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Higher Ground

By Bryan A. Stevenson
November 12, 2002

He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:8

An imprisoned murderer who has admitted killing, attacking and persecuting lots of innocent people now claims to be transformed completely by God. What would you do if he asked you to help him to avoid lawful execution for his crimes? Would you question the sincerity of his new found faith? Let’s say his name is Saul, although he now prefers Paul, and he writes you amazing letters full of divine insight about faith and life as a believer of Jesus Christ. Would you support his effort to stay alive because of his extraordinary faith? Would his salvation make him reborn in a way that justified stopping his execution? Would you help him because of your faith? If your own faith prompted you to offer aid, would it matter whether the condemned was now a Christian or distinct in any way from other death row prisoners? Would God care if you chose to ignore his plea for help?

Twenty years ago, I found myself struggling with these questions. I was a law student who had agreed to spend a month in Georgia lending assistance to lawyers who provide legal aid to death row prisoners. I’d been motivated to go to Georgia because the work would involve the kind of complex litigation skills I sought. I understood that bias against the poor and people of color contributed to the unfairness and injustice of capital punishment and consequently I believed that this experience would be engaging and meaningful. However, I can’t honestly say that I had fully integrated my faith and my work until I found myself in the dark, dank corner of a prison in Jackson, Georgia.

The Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center is where death row prisoners are housed and with increasing frequency executed. I had just completed a legal visit with a man on death row who had told me that I was the first person to visit him in over three years. He was overjoyed to see me. When I arrived he asked me to pray with him. He prayed earnestly and with great emotion, thanking God for sending him someone who would help. He grabbed my hands several times during the visit and he cried a lot about his difficulties on death row and the pain and anguish he had caused before his arrest. He told me that he had been born again on death row and that he believed one day that God would set him free. Our visit was abruptly ended by two prison guards who said our time was up. My new friend hugged me before the guards began shackling his feet. He grimaced as they handcuffed him tightly and then he began to sing:

I’m pressing on the upward way,
New heights I’m gaining every day;
Still praying as I’m onward bound,
Lord plant my feet on Higher Ground.

He smiled at me while he sang. As the guards shoved him out of the cell he continued to sing. I could hear him as he shuffled down the long prison corridor:

Lord Lift me up and let me stand,
By faith on heaven’s tabled land;
A higher plane than I have found,
Lord plant my feet on higher ground.

I wanted to leave the prison but I sank down in the corner of the visitation room and I was overwhelmed. In that prison on that day, I thought of the Apostle Paul for the first time as a confessed killer. It became clear to me with devastating forcefulness that each of us is more than the worse thing that we’ve ever done. I understood in a radically new way that if you tell a lie, your not just a liar; if you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not simply a thief; that even if you kill someone, you are more than just a killer. As a sinner saved by grace, I don’t know why this came to me as such a revelation, but it did.

Even before I began representing people on death row, I was opposed to capital punishment. The logic of gratuitously killing someone to demonstrate that killing is wrong eluded me. We don’t rape those who rape or assault those who have assaulted. We disavow torturing those who have tortured and yet we endorse killing those who have killed. The death penalty has always seemed to me to be a punishment rooted in hopelessness and anger administered with bias and imprecision against the poor and vulnerable.

As a Christian, I understand the biblical and divine requirement for punishment. There are and should be adverse consequences to criminal behavior. However, this does not justify the enthusiasm for executing human beings so prevalent in the United States. Too many people, including Christians, debate the morality of the death penalty as if the choice is between capital punishment or no punishment. In virtually every state that has the death penalty in America, life imprisonment without parole is the sentencing alternative to a sentence of death. Consequently, the moral question surrounding the death penalty in America is not an abstraction but rather a question about choosing between two extremely harsh punishments: sentencing convicted criminals to die in prison without parole or to die by a scheduled execution conducted by the government. It is in this context that too few Christians have really struggled to understand what faith in God’s redemptive power requires.

As a practical matter, the flawed imposition of the death penalty in the United States makes abstract moral arguments somewhat irrelevant. The U.S. death penalty is simply unreliably and unfairly imposed. Even if the death penalty were appropriate in the abstract, it is hard to defend the way it is applied in this country.

There are currently 3,800 people on death row in the United States and thirty-eight of the fifty states have death penalty statutes. Since the death penalty was resurrected in 1976, there have been over 800 executions, most of which have occurred in the American South. Women, juveniles and the mentally ill are among the hundreds who have been shot, electrocuted, asphyxiated, hanged and injected with lethal poisons by state governments in America. Most of these executions have taken place in the last ten years when support for capital punishment has generated greater political resonance and federal courts have retreated from the kind of oversight and review that existed in the early 1980's. In the last year of the twentieth century, the world’s "leading democracy" executed close to 100 of its residents. All of the executed were poor, a disproportionately high number were racial minorities with crime victims who were white, many of the executed were mentally ill, some were juveniles at the time their crimes occurred and there is no meaningful assurance that all of the executed were guilty of the crimes for which they had been convicted.

During the same period of time we have uncovered a shocking number of innocent people who were sentenced to death, many of whom barely escaped execution before their exoneration. Over 100 people have been released from death row after new evidence was discovered that established their innocence. For every eight people who have been executed, one innocent person has been released. It’s an extremely troubling rate of error. Last year Columbia University released a nationwide study of capital cases which revealed that nearly two-thirds of all death sentences are reversed because the convictions or death sentences have been obtained illegally. The study cited inadequate defense lawyers, overzealous police investigations and prosecutorial misconduct as the most common problems.

The poor and people of color are also at great risk. It is frequently said that in the United States, "capital punishment means them without the capital gets the punishment." Sadly, the U.S. criminal justice system works much better for the rich and guilty, than the poor and innocent. Much has been written about capital trials in the U.S. where defense attorneys were asleep, intoxicated, publicly stating a belief that their client should be executed, directing racial slurs at the client, or otherwise providing ineffective assistance of counsel. There are hundreds of death row prisoners in the United States who currently have no legal representation and dim prospects of finding counsel. With no constitutional right to counsel, people on death row cannot effectively file appeals that have frequently proved vital in demonstrating innocence or otherwise establishing that a conviction or sentence is illegal. The biblical admonition against unjust and unfair punishments is quite clear: "Do not deny justice to your poor people in their lawsuits. Have nothing to do with a false charge and do not put an innocent or honest person to death, for I will not acquit the guilty." Exodus 23:6. Yet, too little is said in the Church about the poor and wrongly convicted trapped in the criminal justice system.

Bias against the poor is exacerbated by bias against racial minorities. The imposition of the death penalty in the U.S. continues to reveal an insidious race consciousness. Of the 3,700 people currently on death row more than half are people of color: 46.48 percent are white, 42.53 percent are black, 8.39 percent are Latino, and 1.35 percent are Native Americans. Examining the statistics for some states reveals an even bleaker picture. In Pennsylvania, eighty-three percent of people sent to death row from its capital, Philadelphia, are African American. Strikingly, of the 500 people executed between 1976—the year the U.S. Supreme Court permitted the reinstatement of the death penalty—and the end of 1998, eighty-one percent were convicted for the murder of a white person despite the fact that about half of all U.S. murder victims are black. In the southern states of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, two-thirds of those executed have been black.

A close examination of capital punishment can cause anyone committed to equal justice to decide that continued implementation of such an exacting punishment with such inexact proceedings and imposition cannot be justified. However, I believe that Christians are called to act and think differently about the way we reject human beings and condemn those who have sinned.

In the life of Jesus, I see God continually offering condemned people paths of redemption. I’m convinced that people of faith are required to do the same—not just for death row prisoners but for everyone. However, to effectively challenge the demand to be tough and vengeful, which is so pervasive in our culture, we have to understand the larger realities that fuel the fear, anger and alienation so many in our society feel.

The prevalence of violent crime in American society is overwhelming. There is so much heartbreaking, senseless violence. You don’t have to be in any particular part of the country to appreciate how vexing the problem has become. Many of us feel a need to prepare our hearts before we read the newspaper or watch the news because we know we will be confronted with something ugly, something horrible, something debilitating to our very spirit. The pain of violent crime and the anguish associated with criminal behavior has made many angry and punitive.

Despite all that we believe about forgiveness, God’s mercy and the call to be just and compassionate, many of us struggle with how to treat those who have committed crimes. On crime issues, Americans have generally become much less forgiving in the last 15 years. For example, the United States leads the world in executing juvenile offenders. Of the six countries known to have executed juvenile offenders since 1990, only the United States executed juvenile offenders last year. Seventy juvenile offenders are currently being held on death row in America. Of the forty jurisdictions that have statutes authorizing the death penalty, four states have set the minimum age of eligibility for a death sentence at seventeen, and twenty states use age sixteen as the minimum age. In light of recent increases in violent juvenile crime, some political leaders have proposed legislation under which children as young as eleven could be sentenced to death. There is a hopelessness that characterizes much of the policymaking in criminal justice.

It is not unlike the kind of hopelessness I encounter in clients. I frequently go into low-income communities and find myself talking with young thirteen and fourteen year-old black and latino boys who are fully aware of their diminishing status in a society that unapologetically executes the children it loves the least. Many of these kids tell me that they don’t believe that they will live past the age of eighteen. They say, "Don’t talk to me about staying in school Mr. Stevenson. I’m going to be dead by the time I’m 18, so I gotta get mine while I can." They don’t say these things because of what they see on TV or what they’ve heard, they say these things because they see their siblings, friends and relatives dying as teenagers from drugs, gun violence, gangs or effectively dying by being sent to prison for the rest of their lives. There are a number of policy issues implicated by the despair and dysfunction that has led these young people to such a bleak and dreadful place, but ultimately these are kids who suffer from a profound absence of hope. Without resurrecting hope for these children, no policy initiative will succeed in creating a different future than the one they imagine.

Many church communities have members who share the fear, anger and frustration of violent crime that is pervasive in American society. However, we are called to be light which can "shine before men." Matthew 5:16. In the fall of 1999, Alabama had a referendum on establishing the state’s first lottery. The money generated by the lottery was to be used to improve the state’s underfunded education system. A coalition of churches and religious groups banded together in opposition to the lottery. Billboards which read, "The Lottery: What Would Jesus Do?" went up all over the state and in a surprising result, the lottery referendum was defeated. A few weeks after the referendum vote, our legal project decided to put billboards around Montgomery, Alabama which read: "The Death Penalty: What Would Jesus Do?" At the bottom of the billboards we quoted from the Gospel of St. John chapter 8, verse 7, where Jesus says to those who would stone a woman to death for her crimes, "Let him who is without sin cast the first stone." We asked area churches to join us in posting more billboards and initiating a campaign would challenge people of faith to think more critically about capital punishment and the treatment of the imprisoned. We got very little support. There were some church leaders who were even antagonized and angry about our billboards. There clearly was great discomfort around our invocation of the ever-popular, ubiquitous WWJD? in the context of capital punishment.

I believe people of faith need to have a vision of justice when confronted with evidence of injustice. We must offer our legal system and those who manage it and who are imprisoned by it a way of reconciliation and redemption. Psalms 106:3. Without a new vision, the fear and anger we see and feel around us, and even within us, is going to get worse. We’ve got to combat the hopelessness by finding ways not only to preach forgiveness and reconciliation for those who hurt us but to step in and catch the stones of condemnation cast by others. We need a desire for justice that energizes us, a compassion for the broken and rejected among us which empowers and heals. Because no one is just a crime, I believe Christians are required to do more than hopelessly condemn those who are convicted of crimes. We are all saved by grace. Ephesians 2:5, 8.

The laws of man and the law of God requires that those who have broken the law be punished. Those who commit violent crime owe a debt to society that must be paid. However, the life of a human being is sacred. It should not be taken because we are angry, fearful or upset. When we execute someone, what we are really saying is that the life of the condemned person is beyond hope of redemption, that their lives have no value, meaning or purpose. I have represented dozens of people on death row, many of whom were very disturbed and many who should be imprisoned—some for the rest of their lives. However, I’ve never met anyone about whom I could say this life has no value or purpose or meaning.

Faith in God sometimes requires us to believe things that we can’t see. God saw in Saul of Tarsus—the man who persecuted the early Church, an apostle whose witness and ministry would nourish the Christian faith. As a sinner saved by grace, I celebrate the redemptive power of God. It encourages me and sometimes causes me to sing "I’m pressing on the upward way," as I stand with the condemned, rejected and hated people on America’s death row on the road to higher ground.

Bryan Stevenson is Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama. Mr. Stevenson has won national acclaim for his work challenging bias against the poor and people of color in the criminal justice system. Since graduating from Harvard Law School and the Harvard School of Government, he has assisted in securing relief for dozens of condemned prisoners, advocated for poor people and developed community-based reform litigation aimed at improving the administration of criminal justice.