Pagan chaplains and others share views on the death penalty

Terence P Ward —  February 15, 2017 — 16 Comments

TWH –On June 17, 2015, violence ripped through a South Carolina community in one of the worst ways imaginable: the perpetrator joined his victims for a Bible study session at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, and then shot nine people dead, wounding a tenth. The shooter, a white man, hoped to bring about a race war through his execution of his black victims. He was sentenced to death in federal court for those actions, but is now seeking a new trial.

The case has received a significant amount of press coverage, and the nature of the crimes themselves — targeting victims during a religious service in the hopes of igniting further racially-motivated violence — appears to typify one of the most serious cultural problems in the United States today.

It is in the context of these recent stories that we decided to speak with a number of Pagans to examine views on the death penalty. Like members of the overarching society, those interviewed had varied and nuanced positions on this complex topic. Is taking a person’s life ever appropriate, and if so, under what conditions?



 Donna Donovan, of Appalachian Pagan Ministry, has cultivated her views while working with condemned prisoners. “I try [to] make it a point not to know the charges of the inmates I work with,” she wrote, but on death row “that proves difficult, as most of their cases are very public, especially if execution is upcoming. I have to suspend my personal feelings and do what I was called to do by my gods and ancestors, and give that inmate spiritual service. It’s hard.”

It’s not hard for Artemisia Barden; she’s opposed to the death penalty across the board. According to Barden, the prospect of innocent people being put to death, which she asserts is 10% of all those executed in the U.S. even with a lengthy appeals process, is too high a price to pay, and particularly given that the sentence is given disproportionately to people of color.

Barden’s concern about wrongful convictions is echoed by Aline “Macha” O’Brien, a longtime prison chaplain. In a guest post for the California Correctional Crisis blog, she wrote, “One of those so sentenced, a man named Carillo, who was convicted by no fewer than 16 eyewitnesses, later was exonerated by DNA evidence in testing that was not available at the time of sentencing. However, DNA exists in only 20% of homicide cases. How many other innocent people may have been executed? Is there any justification for executing an innocent person, no matter how convincing the evidence? No.”

Byron Ballard, who serves as elder priestess of the Mother Grove Goddess Temple, recognizes that misuse of the death penalty — intentionally or not — is its biggest limitation. “My study leads me to think that some crimes should not be forgiven, and some people who perpetrate these crimes cannot be rehabilitated. In an ideal system, most of these people could be housed in a humane way and kept from the general public. But for some, their actions have stripped them of their humanity and death for the perpetrator may begin the healing of those that had been victimized by them.”

However, Ballard isn’t confident that justice will always be done. “I believe the death penalty has value and a place in a free state, but I also believe our government and its penal system are basically corrupt and can’t be trusted to execute it (if you’ll pardon the pun).”

“Worse still,” wrote O’Brien in her article, “the death penalty is inequitably applied: far more minorities are sentenced to death than are Euro-Americans. When the color of the convict determines the sentence, this is not blind justice. It is not justice at all.”

She was not alone in voicing deep and abiding concerns about the racial inequity in capital convictions. Patrick McCollum, California’s first Pagan prison chaplain, recalled noticing “that many of the condemned inmates were from minorities,” as well, and research bears their experience out. The ongoing South Carolina case notwithstanding, most people executed in the U.S. are not white.

Ballard argued that there are times when an execution is necessary to allow healing to begin for victims and survivors, and while she was not entirely alone in that opinion, others questioned whether killing the perpetrator does that at all.

Donovan recalled, “I was asked once by an inmate, who had completely admitted guilt, if I thought he should die for what he did. I asked him, ‘Are you asking me as a mother? Or as someone who is providing spiritual guidance?’ He said, ‘Both.’ I was honest with him. I said, ‘As a mother, I would have killed you myself. You would not be on death row. But I am not here as a mother. I am here to help you get yourself right and prepare for the next step in your journey. We can’t change what happened.'”

For her part, O’Brien observed, “Killing the perpetrator, which I consider to be state-sanctioned homicide, does not bring back the dead loved one. In the words of the San Diego County District Attorney, the death penalty is ‘a hollow promise to victims.'”

“I am a favour of restorative justice,” wrote Dr. Gareth Thomas, a New Zealander who also lived for some years in the U.S. No one has been executed in New Zealand since 1957. “This is because restorative justice favours and empowers the victims, something which modern laws do not seem to do in most cases.”

“While there may be some closure in seeing a murderer executed, there is also a certain level of horror associated with this,” Thomas explained. “Reading stories and statements from the families of victims who witness the permanent removal of killers from society, you often find that the closure is minimal. There is no opportunity to heal, just the relief that perhaps this will not happen to another family.”

The flip side of retribution is deterrence, or the idea that the very threat of the death penalty will prevent crimes from being committed.

“Deterrence doesn’t work well,” according to Barden, “because in a democracy (as opposed to, say, a fascist/authoritarian regime) there have to be many legal safeguards to ensure as much as is possible that the person convicted is guilty, which takes so many years that I don’t think the prospect deters very many criminals considering committing a capital crime.”

San Quentin Prison yard

San Quentin Prison yard [TWH Photo]

 McCollum is in agreement, saying that “many promote the idea that the death penalty provides a deterrent to capital crimes, [but] my direct personal experience with condemned inmates was that none of them had reflected on that potential punishment before committing their crimes.Instead, each and every one of them feared life in prison far more than being executed!”

An argument that often resonates with conservatives and liberals alike is the economic one: imprisoning someone for life is costly, but the automatic appeals and other requirements for death-row inmates are even costlier.

“It just costs society so much more per person to put a prisoner to death (after keeping them for years through the legal processes) than it does to hold them for life without parole that it just fails in terms of money,” pointed out Barden.

“Capital convictions entail further expense because they carry an automatic appeal,” wrote O’Brien. “It is these appeals that cost the state thousands of dollars. In fact, capital cases cost twenty times more than non-capital cases to pursue and bring to conclusion.” She also noted that daily visits from a mental health professional are standard on death row.

Further, O’Brien argued, “By abolishing the death penalty, California could save a billion dollars in only five years. Think of the many ways that kind of money could be used. It could put more cops on the streets. It could be used to solve crimes.

“It could be used for education and after-school programs, giving at-risk youth knowledge and skills so they have a better chance at success in their lives. Accomplished, learned, self-assured people have more hope and less despair, and are less likely to be lured into lives of violence.”

Another concern related to cost was raised by McCollum, who worked with many prisoners who “were often underrepresented and underfunded in their cases.”

It should come as no surprise that a topic as controversial as the death penalty yields a multitude of perspectives from the panoply of Pagan beliefs. Prison ministers such as Donovan must try to set aside their personal feelings while serving on death row, but that doesn’t mean those opinions go away. “I am not Wiccan, nor do I follow any rede; I am human and a mother, and as such I have human failings such as judgment,” she observed.

McCollum, too, emphasized that aspect of the job. “It is important to note that as a chaplain my job wasn’t to judge, but rather to listen and counsel those on death row. And so I simply interacted with those before me as fellow human beings.”

Nevertheless, he reports that his time doing such worked moved him from supporting capital punishment in some cases to complete opposition, largely because he saw evidence of compassion even in those so convicted.

“A core belief I live by is that all things are interconnected,” responded Rev. Rowan Fairgrove, who is working to get the California death penalty abolished.

“I truly believe that we are all one human family, and being kin doesn’t only mean the pleasant connections we cherish,” Fairgrove said. “Being kin means being part of all that is. Everything that happens affects the whole. Whether it is storms a world away caused by a butterfly’s wing or an unkind word that ruins someone’s day, or the smile that lights up a world, or an inmate put to death by the government.

“Mahatma Ghandi observed that, ‘All humanity is one undivided and indivisible community. I cannot detach myself from the wickedest soul.'”

Thomas observed, “I’m certainly not morally against the idea of final justice. My gods are not pacifists, and the legends of my ancestors and heroes are replete with tales of someone settling a balance. Similarly my ancestors put faith in a group of individuals (Druids) who were the judges of these matters.”

If Paganism is thought of as a tapestry, the thoughts about justice and capital punishment stitch out a complex pattern in black, white, and many shades of grey. While preventing such heinous acts is preferable, the question of how to deal these perpetrators will reach no easy consensus among Pagans and polytheists.

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The work of journalist Terence P. Ward was made possible by the generous underwriting donation from Hecate Demeter, writer, ecofeminist, witch and Priestess of the Great Mother Earth.

Terence P Ward


Terence P Ward is a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and convinced Friend who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife, five cats, and multiple household shrines.
  • It is my belief is that capital punishment is cruel and unusual punishment. It belongs in the past with witch burnings, torture and the Inquisition. The death penalty has been misused in the past against witches; it has been misapplied in many ways. It cannot be undone if a person is later found innocent. As a chaplain and as a Wiccan, I would like this penalty to be left behind us in history.

  • kenofken

    I have no problem with the death penalty in theory. When someone commits murder, particularly under aggravated circumstances, they have broken the most fundamental social contract, and therefore have utterly negated society’s obligations to preserve their life.

    On a practical level, our justice system is far too shoddy, corrupt and racist to manage such a penalty with even a semblance of fairness and even if we could resolve those problems, I’m not sure capital punishment would offer any real advantages in terms of deterrence, closure for victims families etc.

    I also find that modern society does not have the temperament or stomach to conduct executions. Our use of such methods as lethal injection reveal a squeamishness which tries to disown the violent nature of taking a life. It is a violent act, and we need to collectively and individually own that if we are to carry it out with any sort of honor. It should be a bloody act, through either firing squad or beheading, and furthermore the governor of a state should have to personally witness and give the kill order. I doubt whether any of the Red State “law and order” chickenhawks would have the guts to do that.

    All said and done, it’s probably time to relegate capital punishment to history.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Ken, I also would prefer the death penalty to be history, but I got a head rush from your scenario of an execution done with integrity.

  • Once I started thinking of the death penalty, following its reversal in 1972 in California. At the time, there was no special clause for those on death row to be designated “life without the possibility of parole”. So every few years Manson and his followers are trotted out for a parole hearing that never says anything but no.

    I find Charles Manson and his followers to be psychopaths. That poor excuse of a human still communicates to the outside, to misguided souls who’ve chosen to follow anything he says or wants. As with those women who marry a notorious convict, I just don’t understand what is going on in their heads, even though I might identify the motive.

    I felt the same about Richard Ramirez–I lived in LA County the year he was on his rampage, and scared out of my mind. When he was arrested, and was given dental attention, I admit to having been roaring mad, because I couldn’t afford the very extensive dental care I needed. Seeing his photograph nauseated me more, but not much more, than seeing that Orange Thing in the Oval Office, who is killing our country’s foundations (in my opinion).

    Since that time, the three strikes law which was enacted here was, in my mind, not written carefully enough, enacted, and I found too many “three felonies” cases were not sufficiently egregious enough to warrant 25yrs to life, in combination. It wasn’t very good as a deterrent, given the belief many criminals have of “they’ll never know it was me/never catch me”, same as for the death penalty.

    Then I saw death penalty assigned too often to one-offs, if you will, where it was not a complicated nor serial murder, and the convicted person had darker skin, or an ethnicity uncomfortable-for-the-jury and for popular opinion. To me, death penalty for a single murder is nothing but legalized revenge, which has no place in our laws.

    I saw too many persons of color (pretty much excepting Asians/of Asian descent), railroaded on dubious testimony and identification; and in some cases disproportionally harsher sentences than a white person would receive. In some cases, mandatory sentencing was at fault, racially-imbalanced laws & their punishment, or poverty level of the accused meant poor representation by an overworked public defender.

    When I read or heard something in the last 18 months about racism in the justice system, instead of a lightbulb, a lightning bolt whacked me over the head.

    I also saw that too many persons of limited intellect or who were developmentally disabled, and unable to understand what they were being told, either by the criminal whose accomplice they were, or by the court system. They didn’t have the ability to knowingly consent. Too often, they were given the death penalty.

    I saw too many men of color found wrongly convicted, vindicated in the innocence projects–and one was from the private college I attended! While much of the evidence provided was the same as at the trial, too much of that “evidence” was skewed, not investigated for veracity, or discarded. Too much evidence that would have exonerated them at the time was not allowed/admitted.

    I have seen too many cases, where having proven the man (usually) on death row innocent/wrongly convicted, the State of Texas and its governor will not stay the execution, or even admit to the reality of the wrongful conviction.

    I am also in favor of releasing–and exonerating–non-violent convicts screwed over by the “drug war” laws, especially where marijuana is involved. Too much for too small a crime, all too often–crimes that are now coming off the books.

    Then the latest CA Proposition 66, provided the streamlining of the capital appeal process, and also required death-row offenders to work in jail and pay restitutions to victims’ families, something from which they were previously exempted.

    I voted against this because of that “streamlining” of the capital appeals process, which would shorten the ability of those working on the case of anyone wrongfully convicted to mount an adequate defense. It felt racially-motivated to me, and that is NOT equal protection under the law, not that the current “judicial system” is anyway.

    Whether I could perform a prison chaplain’s or counselor’s role, I have grave doubts, but I honor those who do, especially Rev. McCollum. I’m glad that restorative justice is working in the places where it is used. Get laws passed–and enforced–that define “mental incompetence” as a legal term, to protect those who cannot consent to what they’ve been misled to do, who’ve been threatened or misled by twisting lies if they don’t perform a criminal act, through mental immaturity. I remember when stalking was not a legal concept, and when that changed. Before the law changed, I was stalked by an ex-boyfriend who was luckily too incompetent to do anything more than threaten what he could not carry out. First set of recurring nightmares I ever had. At some point after 5-10 years it stopped, perhaps he got bored or on medication.

    However, especially among young people of color whose education barely merits the name, it is education into which we should be putting our funding and efforts, as without it, how can anyone manage in today’s society?

    While there is a good financial impact budget on the cost of capital punishment, there is also the public safety need to keep some people isolated from those whose minds work well, and who don’t engage in currently-defined criminal activity.

  • Durantia

    I have a problem with the state applying the death penalty in a fair manner. There are too many innocent people being convicted and later turning out to be innocent. What about making the perpetrator choose between life without parole and euthanasia?

  • Romanpagan

    For those wondering the reason why there are more minorities on death row is because they commit most of the crime despite being minorities.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      It has a great deal to do with prosecutor choices in charging and the quality of defense the defendant can afford.

    • kenofken

      I was a journalist for the first half of my adult life. I covered a number of death penalty cases and also spent time writing for publications in some very wealthy, nearly all-white communities. It’s no exaggeration to say that a wealthy or upper middle class white man received more due process and careful deliberation in zoning board hearing than a black man did when on trial for his life. We stopped the use of executions here in Illinois when it came out that more than two thirds of reviewed cases were full of serious error. Studies over a quarter century found the rates of such errors – those which seriously cast doubt on guilt, ran 50% or more. The chance of justly ending someone’s life is a coin toss, in other words. A lot of these capital cases began with vague descriptions of a suspect ie “some black guy.” And that’s exactly who police would arrest. From there, the suspect’s road to death row was greased by confessions obtained through beatings or torture, incompetent, disengaged or overworked defense attorneys, police and prosecutors who concealed key evidence from the defense and juries.

      • Romanpagan

        Well death penalties are a outdated thing and i’ve heard about the tortures to confess and i think its barbaric but its no denying it that minorities commit most of the crimes(execpt asians)But i agree with allot of your points.Also sorry if i made allot of mistakes i am not a native speaker.

    • Hecate_Demetersdatter

      This is demonstrably false.

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        Google crime statistics by race and check out the Wikipedia entry.

      • Actually, it is true. There is a pandemic of black violent crime in America. Please provide statistics & evidence to prove your claim.

  • Pingback: The final solution | True Pagan Warrior()

  • What shall we do about psychopaths who murder, rape and ruin lives? Forgiveness is easy when it demands no personal price. We can be extravagant with universal human love and forgiveness when our own loved ones are not in immediate danger. One of the great things about our Western civilization is that we are very good about enacting justice on violent criminals. When that young man murdered nine church goers, he was universally condemned by everyone, and rightly so. He will be killed by the state and I am sure that not one person will shed a tear for him. Or perhaps compassionate opponents of the death penalty will spare a prayer for him. Who knows?

    In the meantime I am glad that psychopathic mass murderers Seung-Hui Cho, Nidal Hassan, Syed Farook, Lee Boyd Malvo, John Allen Muhammad, Colin Ferguson, Elliot Rodger, Jiverly Voong, Christopher Harper-Mercer, Aaaron Alexis, Jeff Weise, One Goh, Eduardo Sencion, Omar Thornton, Chai Vang, Christopher Domrer, Muhammad Y. Abdulazeez, Bryan Uyesugi, John Samir Zawahri, and Gang Lu are incarcerated, I will not shed a tear for any of them when they meet the hangman.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      When that young man murdered nine church goers, he was universally condemned by everyoneActually the survivors forgave him in an act of Christian forgiveness rarely seen these days.

  • Franklin_Evans

    I have many thoughts and opinions — some of them passionately held — about our criminal justice system in general. The death penalty is an important topic focus, as are the inherent inequities — race is the current topic of high interest, but economic class remains from my POV the more widely impactful — but in the end the integrity of the system is the first point of examination. All the rest are secondary until that examination is complete.

    In my experience as a juror — yes, this is all anecdotal — I’ve seen both sides of the integrity debate first-hand. On one side, I’ve seen essentially collusion between the prosecution and defense, negotiating plea deals instead of serving justice. On the other side, I watched and listened after being on the jury that acquitted a man of incest and rape of a minor, as the prosecutor stood before the girl and her mother and, with tears in his eyes, apologized for not being able to construct a stronger case.

    When we stand up to protest the lack of integrity, we must at least acknowledge the many more cases in which integrity was the driving force towards the decision to convict or not. It is neither trite nor sarcastic to reply to “take it down” with “what will you replace it with?”