Pulpit Reflections

Repeal of South Dakota’s Death Penalty: A Matter of Conscience

By Deacon Denny Davis

Supporters of the death penalty justify it by saying it’s the consequence of the criminal’s terrible actions. The death penalty is not about what the murderers have done. It’s about what we as citizens do in response. South Dakota should repeal the death penalty. Doing so would reflect on each of us, and our actions as citizens.

As director of South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty I traveled the state, speaking to groups about our law. My efforts have nothing to do with argument or criticism. I simply ask this question: Do we have to kill human beings who murder?

When our state carries out this act, we are responsible as much as those in the death chamber. The zero-sum game of killing for murder should be rejected. As citizens and as people of faith, it reflects poorly on us, and life in prison without parole is a much more sane and just response. Violence, even that sponsored by the state, merely perpetuates more violence.

But we can approach even the worst criminals in a better and smarter way. Instead of putting needles into their arms and stopping their hearts, we should make convicted murders live out their lives in prison. Doing so creates the opportunity for their reconciliation with God and with themselves. When the murderer is executed, it makes absolution – which can benefit both the killer and victim – impossible. Would not restoration of the criminal, instead of retribution, be more in line with what our Creator asks of us? As we learned in Deuteronomy Chapter 30, “Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.” (Verse 19.)

The initial section of a 2006 South Dakota abortion law says, in part, that the state’s legislature “… finds that the State of South Dakota has a compelling and paramount interest in the preservation of all human life.”

If this idea means so much to so many, it stands to reason that it applies equally to the murderer as well as the unborn child.

The death penalty is an institutionalized darkness, one that drives all of us towards some imagined justice that truly is nothing more than violence for violence. We are better than such short-sighted approaches to age-old issues. In just the last six years, six states in the U.S have banished death penalty laws. None have seen any impact in violent crime, because we still can keep society safe while incarcerating horrible criminals.

Too often supporters of the death penalty overlook the families of murder victims. The people who suffer terrible trauma and grief, as a rule, do not celebrate when murderers are put to death. We may feel we are helping them, but consider this: The real financial costs that go along with the act of execution could instead fund trauma and grief counseling for families. These methods work.

Right now, surviving families suffer alone, hopeful for healing but unassisted by the state. We could help them towards healing and give them support. Forgiveness is the road to healing, but it takes time, effort and love.

The late Nelson Mandela was recognized worldwide as a man of peace. Perhaps his strongest moment, and most vivid gift to humanity came shortly after his release from nearly three decades of imprisonment. When he asked if he hated those who took his freedom, Mandela demonstrated wisdom we can all emulate. He said, “Yes, I did. I felt hatred and fear but I said to myself, if you hate them, you will still be their prisoner. I wanted to be free, so I let it go.”

This lesson from South Africa is one South Dakota must consider. South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, in league with several state lawmakers, will bring a bill to the 2014 legislative session that will repeal the death penalty. Are you free enough to reject the flawed concept of violence for violence? Will you reject vengeance and embrace the life that comes from Him and the forgiveness he has shown you? If so, then join our efforts. Write your legislators.

It’s a matter of conscience.

Deacon Denny Davis, 65, lives in Burbank. He is a member of St. Agnes Parish in Vermillion and serves as a deacon with the Sioux Falls Diocese. He is the director of South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty

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