The Biblical Truth about America's Death Penalty


While secular support for capital punishment in America seems to be waning, religious conservatives, particularly in the "Bible belt," remain staunch advocates of the death penalty, citing biblical law and practice to defend government-sanctioned killing. Dale S. Recinella compares biblical teaching about the death penalty, including such passages as "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life," with the nation's current system of capital punishment, and offers persuasive arguments for a faith-based moratorium ...

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While secular support for capital punishment in America seems to be waning, religious conservatives, particularly in the "Bible belt," remain staunch advocates of the death penalty, citing biblical law and practice to defend government-sanctioned killing. Dale S. Recinella compares biblical teaching about the death penalty, including such passages as "eye for eye, tooth for tooth, life for life," with the nation's current system of capital punishment, and offers persuasive arguments for a faith-based moratorium on — and eventual abolition of — executions.

Framing his careful and incisive analysis as a legal brief to those who believe the Bible mandates the ultimate punishment, the author addresses two critical areas of inquiry: what do the scriptures tell us about who is deserving of death and who has the authority to kill, and what do they tell us about the required standards for execution and the plight of victims' families. Recinella's examination of the Hebrew Torah, or Christian Pentateuch, and the Talmud reveals that the biblical death penalty was not a simple system of swift retribution, but a complex and practical set of laws that guided capital courts established under the Sanhedrin. His scrutiny of these texts, the Christian doctrine of atonement, and Romans 13 in the Pauline Epistles, draws parallels between the traditional biblical arguments used in favor of capital punishment and those used as the basis for pro-slavery positions in the nineteenth century. Demonstrating that both approaches are unsubstantiated in biblical terms, Recinella debunks the accepted religious reasoning for support of the death penalty and shows instead that the Bible's strict conditions for sanctioning execution are at odds with the arbitrary ways in which capital punishment is administered in the United States. He provides convincing evidence that a sentence of death in today's criminal justice system in fact fails to meet both the Bible's exacting procedural requirements and its strict limitations on judicial authority.

By providing actual scriptural language and foundation to counter the position that biblical truth justifies a pro-death penalty stance, this thoughtful, solidly researched, and well-reasoned work will give pause to religious fundamentalists and challenge them to rethink their strongly held views on capital punishment.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Recinella, a lawyer rather than a professional scholar of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, tackles the topic of the abolition of the death penalty based on his reading of the Bible. His intention is to convince conservative Christians that the imposition of the death penalty cannot be supported by the Bible. Although his position against the death penalty is laudatory, he is unable to make much of an argument from the Bible to support it. The Hebrew scripture clearly allows the death penalty for a wide range of offenses. The Christian scripture seems to be more forgiving, but only because its writers expected a revolutionary new social and civil order soon to replace the corrupt society in which they lived. The Christian doctrine of the sacrificial death of Jesus to atone for all the sins of humankind might be used to argue against capital punishment, since it was the last one to be imposed, but it is doubtful that such an argument will convince many conservative Christians to abandon the death penalty. An appendix to the book contains a policy statement by the Southern Baptist Convention that makes this very point. Recommended for large academic libraries.-James A. Overbeck, Atlanta-Fulton Cty. Lib. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
“Recinella isn't looking to dodge controversy in his book, The Biblical Truth About America's Death Penalty. In more than 400 pages of research, analysis, interpretations of original Greek scriptures, indexes, and a bibliography, he reaches a conclusion bound to rile many people, namely that America's death penalty is incompatible and inconsistent with Biblical teachings… Recinella brings a unique perspective to his work.”—The Florida Bar Journal

“His conclusions are eye-opening.” —The Florida Bar News

"Recinella concludes that people of biblical faith must abolish the American death penalty in our time, and that moratorium is a way of stopping the practice while others of biblical faith become educated to the biblical truth that demands nothing less than abolition."—New Testament Abstracts

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555536336
  • Publisher: Northeastern University Press
  • Publication date: 11/18/2004
  • Pages: 320
  • Product dimensions: 6.12 (w) x 9.12 (h) x 1.42 (d)

Meet the Author

Dale S. Recinella is an attorney who serves as a state-certified spiritual counselor and Catholic lay chaplain for Florida's prison system, ministering to death row inmates and prisoners in long-term solitary confinement. He is also a columnist, public speaker, and frequent panelist on worldwide Vatican Radio. He lives in Macclenny, Florida.

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Read an Excerpt




Copyright © 2004 Dale S. Recinella
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-55553-632-8

Chapter One


Some dramatic changes in public perception of the American death penalty have taken place in the last decade. In 1994 80 percent of Americans favored capital punishment, but by May 2001, that level of support had dropped to 65 percent. An ABC News poll from April 2001 found that 51 percent of Americans supported a nationwide moratorium on the death penalty. More recently, a May 2002 Gallup poll showed that when Americans are given the sentencing alternative of life in prison without the possibility of parole, only 52 percent of Americans support the death penalty. Even so, 82 percent of respondents oppose the death penalty for the mentally retarded, 73 percent oppose it for those who are mentally ill, and 69 percent of Americans oppose capital punishment for juvenile offenders.

A revealing poll at the state level in New Jersey mirrors this change in the American climate. As recently as 1999, state polls had shown that only 37 percent of New Jersey residents preferred life imprisonment to execution as the penalty for murder. Now, just three years later, in a poll that asked New Jersey residents to choose between executions and life imprisonment without possibility of parole, 48 percent of NewJersey residents support a life sentence, while only 36 percent support capital punishment. The poll also reflects that support for the death penalty has dropped considerably in the state: two-thirds (66 percent) of New Jersey residents now support a moratorium on the death penalty.

Such changes in the public opinion polls on the American death penalty coincide with trends in the statistics concerning death sentences and executions. The number of persons sentenced to death in America during the year 2000 was only 214, a 20 percent decline from the prior year. That number has continued to drop, with only 139 death sentences handed down in the United States in the year 2003, "a 53 percent drop from the average of 296 death sentences per year between 1994 and 2000 and a 56 percent drop from the "modern day peak of 319 in 1996."

Juries in fifteen of the last sixteen federal capital trials have declined to impose the death penalty, despite a more aggressive pursuit of this punishment by the Justice Department. Legal experts believe that overreaching by prosecutors and some jurors' growing unease with the death penalty may account for the trend. Federal capital juries have rejected the death penalty for twenty of the last twenty-one defendants who have completed trial and thirty-eight of the last forty-three since the year 2000. In Florida, often called the "belt buckle of the death penalty belt," only twenty-two first-time death sentences were handed down in the year 2000 and fifteen in 2001. This continues a downward trend that began in 1996. From 1986 through 1995, Florida averaged 39.9 death sentences per year. That number dropped to an average of 22.4 for the years 1996 through 2000.

The number of actual executions per year is also decreasing. In 1999, there were ninety-eight executions in the United States. This made 1999 the highest year for executions since capital punishment resumed in America in 1976. During the ensuing year the number of executions declined by 13 percent to eighty-five, making 2000 the second highest year for executions since 1976. In 2001, that number still dropped another 22 percent to sixty-six. Executions in 2002 rose slightly to seventy-one, but declined to sixty-five during 2003. The net result is that from 1999 to 2003 the number of annual U.S. executions dropped from ninety-eight to sixty-five, a falloff of 33.7 percent.

The population of America's death rows has peaked and begun to decline, a significant turn from the steady population increase that occurred over the past twenty-five years. The number of death row inmates in the United States as of January 1, 2004 was 3,503 down 223 (6 percent) from 3,726 on January 1, 2001.

Although the secular statistics appear to show that America has turned a corner in its use of the death penalty, there is much more to the story. Capital punishment in America is not just a legal or political reality; it is also a religious phenomenon encompassing matters of belief, faith, and morals. That is where one finds the most strident and, in some cases, strengthening support for the American death penalty.

It is not unusual for prosecutors to quote the Hebrew scriptures to juries in their arguments for death sentences in capital cases. In the last fifteen years, almost one hundred reported appeals of court decisions in death penalty cases have involved legal challenges by the defendant based on the grounds that the prosecutor used religious remarks to support leveling a death sentence. There is no indication that the instances of this practice are decreasing.

The most popular scripture quotes to be used by prosecutors are those involving vengeance as justice. Eight reported appellate cases involved quotations of "eye for an eye." The verse from Exodus 21:12, "He that smiteth a man, so that he die, shall surely be put to death," appears in nine such cases. The so-called Rule of Blood in Genesis 9:6, "[Who] so sheddeth a man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed," was used by prosecutors in eight other appealed decisions. Finally, six appealed cases involved a quotation from Numbers 35:16, "[T]he murderer shall [surely] be put to death." Other arguments usually involve statements that support the government's right to take life, either by analogy to Noah or based on an interpretation of Romans 13.

Those familiar with American death penalty practice know that religion and interpretation of scripture are surprisingly common issues in the courtroom. One prominent American academic and theological commentator on the death penalty has written that his interest in applying his knowledge to the death penalty arose when a North Carolina public defender asked him to be an expert witness, to testify before the jury in a capital case as to whether the Bible mandates capital punishment. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

Religious arguments, however, are particularly powerful and are likely to resonate with most jurors. Prosecutors often draw support from the Bible for imposing the death penalty. The average juror, and even the legal system, holds the Bible sacrosanct and accords it great weight in influencing behavior. Yet, because they cannot ascertain the arguments' actual influence on jurors, judges often justify excusing biblical references by characterizing the references as innocuous. ... Religions generally, and Christianity and Judaism in particular, provide moral principles to guide their adherents' actions, and the jurors in a capital sentencing face "the ultimate moral decision." Furthermore, the propriety of death as a form of punishment engenders a debate fraught with religious arguments, with principles and beliefs coming from authoritative religious texts. (citations omitted)

The use by prosecutors of religious authority in death penalty cases is particularly popular in the Bible Belt.

Assertions that biblical law supports the legality of the American death penalty arise most frequently in arguments of prosecuting attorneys to juries in capital cases. The North Carolina Supreme Court recently upheld as proper the following admonition to the jury by a prosecutor: "Well the Bible ... says an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The law is clear." The prosecutor had made this statement during his closing argument in a capital case....

... [A]n Alabama prosecutor ... made the following argument during a sentencing hearing: "Our Legislature, you know we are governed by the laws of [God] and man. And I'll submit to you the laws of [God.] He believed in capital punishment and you will find it many times in the Bible." The reviewing court did not find this to be reversible error, rationalizing that the prosecutor was merely telling the jurors that they should not refuse to impose the death penalty because of religious feelings. (citations omitted; bracketed language mine)

Critical to the bulwark of support for the death penalty in America is the religious phenomenon called the Bible Belt. While the Bible Belt is generally evangelical and fundamental in religious disposition, provincial and culturally conservative in nature, it also is historic in origin and geographic in scope, and has profound political implications for the nation. It is not possible to understand the American death penalty without comprehending the role of the American Bible Belt, which has evolved from the pre-Civil War slaveholding states. Scripture was used to defend the institution of slavery and-in some cases-even the specific slavery of blacks. (The nature of those scriptural arguments and the parallels between them and the modern-day scriptural arguments given to support capital punishment will be examined in chapter 9.)

Suffice it to say that the support in the southern states for the peculiar institution of slavery was not made in spite of the Christian churches. It was made on the backbone and with the support of the Christian churches. Although the Baptist and Methodist churches made up between 90 and 95 percent of church membership in the southern states, it seems that all the Christian churches in the South sought to make some sort of an accommodation with slavery. Richard Furman, an outstanding Baptist minister and a significant church leader in the early nineteenth-century southern states, provided an elaborate scriptural defense of slavery that was "adopted by the South Carolina Baptist Association in 1822," and a Roman Catholic bishop also defended the institution in 1844.

The major evangelical churches, including Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist, split along the geographic boundaries of North and South, which were also the religious-political boundaries of abolition and slavery.

In May 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention was established in Augusta, Georgia. Thus was born the precursor to the modern American reality known as the Bible Belt. As a person who has lived in the Deep South of extreme north Florida since 1986 (except for a short time in Rome, Italy), I can attest that the southern understanding of the Bible Belt consists of the regions whose largest religious affiliation is Baptist. That is virtually synonymous with the states and territories of the Old Confederacy and the slave-owning border states, as shown in Table 1.1.

With 16 million members and 42,000 congregations, the Southern Baptist Convention is now the largest Christian non-Catholic denomination in America. It is the second largest religious denomination in the United States and is the largest in the Bible Belt. The Southern Baptist Convention exerts a tremendous influence on the thinking and beliefs of many of the smaller fundamentalist and evangelical denominations in the Bible Belt, even though such groups are not formally affiliated with the convention.

The largely fundamentalist and evangelical church communities of the Bible belt believe that the death penalty is mandated by the Hebrew scriptures, is not prohibited by the Gospels, and seems supported by the Epistles in the Christian scriptures.

Evangelical Protestants, in particular, are committed to what one scholar calls "biblicism": looking to the Bible for direct, specific answers to current ethical or social questions such as the death penalty....

Bible-oriented supporters of the death penalty tend to start with the passage in the book of Genesis where immediately after the Flood, God covenants with Noah and describes to him how human society will be reconstituted, stating among other things, that "[w]hosoever sheds the blood of Man, in Man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God He made Man." [Gen. 9:6] ... Bible-oriented proponents of the death penalty then go on to say that "[n]othing in the teachings of Jesus or the apostles contradicts this sanctioning" of capital punishment. They point, for example, to the passage in the 13th chapter of Paul's [L]etter to the Romans, which endorses human government as the instrument of God's "wrath" against offenders and speaks of government wielding the "sword," [Rom. 13:4] both of which the proponents say refer specifically to the use of death as punishment." (scripture citations added)

Virtually undiscussed in modern American religious circles is the fact that such an approach to scripture exactly parallels the approach used in the Bible Belt to justify slavery in the eighteen hundreds. We will investigate this issue in more detail in chapter 9.

The Bible Belt churches are relatively unaffected by the secular statistics and studies that have influenced much of the rest of the country on the death penalty. Their position is that secular reporting of the problems with the American death penalty has no bearing on God's will as reflected in God's word. As opposed to moving away from the death penalty like the rest of Americans, conservative evangelical Christians in the Bible Belt are digging in to defend the veracity of the Bible by defending the American death penalty. "In the slimmer of 2000, even as other conservatives voiced their doubts, the increasingly fundamentalist Southern Baptist Convention explicitly endorsed capital punishment for the first time."

This religious fervor is significant. The death penalty, as practiced in America today, is a Bible Belt phenomenon. Almost 90 percent of executions in America during the last five years have taken place in the Bible Belt (see table 1.2).

Over 80 percent of the twenty-two executions that have taken place in 2004 have been in the Bible Belt. Moreover, the Bible Belt has hosted all twenty-two of the juvenile executions that have taken place in America since 1976. See table 1.3.

The impact of this Bible Belt phenomenon extends to the rest of the country. The quotes of "eye for an eye" and "life for a life" have become a part of the American culture. For example, in a recent death penalty case in Colorado, the appeals court discovered that jurors had written biblical passages on note cards and taken them into deliberations. The passages written on the cards, which included Leviticus 24:20, "fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done to him," were used to persuade other jurors to impose a death sentence.

Even outside the confines of fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity, biblical Christians of other denominations and other people of biblical faith frequently quote these scripture texts as a basis for religious support for the American death penalty.


Excerpted from THE BIBLICAL TRUTH ABOUT AMERICA'S DEATH PENALTY by DALE S. RECINELLA Copyright © 2004 by Dale S. Recinella. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 Trends in the American death penalty 3
2 Torah and Talmud 17
3 A point of beginning : beyond platitudes 28
Pt. 1 What does biblical truth tell us about who is deserving of death and the authority to kill?
4 The mosaic law : from Moses to Jesus; from Cain to Lamech 37
5 Life for life and the rule of blood : mandate or law of limitation? 47
6 Who deserves death? : Torah, the American colonies, and Modern America 58
7 A Christian conundrum under mosaic law : atonement by sacrifice versus reconciliation by grace 71
8 Authority to kill : the Sanhedrin 82
9 Authority to kill : extra-biblical courts and Romans 13 92
10 Authority to kill : biblical deterrence 103
11 Summary of part one 111
Pt. 2 What does biblical truth tell us about the required procedures and the plight of the families of the victims?
12 An innocent person you shall not slay : witnesses permitted 119
13 An innocent person you shall not slay : evidence permitted 141
14 An innocent person you shall not slay : innocence versus closure 160
15 Let it be done to them as they sought to do to him : false testimony and prosecutorial misconduct 185
16 Levels of culpability and diminished capacity : age, mental illness, and mental retardation 210
17 God is blind to wealth : no privilege for rich over poor 228
18 God is blind to color : all victims are of equal value; all offenders are to be treated equally 247
19 Impartiality in the decision makers : the politics of death 274
20 For whom is it a detriment? : The American death penalty and families of the victims 306
21 Summary of part two 324
22 A faith alternative : abolition or moratorium of the American death penalty by people of biblical faith 331
App. A Short form of an abolition resolution for people of biblical faith 345
App. B Short form of a moratorium resolution for people of biblical faith 348
App. C 2000 southern baptist convention resolution on capital punishment passed in Orlando, Florida in June, 2000 351
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