Panelists Make Biblical Case Against Death Penalty

Written by Paul R. Kopenkoskey on . Posted in Local

Death Penalty and Faith Forum 235(l to r) Death penalty panelist included Shane Claiborne, Gail Rice, Bernard “Chris” Dorsey and Randy Steidl.Randy Steidl knows firsthand what it feels like to be sentenced to death. Bernard “Chris” Dorsey argues capital punishment undermines the Christian faith. Gail Rice, whose police officer brother was killed in the line of duty, believes the death penalty is disproportionally waged against minorities and the poor. And Shane Claiborne believes no one, including convicted murderers, is beyond redemption.

The four-member panel that comprised the death penalty forum was of varied backgrounds and experiences but all argued for the same conclusion: the death penalty should be abolished.

The Christian Reformed Church of North America Office of Social Justice, Equal Justice USA, the Calvin College Department of Sociology and Social Work, and the Heyns Family hosted the discussion held March 7, 2016 at Calvin College.

The Michigan state legislature voted in 1846 to abolish the death penalty, yet capital punishment remains legal in 31 states, a disturbing fact to those on the panel.

Randy Steidl

Steidl said he received the surprise of his life when he was arrested 30 years ago for the double murder of newlyweds Karen and Dyke Rhoads, whose bodies were discovered on July 6, 1986, in their burning home in Paris, Ill.

He was arrested for the murders in 1987 based on the alleged eyewitness testimony of two alcoholics, Deborah Reinbolt and Darrell Harrington, who claimed to have been present when Steidl and co-defendant Herbert Whitlock committed the crimes. The evidence against Steidl also included the testimony of a jailhouse informant, Ferlin Wells, who claimed to have heard Steidl say that, if he had known Harrington would come forward, “he would have definitely taken care of him.”

With no forensic or circumstantial evidence, it took a jury six hours of deliberation to render a guilty verdict.

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The next day, the jury took 20 minutes to vote in favor of the death penalty, a verdict Steidl initially disbelieved. He was given an execution date of May 14, 1991.

“It was like watching a movie but it still didn’t seem real,” he said.

The one person who was convinced he was innocent was Steidl himself. Through his attorney, appeals to his sentence were made but seven years later after state appeals were exhausted, another executive date was set.

After he and Harrington lost their state appeals, the two men filed petitions for federal writs of habeas corpus. Whitlock did not prevail, but on June 17, 2003, U.S. District Court Judge Michael McCuskey found with Steidl, “acquittal was reasonably probable if the jury had heard all of the evidence.”

Judge McCuskey ordered the state to retry or release Steidl within 120 days on the ground that Steidl's trial attorney, S. John Muller, failed to pursue exculpatory evidence.

Eventually the Illinois state’s attorneys appellate prosecutor dismissed the charges against Steidl, whereby he was released at age 54 on May 28, 2004 after it was learned the original prosecutor fabricated evidence and perjured himself.

Steidl became the 18th person to be exonerated and released after having been sentenced to death in Illinois since 1977.

Part of the problem with the criminal justice system is the public’s “blind faith” in police investigations and the immunity prosecutors are given for falsifying evidence, Steidl said.

“There is no accountability of the prosecutor, he has absolute immunity,” said Steidl. “Until we make the police and prosecutors accountable, we’re still going to have people on death row and serving life in prison when they shouldn’t be.

“There has been 156 men and women released from death row since 1977. You can release a man from prison but you can’t release him from the grave.”

Bernard “Chris” Dorsey

Dorsey, Western Theological Seminary assistant professor of theology and preaching, traced the church’s history of the death penalty and its biblical implications.

He said the early church adamantly opposed capital punishment because of the Roman Empire’s persecution and martyrdom of believers, a stance that remained in place for roughly 300 years.

That viewpoint changed when Constantine became the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity and made it the state religion. From the 5th century to around the year 1200, people were executed not for crimes committed but for heresy.

This in a sense embedded the church to support state-sponsored capital punishment for convicted criminals, Dorsey said.

“The church moved into executing those who had been marginalized. The church was stripped away of their moral authority Christians might have with administrating the death penalty,” Dorsey said. “We should all reflect more deeply what it means to kill and for the church to grant consent to the death penalty.”

Dorsey argued still today many Christians have not come to sanctioning capital punishment.

“The evidence shows it (capital punishment) is against people of color and the poor,” said Dorsey. “Christians have a responsibility to hold our governments’ authority accountable. Based on the evidence, the death penalty is not administered fairly.”

Gail Rice

Gail Rice’s brother, Denver police officer Bruce VanderJagt, was shot 10 times in the head and torso with an assault rifle on Nov. 12, 1997, in Denver.

She said she would have done whatever possible to prevent her brother’s murder. Even so, she said she chooses love and forgiveness rather than revenge against her brother’s murderer. She is a strong supporter of Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights, a group that opposes the death penalty, and is a longtime prison literacy volunteer.

Her volunteer work at Cook County Jail in Chicago and with Prison Fellowship Ministries has provided her a firsthand perspective on criminals, Rice said.

“I’m opposed to it because the death penalty is unfair to the poor and minorities,” said Rice. “I’m convinced it’s always a different system of justice for the rich and for the poor.”

Rice said working with Murder Victims' Families for Human Rights deepened her resolve to oppose the death penalty.

“For me, it has been very healing to be part of group that enables me to hear about reconciliation and restorative justice,” she said. “I’ve met people who met the killers of loved ones. I realized as bad as the crimes they committed were, they are created in the image of God, who God loves just as much as He loved me. That’s the heart of the Christian faith.”

The way Rice sees it, it is unthinkable to return good for evil, to teach that killing people is wrong by killing criminals convicted of murder.

“The death penalty cuts off the possibility of redemption and restoration,” said Rice. “In the 17 years I’ve met lots of families of victims and never head anyone say they were glad an execution took place and now I have closure. The idea that the death penalty brings peace and closure is a lie.”

Shane Claiborne

Shane Claiborne, a Christian activist, author and a founding member of The Simple Way in Philadelphia, cited characters in the Bible who committed murder yet instead of being put to death, served as powerful examples of God’s servants, including Moses and David.

“God’s grace is larger than human sin,” said Claiborne. “If we believe someone who has murdered is beyond redemption, we can rip out large sections of the Bible.”

The irony about the death penalty is it occurs in states where the Christian population is the most concentrated, specifically the Bible Belt, said Claiborne.

“Eighty-five percent of executions in the last four years happened in the Bible Belt,” said Claiborne. “I believe not one of us is above redemption. Not one of us is above reproach. I think we can be on the right side of justice and call for a better justice instead of capital punishment.”

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Author Information
Paul R. Kopenkoskey
About:
Paul R. Kopenkoskey is a full-time freelance writer and editor for an assortment of publications including Grand Rapids Magazine, Grand Rapids Business Journal, and Faith Grand Rapids magazine. He has completed his first novel with the working title, Karl Beguiled. He and his wife, Barb, live in Wyoming, Michigan. They have three children and five grandchildren.

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