As a way of helping the public understand the history and social impact of the death penalty, Butler University, the Indiana University School of Law-Indianapolis, the Christian Theological Seminary and an abolitionist group are co-sponsoring an 11-day symposium this month to explore the pros and cons of one of the most divisive issues in American public policy.
“This is one of the great issues” in U.S. politics said Peter Alexander, dean of the Jordan School of Fine Arts at Butler and one of the organizers of the symposium. “This has been a long time in coming, three or four years. It [the symposium] will be a community conversation intended to shine a light on the death penalty and show how it affects a lot of people.”
The event will start on Feb. 8 at Christian Theological Seminary with a discussion on whether the Bible supports the death penalty. But it will gear up completely on Feb. 21 for 10 days of discussions and debates.
“The United States is one of only a handful of modern, industrialized countries to administer this ultimate punishment,” Alexander said in a prepared statement. “Through the presentation of lectures, debates, films and dramatic performances, the symposium will provide a balanced examination of the death penalty that is carried out in our names and authorized by the United States legal system.”
Though he will not say whether he now supports or opposes capital punishment, Alexander said the symposium will offer civil conversation on capital punishment, although many of the presenters will have already formed strong opinions on the issue.
“The State of Indiana has shown an increase in the number of people it is willing to put to death,” said Scott Seay, a CTS professor and an opponent of the death penalty. “We are gravely concerned that trend is going to continue.” Seay and Wilma Bailey, also a seminary professor, will conduct the Feb. 8 discussion.
Some 128 countries have abolished capital punishment in law or in practice and, in 2005, approximately 2,150 people were executed in 22 countries, though 94 percent of those were in only four countries: China, with at least 1,777; Iran, with 94; Saudi Arabia, with 86; and the United States, with 60.
“This is a violent country,“ Alexander said. “But it’s an open question as to whether the violence leads to more executions or whether capital punishment deters more violent crime.”
While those who oppose capital punishment are numerous and vocal in Indiana and around the country, many people consider the death penalty an issue like abortion, with clearly drawn lines of supporters and opponents that remain fundamentally unchanged. But capital punishment enjoys strong support. A Gallup poll last year showed that 64 percent of those surveyed supported the death penalty, more than twice the percentage of people who oppose it.
“If you add other options, such as life in prison without the chance for parole, to the mix, then the support [for the death penalty] drops to below 50 percent,” said Chris Hitz-Bradley, the president of the Indiana Information Center on the Abolition of Capital Punishment, which is also a co-sponsor of the symposium. In fact, the same Gallup showed that when given a choice between the death penalty and life in prison without parole, there is roughly equal support for capital punishment and life without parole, both at around 48 percent.
Clark County Prosecutor Steven D. Stewart strongly supports capital punishment over life without parole. “It cheapens the life of an innocent murder victim to say that society has no right to keep the murderer from ever killing again. In my view, society has not only the right, but the duty to act in self-defense to protect the innocent.” In a letter posted on his Web site, Stewart maintains that “Life without parole does not eliminate the risk that the prisoner will murder a guard, a visitor or another inmate, and we should not be compelled to take that risk. It is also not unheard of for inmates to escape from prison.”
But Hitz-Bradley takes exception with that. “You don’t have to kill people to protect society,” he said. “And there is no evidence to show that those in prison facing the death penalty are more dangerous than other people in prison for non-capital murder.”
Alexander said the purpose of the symposium is to open a positive discussion on the issue, not for the advancement of one position or the other. “There are many issues that people don’t think much about,” he said. “People will come away [from the symposium] with a much more nuanced view of the death penalty.”
The cost of the death penalty in Indiana
Indiana is one of 38 states in the U.S. that currently sanctions capital punishment. In many states, executing a prisoner costs much more than keeping them locked up for life. In Indiana, the total costs of the death penalty exceed the complete costs of life without parole sentences by more than one third.
Executions around the world
With 60 executions in 2005, the United States ranks fourth among countries utilizing capital punishment. Here are the top five countries and their execution numbers.
1. China (1,777)
2. Iran (94)
3. Saudi Arabia (86)
4. United States (60)
5. Pakistan (31)
by Michael Dabney published in Nuvo Indiana's alternative weekly