PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
November 1, 2005

Death by Politics

by Jim Newsom

Is this what it's come down to? With all the issues and concerns that face our great commonwealth, we're going to choose our next governor based on who we think will pull the switch at the Greensville Correctional Center with more gusto. What a pathetic commentary. If this is who we have allowed ourselves to become, and if we can be so easily manipulated by such cynical campaign tactics, November 8th will be a sad day for Virginia, no matter the outcome.

Jerry Kilgore grew up attending Gate City United Methodist Church, and his wife Marty is a Methodist minister’s daughter. Although there is no reference to this Methodist heritage that I can find on the Kilgore website, it is of interest because the United Methodist Church has long been an outspoken opponent of the death penalty.

The Methodist resolution on capital punishment, first passed in 1980 when the death penalty was just beginning to come back into use in this country after being ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1972, notes that Jesus “explicitly repudiated” the Old Testament “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” justification for the death penalty. It cites His words as recounted in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the passages (Matthew 5:38-39 and Luke 6:29-30) that are the “turn the other cheek” teachings delivered as part of Jesus’ most important monologue, the Sermon on the Mount.

The resolution goes on to say, “The United Methodist Church cannot accept retribution or social vengeance as a reason for taking human life. It violates our deepest belief in God as the Creator and the Redeemer of human kind. In this respect, there can be no assertion that human life can be taken humanely by the state. Indeed, in the long run, the use of the death penalty by the state will increase the acceptance of revenge in our society and will give official sanction to a climate of violence.”

That prediction of “the long run” is pretty much what’s happened over the last 25 years. Most of us will agree that the culture of anger and violence has escalated, that we as a people have become more fearful, more fractured, more hateful and less friendly to one another.

So it’s interesting that Jerry Kilgore has decided to stake his candidacy on his zealousness to inflict capital punishment. In his interview with Tom Robotham for Port Folio Weekly, Kilgore justified his support for capital punishment by mentioning “some University of Chicago studies that show that every time we carry out the death sentence we save 10 to 18 innocent lives.”

I found the study to which Kilgore referred, written by Isaac Ehrlich and published as "The Deterrent Effect of Capital Punishment: A Question of Life and Death," in the American Economic Review in June, 1975. Ehrlich estimated that each execution between 1933 and 1969 had prevented eight homicides. Although his methodology was strongly questioned by scholars at the time, his assertions became the “evidence” recited by death penalty defenders over the next three decades. That’s because there aren’t many studies to be found indicating a preventative effect; most criminologists, in fact, have said consistently that there is no deterrent value whatsoever to capital punishment.

Nonetheless, a majority of the public continues to support executions, and in the rare instance when a politician---a Southern politician at that---admits his personal opposition on religious grounds, a cheap little political hack with no platform of his own can try to make hay by appealing to unfounded prejudices and ill-informed political views. In a close race, it might scare up enough votes for victory.

I admire Tim Kaine for acknowledging his personal beliefs on this issue. He could easily have dodged it, since it’s hardly a centerpiece of his campaign. But he didn’t. He felt that it was important for his potential constituents to know who he was, what he was made of, where his core values came from.

Since Virginia ranks second only to Texas in the number of executions since states began re-enacting death penalty statutes in the mid-‘70s (94, including 3 juveniles), it might be a good idea to have an intelligent debate about its use, effectiveness and appropriateness. But that’s not what this year’s gubernatorial campaign is about. It’s about what kind of person we want to lead and represent us as our governor. On that, the choice is clear.

copyright © 2005 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.