Pagan chaplains and others share views on the death penalty

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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.