A plea for humor in honor of Bill Vaughan: 2-25/26-17
The community's challenge after Olathe: 2-28-17

Arguing about the death penalty civilly: 2-27-17


As I have written here and in other venues way more than once, I oppose capital punishment. There are many reasons for my stance, including the fact that since 1973 there have been 157 people on death row who have been exonerated and released. Sometimes we get it wrong.

I'm pleased that in the U.S. (one of the few developed nations that still uses the death penalty) the number of executions has dropped in recent years (from 98 in 1999 to 20 in 2016) and the number of states outlawing the practice has increased now to 19.

But I understand that there are people of good faith who disagree with me. What we often lack is a forum in which to express our disagreements civilly.

That, however, is exactly what happened one evening last week when the American Public Square partnered with KCPT-TV and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City to host a panel discussion on capital punishment at the Plaza branch of the Kansas City Public Library.

The panelists: The Rev. Adam Hamilton, founding pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in suburban Leawood, Kan.; Tricia Bushnell, executive director of the Midwest Innocence Project; Eric G. Zahnd, prosecuting attorney of Platte County, and Terry Nelson, founding partner of FP1, a political consulting firm and national political director for the Bush-Cheney 2004 presidential campaign.

What this kind of calm discussion reveals is that the issues are many and that they are complicated.

Hamilton, for instance, said that his work requires him to take a pastoral approach with members of his congregation, some of whom have experienced the murder of their own family members. With such congregants, he said, he tries to listen to their thinking and their desires and to help them see the alternatives in how to respond to the perpetrators. Whether they decide they want to seek the death penalty for those perpetrators or would rather not, he said, his job is to support them and not use the occasion to convince them one way or another. Being pastoral means being supportive and it's a tough job.

Zahnd was the most vocal supporter of capital punishment, and said he supports it "because I believe in life."

When Bushnell and others noted that capital punishment is a much more expensive way to proceed than adopting a punishment of life in prison without parole, Zahnd said that he has never -- and never will -- consider costs in determining whether to seek the death penalty in any case.

There were questions about murder ratios in states with and without capital punishment and questions about whether public defenders have the resources to give adequate defense to those charged with capital crimes. And there were questions about the makeup of juries, given that in any death penalty case, prospective jurors who say they oppose capital punishment are routinely dismissed during jury selection, leaving only those who support capital punishment as jurors.

And none of this even touches on the question of what role bigoted racial attitudes play in our system of justice.

Well, the discussion went on for well over an hour and perhaps no one's mind was changed. But, for instance, when Zahnd asked what would prevent a prisoner already serving a life sentence from killing a guard or fellow prisoner in a state without the death penalty, even I had to acknowledge that it was an interesting question.

So thanks again to the American Public Square for providing a forum for civil discussion of issues that can be complicated almost beyond belief. It was another reminder that religions that encourage simplistic answers without rebuttals really help no one.

(In the photo here, from left to right, it's Zahnd, Hamilton, moderator Nick Haines of KCPT-TV, Bushnell and Nelson)

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The Charlotte Observer has just published this excellent column by a man who asserts that even though he's a Christian, he doesn't serve the same God that evangelist Franklin Graham describes and promotes. Me, either, I say. Me, either.

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P.S.: My latest Flatland column now is online here. It describes Kansas City's important connections to the soon-to-open Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.


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