Sister Helen Prejean, a Catholic nun, published Dead Man Walking in 1993. I am just finishing the book, which reinforces my long-held disdain for the death penalty. I have not seen the movie, but the book is a powerful accounting of Sister Helen’s experiences counseling death-row inmates in Louisiana.
I will not engage in an extended examination of the death penalty from a Mormon perspective. If this post puts you in the mood for such reading, you might start with PoliticalJustice.com (which, for reasons not clear to me, does not link to Times & Seasons, despite having a Mormon blogroll … hint, hint). For present purposes, suffice it to say that my primary objection to the death penalty is based on my distrust of the state to get these decisions right. Not only are innocent men too often convicted and sentenced to death — see here, for example, or here for a description of the Wisconsin Innocence Project that is housed at my law school — but the death penalty is applied unevenly to the most disadvantaged criminal defendants.
We know, of course, that the Old Testament prescribes death as the penalty for murder (Genesis 9:6) and adultery (Leviticus 20:10). On the other hand, I think we can all agree that present circumstances are considerably different than those that prevailed at the time when these verses were written. Moreover, the modern Church has taken no official position on the death penalty, suggesting that these Old Testament verses are not binding on us today.
Actually, it is the Church’s statement refusing to take a position on the death penalty that inspired me to write this post. For many years, I assumed that the Church’s refusal to take a position on the death penalty was simply a matter of political restraint, but in light of the First Presidency’s recent endorsement of constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage, I am puzzled. Assuming inspired leadership, I wonder whether we can infer anything about the death penalty or SSM or their relative moral or social importance from the fact that the First Presidency is willing to expend political capital on SSM, but does not take a stand on the death penalty.