What would Jesus do on death row?

Christian organizations should be fighting the death penalty
Cape Cod Times, via WorkingForChange, June 16, 2003
Sean Gonsalves

Last week Dennis Halstead, John Kogut and John Restivo were released from prison after having spent 18 years in the big house for the 1985 rape and murder of 16-year-old Theresa Fusco.

The prosecution’s case relied heavily on a videotaped confession by Kogut. Kogut later recanted his confession, having “admitted” to the crime after more than 18 hours of interrogation and sleep deprivation.

But with the help of Centurion Ministries, a Princeton, N.J.-based organization that represents people wrongly convicted, and The Innocence Project, Kogut, Halstead and Restivo gained their freedom.

It’s just the latest case of a wrongful conviction where the innocent have been freed after DNA analysis.

Clearly, DNA testing has had a huge impact on the criminal justice system in recent years, helping to scientifically unveil the fact that innocent people are sent to jail and that wrongful convictions are not isolated events. In Massachusetts alone, 28 convicts have been exonerated because of DNA testing. “Most of our clients are poor, forgotten, and have used up all of their legal avenues for relief,” according to the Innocence Project website (see www.innocenceproject.org).

Some argue that these exonerations of the wrongfully convicted are proof that the system works.

“If that were true, then justice is not being administered by our police, prosecutors, defense lawyers, or our courts. It is dispensed by law students, journalism students and a few concerned lawyers, organizations and citizens,” the Innocence Project counters, pointing out that the bulk of IP’s work is done by students at the Benjamin Cardozo School of Law under the supervision of faculty staff and a team of attorneys.

The most common factors leading to wrongful convictions found in the first 70 DNA exonerations were: police and prosecutorial misconduct, false confessions, bad lawyering, junk science and jail house snitches. When it comes to prosecutorial misconduct in those cases, 34 percent involved suppressing exculpatory evidence and 33 percent involved undue suggestiveness in pre-trial suspect identification.

Junk science has also been known to lead to wrongful convictions in which “experts” testify about tests never conducted, suppress evidence, falsify test results, and engage in statistical exaggeration.

On this front, IP has a number of good, common-sense suggestions. Here’s one: “Forensics experts and crime laboratory directors should formally agree that crime laboratories should act as independent within the criminal justice system. They would thereby, be released from (the) pressure (of) the prosecution and defense. These laboratories should be staffed by professionals who can present data objectively, without regard for either the prosecution or defense.”

Note: there’s a prevailing myth that criminals are mostly found guilty by a “jury of their peers.” In reality, most criminal cases are adjudicated before they reach trial).

Now, having been nurtured in a prophetic religious tradition that worships a man who consorted with social outcasts, announced the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand by proclaiming “liberty to the captives” (see Luke 4:18), and who implored His followers to be like God “who makes the sun shine on both the good and evil,” I can’t understand why supporting organizations like the Innocence Project isn’t a high priority for church folks.

Sure, plenty of preachers go into the jails to evangelize. But what will it take to get the church body to move beyond prison charity to inmate solidarity?

Money spent on lavish sanctuaries would be better spent on assisting groups like the Innocence Project and political action committees dedicated to making the criminal justice system more just.

So-called Bible-believing Christians will tell me that only by repenting and accepting Jesus will convicts be truly healed. Okay. But my question is: if someone is starving, are you going to feed them first or are you going tell them that man doesn’t live by bread alone?

What would Jesus do? Recall the biblical story where Jesus meets that woman at the water well. He didn’t launch into a theological lecture. He started talking to her about water — addressing the woman’s immediate needs before pointing her in the direction of truth.

I asked the folks at the Innocent Project if they get much support from religious institutions, financial or otherwise. “Zilch” was the answer I got. To be fair, they told me that they haven’t asked for help from the religious community either.

Call me a heretic but I think people working in solidarity with “the least of these among us” shouldn’t have to ask for help from the religious.

See more in the Sean Gonsalves archives.

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and syndicated columnist.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday June 19, 2003.
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