There are many reasons to oppose the death penalty.  It is a colossal waste of money.  It is applied inequitably (with accused killers of white people much more likely to receive a capital sentence than accused killers of people of color; with poor people much more likely to receive a capital sentence than rich people).  It fails to deter crime.

But the most important reason (in my opinion) to oppose the death penalty is:  it’s wrong.  It’s wrong to kill people, so we shouldn’t do it.  Unfortunately, this is a moral opinion that can’t be proven factually.  So lets focus on the second most important reason to oppose the death penalty:  “the demon of error,” that possibility that we would kill an innocent person.

In 2003, George Ryan, in the waning hours of his governorship, commuted the death sentences of all 167 people on death row in Illinois and pardoned four of them.  The death penalty, he explained, has not been imposed fairly and uniformly.  He pointed out that defendants who are African American and who are tried in rural courts are much more likely to get the death penalty.  He noted that many death-row inmates have had incompetent attorneys, and that half of all capital cases have been reversed for a new trial or resentencing.

He ignored the great moral and philosophic questions that surround the topic and focused on the pragmatic ones.  He managed to turn the anti-death penalty movement into a nonpartisan cause by showing and focusing on one idea:  capital punishment is a government program that doesn’t work.

The system is haunted by the “demon of error,” Ryan said, “error in determining guilt, and error in determining who among the guilty deserves to die.”*

People argue that we have never executed an innocent person.  They can argue this because every person executed has been found guilty of the crime for which they have been executed, and once executed the case is closed.  Courts are very reluctant to grant reviews of closed cases (especially of dead people).  Prosecutors don’t want the cases reviewed.  And death penalty opponent spend what time and money they have defending the people who are still alive (and on death row).

However, back on September 7, 2009, The New Yorker published some excellent investigative journalism that calls into question the guilt of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed by the state of Texas on February 17, 2004, for the killing by arson of his three daughters on December 23, 1991.

The forensic evidence that convicted Cameron Todd Willingham was flawed and that new forensic evidence points to the fire not being arson.  If it wasn’t arson, there wasn’t a crime.  It seems that the demon of error has struck and that we have executed an innocent man.

This isn’t new news.  But it’s important news.  We need to remember the demon of error and end capital punishment.

*Ryan is quoted from a non-attributed editorial, “Capital offense,” from The Christian Century, 8 February 2003, p 5.

For information about a curriculum you can use in your faith community with adults (and older youth) about the death penalty, go to

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