Faithful split on death penalty

Foes, supporters speak out as Md. execution nears


The solemn voices echoed through the high-vaulted sanctuary of St. Vincent de Paul Roman Catholic Church in Baltimore.

"There is in our land a great cry for vengeance as we fill up death rows and kill the killer in the name of justice, in the name of the peace," the two dozen worshipers intoned last week at the interfaith prayer service. "Holy Spirit of God ... help us work tirelessly for the abolition of state-sponsored death and to renew our society in its very heart, so that violence will be no more."

As the execution of Wesley Eugene Baker nears, the religious are lining up on both sides of the capital punishment debate.

Most visible have been those who are calling on Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to grant clemency to Baker for the 1991 killing of 49-year-old Jane Tyson during a robbery outside Westview Mall in Baltimore County. Faith-based opponents of capital punishment have taken a leading role in the campaign to stop the execution by lethal injection. The death warrant signed by Ehrlich ordered that Baker be executed between 12:01 this morning and 11:59 p.m. Friday.

Less vocal have been those believers who support the death penalty as punishment for grave crimes.

"Just as good Catholics believed in World War II and can believe in the need to get rid of Osama bin Laden and the Taliban, and believe in self-defense, a Catholic can argue that the death penalty is justified," said Michael Paranzino, a Catholic who is president of the Kensington-based pro-capital punishment group Throw Away the Key.

Like war, abortion and homosexuality, capital punishment remains an area over which co-religionists disagree - with both sides finding support for the positions in Scripture.

"I don't see any grounds within the historic biblical Christian tradition for saying that the death penalty is un-Christian or unbiblical," said James W. Skillen, president of the Center for Public Justice, a Christian public policy research organization based in Annapolis.

David Gushee, a professor of religion and ethics at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., attributes the split among Christians on capital punishment to differences in the parts of Scripture that are given the greatest emphasis, and how they are interpreted.

"The pro-death penalty stance is primarily rooted in Old Testament texts that in numerous places command the death penalty and do so unequivocally for a number of different offenses," said Gushee, a Southern Baptist who opposes capital punishment. "The anti-death penalty side generally is most impressed by the examples and teachings of Jesus, who is interpreted as nonviolent, pacifist."

Rabbi Rex D. Perlmeter of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation says his own thinking on the issue has changed.

"In the strict system of Judaism's earliest sacred text, the Torah, ... justice would call for [Baker's] death," the Reform rabbi wrote in a letter read at the prayer service at St. Vincent de Paul.

But "the Jewish notion of justice, like our very relationship with God, has been evolutionary," he added. "Several centuries after the formulation of the Torah law, the sages of Jewish rabbinic tradition announced their feeling that a court (and, by extension, a society) which must execute capital justice even once is one which has failed.

"I understand this evolution, for it is one I, myself, have experienced. As one who once believed in the strict voice of justice in relation to the guilty, I have come to understand the greater voice of compassion for the good of society."

Cardinal William H. Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore, visited Baker in prison last week and joined Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington and Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli of Wilmington, Del., in asking Ehrlich to commute Baker's sentence to life without parole.

Their letter to Ehrlich followed the call last month by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to end the use of the death penalty in the United States.

Paranzino is critical of the bishops' statement.

"As a Catholic, I find it unsettling, at a minimum, to have the Catholic bishops expending such energy on behalf of cold-blooded killers," he said.

American Catholics are evenly split on the issue, according to independent poll results circulated by the bishops last month. Support for capital punishment fell from 68 percent in June 2001 to 48 percent in March 2005, according to the survey. Opposition to the death penalty grew from 27 percent to 48 percent during the same period.

Arthur Laffin, who lost his younger brother to violence in 1999, praised Keeler for visiting Baker. Paul Laffin, a shelter worker in Hartford, Conn., was stabbed to death by a mentally ill homeless man.

"My prayers go out to all family members throughout our society and world who are grieving the loss of loved ones who have been murdered - including the family of Jane Tyson," Arthur Laffin, who lives at the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker House in Washington, told fellow death penalty opponents last week at First Unitarian Church in Baltimore.

"There are many people who believe that we have to kill the murderer in order to bring closure for their family," he said. "Killing the person who killed my brother will never bring my brother back. ... I oppose the death penalty because, ultimately, it violates God's command: Thou shalt not kill."

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