Culture At Large

Why I take the death penalty personally

Gail Rice

With both houses of the Illinois General Assembly having passed SB3539, the bill to repeal the death penalty now sits on the desk of Governor Pat Quinn.

It’s an issue Illinois has wrestled with for years, and one that is personal for me. In 1997 my brother, Bruce VanderJagt, a Denver policeman, was murdered during a botched burglary. The killer escaped a certain death sentence by committing suicide with Bruce’s service revolver. Therefore, I escaped the nightmare most murder victims’ family members go through in death penalty cases — often decades of agony and putting their lives on hold, reliving the murder with every appeal and court decision, slowly waiting for an execution that may not come.

The 18 years I spent working in literacy and Christian ministry in jails and prisons prior to Bruce’s death showed me a different standard of justice for the rich and the poor. Believing the death penalty could never be carried out fairly, I opposed it. Later I became involved with Murder Victims’ Families for Reconciliation and Murder Victims’ Families for Human Rights, abolitionist support groups for family members of murder victims and those who are on death row or had been executed. Gradually my opposition to the death penalty deepened far beyond my concerns over the fairness of the system.

Many Christians disagree about the death penalty. Why have I become so opposed to it? Lobbying alongside Randy Steidl (seen in the above picture with me), Illinois’ 18th innocent exoneree, gave me a glimpse of the hell blameless men suffer for decades on death row. It made me realize that most exonerees are cleared in spite of rather than because of our criminal justice system. There is no evidence to show that the death penalty is a deterrent and lots of evidence to show it is capriciously applied. It violates my Christian faith because it is a violent act of retribution and vengeance, an act that encourages the state to do what I have so abhorred in the murderer.

Because the death penalty is carried out primarily against the poorest and most powerless, it makes a mockery of God’s preferential caring for the poor. The death penalty asserts that not all people are made in the image of God, and it cuts off the possibility of forgiveness, redemption and reconciliation that Christ wants me to work toward. And in the end, it creates a whole new circle of victims — the family of the executed — who will suffer as I have suffered. I encourage Bible-believing Christians to read “Capital Punishment and the Bible” by Gardner C. Hanks for a comprehensive Biblical view of capital punishment.

Gov. Quinn has said that he plans to study the bill before deciding to sign or veto it, and that he wants to hear from his constituents. Call him at 312-814-2121 or 217-782-0244 or fax him at 312-814-5512 or 217-524-4049. May this action of the General Assembly cause us to seriously question the death penalty, which I see as the antithesis of restorative justice in this world.

Gail Rice is an author, consultant and adult literacy specialist who has been involved in jail and prison literacy work and ministry for over 30 years. She wrote again about capital punishment for TC after the death penalty was repealed in Illinois in March of 2011.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith, News & Politics, Social Trends, Justice, North America