Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, Mennonite Church USA’s denominational minister for Peace and Justice, calls attention to the destructive nature of capital punishment and advocates for the abolishment of the death penalty, through the lens of our shared Anabaptist Christian faith.
Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz is Mennonite Church USA’s denominational minister for Peace and Justice. For more than 25 years, she served as the coordinator of Mennonite Central Committee’s Restorative Justice program. She also co-authored “The Little Book of Restorative Discipline for Schools” and “What Will Happen to Me?” Lorraine graduated from Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, with a bachelor’s degree in Social Work, and earned a master’s in Social Work from Marywood University, Scranton, Pennsylvania. She and her husband attend Blossom Hill Mennonite Church, Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
An Alabama death row inmate, Kenneth Eugene Smith, became the first person in the U.S. to be executed with nitrogen gas today for the 1988 murder of Elizabeth Sennett. Smith requested a stay of execution on the grounds that this method amounts to unconstitutional cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court on Wednesday rejected Smith’s request. This is the second time that Alabama has tried to kill Smith, after a failed lethal injection in November 2022.
Alabama is one of 24 states that allows the death penalty. Three states have moratoriums on the death penalty (California, Oregon and Pennsylvania) and 23 states have abolished it.
According to Amnesty International, in 2022, the U.S. was among the top five countries that executed the most people (behind China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt).
A number of years ago, I facilitated a dialogue with a young woman and her mother, who received the death penalty for hiring someone to kill her husband/the young woman’s father. It took months of planning for this dialogue to happen. The young woman longed for this conversation since she was five years old and lost her father to murder and her mother to prison. The women talked, cried and made plans for further conversations. Then, the state executed her mother. The daughter protested, wrote letters and begged the state not to take her only remaining parent, regardless of the circumstances. This was her mom, and she had questions and wanted to continue to talk. She needed her mother, but in the end, her mother was put to death.
As followers of Jesus, we are called to seek peace and justice. A Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective calls us to witness to all people that violence is not the will of God. In John 8, Jesus calls us to treat those in need with loving kindness and to beware of condemning others. Jesus reminds us through his words, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone,” that we are not perfect enough to be sitting in judgment of others.
Our faith teaches us to believe in the possibility of repentance and of redemption. A very real tragedy of capital punishment is that it takes away the possibility of repentance, redemption and, at times, reconciliation.
Even though I was not in favor of the death penalty before participating in the above-mentioned dialogue, this further impressed on me the futility of state-sanctioned murder. Murder is horrific, and the long-term trauma to the victim’s family is unimaginable. Yet, in their grief, family members have asked the state not to kill in their name. Another colleague, Marietta Jaeger, lost her seven-year-old daughter to murder. She testified, saying, “To kill somebody in [my daughter’s] name is really to violate her and profane her. I’d rather honor her life by saying that all of life is sacred and all of life is worthy of preservation.” (MCC Washington Office Guide to the Death Penalty, 2001).
We know that race matters when it comes to those who are incarcerated, and the same applies to the death penalty. According to the American Civil Liberties Union document, ”Race and the Death Penalty,” white victims account for about 50% of murder victims, resulting in 80% of all death penalty cases. The death row population further highlights these disparities. According to the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Black and Hispanic people represent 31% of the U.S. population but 53% of death row inmates. Death row is over 41% Black, even though Black people make up about 13% of the population. We need to recognize that this is a larger societal issue, and we need to put safeguards in place to address racial inequities within our legal system.
A common rationale in favor of the death penalty is that of deterrence. In a recent study by Stephen Oliphant on the death penalty’s effect on homicide rates he found “no evidence of a deterrent effect attributable to the death penalty statutes.”
Given the many issues surrounding the death penalty, including the killing of innocent people, the ongoing trauma to victim families and families of those on death row, the cost of keeping someone on death row and executing them, it is critical that the U.S. should follow the lead of every other Western democracy and abolish the death penalty.
In light of the execution of Kenneth Smith in Alabama with the little-known nitrogen gas, I urge us to redouble our efforts named in the Mennonite Church USA resolution, A Resolution on The Death Penalty – 2001.*
*Please use careful discernment, caution and sensitivity when planning candlelight peace vigils to protect the safety and well-being of demonstrators and nearby residents.
Updated Jan. 26, 2024.
The views and opinions expressed in this blog belong to the author and are not intended to represent the views of the MC USA Executive Board or staff.
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