Faith leaders call on Biden to abolish federal death penalty once and for all


Pausing executions temporarily isn't enough, they say.

Attorney General Merrick Garland temporarily paused all federal executions on July 1, in order to review the nation’s death penalty procedures.

Now, faith leaders are pushing President Joe Biden to fulfill his campaign promise and end capital punishment at the federal level once and for all.

"I'm a big believer in harm reduction, so it's a good step, but it's certainly not enough," Buddhist monk Tashi Nyima, a member of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, told The American Independent Foundation.

Faith leaders fear a repeat of the Trump administration's final days, when the former president launched an end-of-term killing spree, overseeing 13 executions following a 17-year-respite.

"It had been so long and to think that the government, this administration, was timing these executions … in the run-up to the election — this man was doing whatever he could to garner support from that part of our nation, those citizens, those voters who still somehow think that killing another person is acceptable," Sister Barbara Battista, justice promoter for the Sisters of Providence of St. Mary-of-the-Woods in Indiana, said in a phone interview.

Battista served previously as a spiritual adviser to former federal death row inmates Keith Nelson, who was convicted of kidnapping, raping, and killing a 10-year-old girl in 1999, and William LeCroy, a former soldier who was convicted of raping and murdering a nurse in 2001. She accompanied them both during their executions last year in Terre Haute, Indiana, where federal executions are carried out.

While lauding Biden for reinstating a pause, clergy said they hope for the total abolition of the death penalty, which makes the United States an outlier among its closest allies and more than 70% of the world's nations, which don't use the punishment.

"The hope [is] that this will be the first of many measures to eventually get rid of this angel of death from our lands," Cantor Michael Zoosman, founder of L’Chaim! Jews Against the Death Penalty, told The American Independent Foundation.

Benjamin Zober, who worked with inmates on death row as a public defender before becoming a rabbi, said while a moratorium is a positive step in the right direction, it can still cause harm. 

"For people who are on death row and their families and anyone involved, it just pushes back whatever the end result is," Zober said in a phone interview. "There are often discussions about closure and bringing things to an end in justice and halting things temporarily puts some of that off and keeps everyone in a really anxious and uncomfortable and difficult place."

The president pledged on the campaign trail to eliminate the death penalty.

"Biden will work to pass legislation to eliminate the death penalty at the federal level, and incentivize states to follow the federal government’s example," his 2020 campaign website reads. "These individuals should instead serve life sentences without probation or parole.

But Biden's actions so far have, at least in part, run counter to that promise.

Last month, the Biden administration requested that the Supreme Court reinstate the death penalty for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber, after a federal appeals court overturned his death sentence last year.

Clergy are confounded by the moratorium, considering Biden is the first president in the nation's history to oppose capital punishment.

Biden could issue an executive order to commute the sentences of the nearly 50 people currently on death row. In Congress, legislators reintroduced this year the Federal Death Penalty Prohibition Act of 2021, which would ban capital punishment at the federal level, though it hasn’t been brought to a vote.

In Pittsburgh, Dor Hadash, one of the congregations targeted during the Tree of Life shooting, which left 11 worshipers dead in 2018, has staked out its opposition of the death penalty for alleged shooter Robert Bowers.

"We are desirous of seeing justice meted out in a manner that is both consistent with our religious values and that spares us from the painful ordeal of prolonged legal maneuvering leading to a lengthy trial and years of unpredictable appeals," Dor Hadash President Bruce Herschlag wrote in the June 17 letter.

Religious leaders have pointed to doctrine and religious teaching time and time again as justification to end the practice.

While capital punishment crops up often in the Torah, Judaism’s scripture of law and ethics, rabbis later revised Jewish teaching to make it nearly impossible to carry out.  

Last weekend, Zoosman led protesters in front of the Supreme Court in prayer against the death penalty during Starvin’ For Justice, an annual fast and vigil. He recited Kol Nidre, a sacred text chanted on Judaism’s solemnest day, Yom Kippur, to "atone for the national sin of the death penalty."

The Five Precepts, Buddhism’s core ethical code, state explicitly that it is forbidden to take another life, Nyima said.

And there's been a long tradition of opposition to the death penalty among Christians, though beliefs differ drastically across denominations and racial lines.

More than three-quarters of White Protestants view capital punishment as morally justified. That compares to just 60% of American adults who favor the death penalty for those convicted of murder.

"Sadly, our church and religion in general… have been co-opted — have been led to believe that persons are expendable," Battista said. "That some persons can be sacrificed, like persons on our Southern border, like persons that are poor and destitute, like persons on death row."

For Catholics, opposition to the death penalty is more consolidated. in 2018, Pope Francis ordered a change to doctrine, calling it "inadmissible." Two years later, he reiterated his opposition, stating, "The death penalty is inadmissible, and Catholics should work for its abolition."

Beyond religion, death penalty abolitionists cite myriad other reasons to do away with capital punishment. 

The American justice system has frequently condemned innocent people to death. Since the 1970s, Amnesty International reports that 184 prisoners on death row have been later exonerated. And DNA testing has cast doubt on the guilt of some who have been executed.

Between legal, pre-trial, jury, trial, incarceration and appeal costs, executing prisoners also costs states and the federal government millions of dollars, with some arguing inordinate costs are a reason to move away from the practice.

Advocates also say the death penalty is another tool of racial discrimination.

People of color have represented 43% of executions since 1976 and more than half of those on death row. Eighty percent of capital cases involve white victims even though they are only about one-half of all murder victims, according to the ACLU.

"The system is so racist, the criminal justice system — there's no doubt of its racial underpinnings," Battista said.

While supporters say the death penalty helps prevent crime, studies have failed to produce any evidence of deterrence. 

Abolitionists call the practice cruel and unnecessarily harsh.

"All life is sacred and never should our government take another person’s life in my name," Battista said. "The death penalty is an act of revenge and it has no place in civil society."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.