’s favor and whether our fellow beings are currently in a state of grace or deserving of everlasting reward. Luke 14:24 (“For I tell you, none of those men who were invited shall taste my dinner.”); Matthew 20:16 (“The last shall be first and the first shall be last.”) Jesus warned against judging ourselves as righteous and viewing others as contemptible sinners. Luke 18:9-14 (the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector). This extends to those guilty ones society condemns to death. Luke 23:39-43 (“Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in paradise.”) So, we must be cautious not to assume that one of the men executed two nights ago was more likely to be in a state of grace and worthy of salvation than the other. As fallible mortals, this is something we can never know.
We who believe that scripture contains truth, however, can derive certain important
lessons from these texts. First, Christ came to redeem sinners. “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Luke 5:31-2. In telling the parable of the lost sheep, Jesus reminded us how heaven views the salvation of one sinner: “I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” Luke 15:7.
Consider these principles in light of the prevailing opinions concerning Russell Brewer and Troy Davis. Brewer was convicted of one of the most heinous crimes in recent U.S. history. There is little doubt about his involvement in this crime. While we could not know whether Brewer had repented and made his peace with God, we can state with some degree of certainty that whoever dragged James Byrd to his death had sinned greatly and was in need of repentance. If Brewer had not yet come to terms with the nature of his deed and sought forgiveness for his acts, his death at our hands frustrated the very purpose for which Jesus came. If our intervention in the form of putting this man to death prevented him from repenting, we have deprived heaven of a greater joy than would be received by ninety-nine persons living righteous lives and dying in the good graces of God.
Therefore, the execution of an innocent man (as we suppose Troy Davis to be), while unacceptably cruel and heaping worthy scorn upon our criminal justice system, should be recognized as less troubling theologically and spiritually than is the execution of the guilty. Troy Davis, like the criminal condemned at Jesus’ side, may already “be with [Jesus] in paradise.” Luke 23:43. While we cannot know if this is true of Mr. Brewer, as Christians, shouldn’t we be most concerned about executing the guilty with the inherent risk that we will frustrate Jesus’ central purpose in the salvation of lost souls?
September 23, 2011