The lethal injection room in San Quentin State Prison in California.

The last execution in Iowa was on March 15, 1963, when a federal inmate, Victor Harry Feguer, was hanged at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison for the kidnapping and murder of a physician in Dubuque. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, when Iowa had the death penalty 46 executions were carried out between 1834 to 1965 when it was abolished.

State Representative Clel Baudler (R-Greenfield) introduced HSB 569 that would bring back the death penalty option after 52 years for those charged with first-degree murder. Those who receive that penalty would have to be at least 18-years-old by the time they committed the crime and not be mentally ill or intellectually disabled.

State Representatives Steven Holt (R-Denison), Greg Heartsill (R-Chariton) and Marti Anderson (D-Des Moines) heard testimony for and against the bill in a public subcommittee this morning. They advanced the bill on a two to one vote. The Iowa House Public Safety Committee, chaired by Baudler, will consider the legislation.

On principle, I do not oppose the death penalty under certain circumstances. For instance, I believe Nicole Finn, who was found guilty starving her daughter to death, deserves the death penalty. I think Scott Michael Green who shot and killed Urbandale Police Officer Justin Martin and Des Moines Police Sergeant Anthony “Tony” Bemino deserves the death penalty. It would be just, but instead, judges sentenced both to multiple life sentences.

God’s chosen people, the Israelites, were commanded to put to death those who broke various laws, and we have the Old Testament principle an “eye for an eye,” (Exodus 21:24).

Some, however, will point to the Sermon on the Mount to say Jesus overturned that.

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:38-46, ESV)

I could offer an expanded commentary on this passage (I’ve preached a sermon on this passage), but I’ll summarize it this way. This passage addresses how we handle people who insult us and do us wrong. It addresses individuals who may seek out vengeance, in particular, because of insults.

Charles Spurgeon put it this way; he said we “are to be as the anvil when bad men are the hammers.”

Jesus was saying “take the insult and ask for more.” Contrast that with a latter Rabbinic saying in the Talmud that says: “Does he give him a blow upon the cheek? Let him give two hundred four; if with the other hand, let him give four hundred.”

Where the world was saying a person should seek retribution, Jesus pointed to another path of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

The Apostle Paul echoed this:

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good, (Romans 12:17-21, ESV).

We can’t stop there, however, looking ahead a few verses as he discusses how Christians should interact with their government we see, “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer,” (Romans 13:4b, ESV).

We are not to seek vengeance. It is never ok for me to seek revenge when I am wronged. God, however, gave the government one of its primary purposes and that is to punish wrongdoing. That sword isn’t for slapping offenders on the wrist.

So, when someone challenges me over how I can be pro-life and think the death penalty can be just, my answer is twofold. 1. I want to protect innocent life. 2. In the case of the death penalty, I never support the taking of life without due process. Unfortunately, many who oppose the death penalty back abortion. If only they would give unborn babies the same due process rights that accused murderers have.

Now just because the government can, biblically, implement the death penalty, I don’t believe that they must.

We have gone 52 years in this state without a death penalty. I don’t think we’ll face impending disaster if it is not reinstated. Keep in mind for 131 years Iowa had the death penalty, starting from when it was a territory and then became a state, only 46 people were put to death.

Have we experienced a glut of murders?

According to the FBI UCS Annual Crime Reports, in 1965 when the death penalty was abolished, Iowa experienced 1.3 murders per 100,000 people. Between 2000 and 2016 the average murder rate per 100,000 people was 1.8. In 2015 and 2016 it was 2.3. In 2010, the murder rate per 100,000 was less than in 1965 at 1.2.

I don’t see a huge public policy need here.

Also, in light of our tight budget, can Iowa afford this? There have been numerous studies done that show it costs taxpayers more to pursue capital punishment and execute a prisoner than it does to incarcerate them for life. That may seem unbelievable, but when you consider the amount of money it takes to mount a prosecution, how much it costs the state dealing with the inevitable appeals (keep in mind in many cases the state is paying a public defender as well), and then the cost of lethal injection it is incredibly plausible.

So this is not fiscally responsible.

There is evidence that states have unequally applied the death penalty.

A 2014 study by Katherine Beckett and Heather Evans from the University of Washington found jurors in Washington State are three times more likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant than for a white defendant in a similar case.

A 2011 study conducted by Glenn Pierce and Michael Radelet published in the Louisiana Law Review shows that the odds of a death sentence were 97% higher for those whose victim was white than for those whose victim was black.

A 2005 study, also conducted by Pierce and Radelet, published in the Santa Clara Law Review found that those convicted of killing whites were more than three times as likely to be sentenced to death as those convicted of killing blacks and more than four times more likely as those convicted of killing Latinos.

A 1998 report by Richard Baldus, George Woodworth, David Zuckerman, Neil Alan Weiner, and Barbara Broffitt published in the Cornell Law Review showed in 96 percent of states where there have been reviews of race and the death penalty; there was a pattern of either race-of-victim or race-of-defendant discrimination or both.

I’m also not convinced that the death penalty is much of a deterrent. For your average person with a healthy respect for authority, it probably does, but those are not the people who are going to commit pre-meditated murder. Statistics don’t bear this out. The 2016 FBI Uniform Crime Report showed that South had the highest murder rate. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, southern states account for over 80% of executions. The Northeast, which has less than 1% of all executions, had the lowest murder rate.

We are entitled to our own opinion, but not our own facts. To claim that the death penalty deters crime is wildly speculative.

The most important reason I think for not reinstituting the death penalty is this – how many innocent people have we put to death?

Since 1973 there have been 161 exonerations. Those are just the people they can prove did not do it. Between 1973-1999 there was an average of three exonerations per year. Between 2000-2011 there was an average of five exonerations per year.

This statistic is a travesty. Unless there is a fool-proof way to ensure the condemned person is guilty, the death penalty will always pose a risk. You can still release an innocent person from prison, but you can’t if they are dead.

We have survived in Iowa without the death penalty since 1965, we don’t need to bring it back.

Update: I’ve had a few people mention Genesis 9:6 in comments on Facebook.

The context is God making a covenant with Noah after the great flood. It reads, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image,” (ESV).

The argument is this: All those who kill another human being must be killed. And since this mandate was given long before the Mosaic Law to all who survived the flood it has universal application, not just to the people of Israel like the Mosaic law.

Here’s the thing, the Mosaic Law limited the scope of Genesis 9:6: Individuals guilty of manslaughter or accidentally causing another’s death were exempted from the death penalty. Reading Genesis 9:6 that is not the sense you get, and no, the Hebrew does not specify premeditated murder.

I believe the Bible permits capital punishment, but I don’t believe it mandates it or prohibits it.

Consider this, if Genesis 9:6 was a mandate for the ages why wasn’t Moses and King David put to death? Under Mosaic Law, David could have been executed for adultery and murder.

I don’t think it is sound to base public policy on the interpretation of one Bible verse. We must consider the whole of scripture. The woman caught in adultery could have been executed under Mosaic Law, but Jesus said only those without sin were qualified to execute her.

Then we also need to consider this – how does our current justice system measure up to biblical standards for capital punishment?

  • Do all persons sentenced to death have at least two eyewitnesses speak out against them? Not expert witnesses, but eyewitnesses, (Deuteronomy 17:6; Numbers 35:30). Remember as well that bearing false witness was also punishable by death under Mosaic Law if the penalty for what they were accusing someone of was death. That would probably be a deterrent for someone tempted to lie on the witness stand wouldn’t it? As far as circumstantial evidence is concerned, forget about it. There had to be absolute certainty of a person’s guilt.
  • The intent had to be established, see Numbers 35:22-24.

Also, is there a reluctance to execute? Look at Ezekiel 33:11, “Say to them, As I live, declares the LORD GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel,” (ESV).

Those of us who follow Christ also have to remember that the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), but this refers to spiritual death which is of far greater concern than physical death. Those whom we execute who are without Christ we send to be judged. We ought to show some concern for the souls of those who are condemned. That is not to say we never execute someone, but this is not something we should take lightly. It’s for keeps.

If Iowa already had the death penalty for first-degree murder and had stringent evidence requirements (like eyewitnesses and DNA evidence), and was applied equally under the law no matter the race, color, creed, and religion of the victim or the accused I would not advocate for its repeal.

That is not how the death penalty has been applied in our country, however, and after 52 years without the death penalty, I don’t see a compelling case to reintroduce it in Iowa.

4 comments
    1. On everything? That’s a pretty broad statement. Perhaps take some time to rethink that and reread EVERYTHING I wrote.

      Maybe say you disagree with my conclusion.

      No, I have not had a family member murdered, that is not relevant in a public policy discussion.

  1. The woman caught in adultery could have been executed under Mosaic Law, but Jesus said only those without sin were qualified to execute her.

    RESPOND: It was a death penalty that became the instrument God used to reconcile the world (the execution of Christ) to himself. And it was a death penalty that led a converted criminal to the paradise (the thief on the cross, Luke 23:32f). This tells us that God can use everything in this existence, evil as well as good, for his purpose. In the first case an innocent man was executed, but this did not stop God’s plan. On the contrary. It was all a part of God’s plan. In the other case it was a guilty man who was executed, but this did not hinder God’s plan either.

    Christian enemies of the death penalty often refer to this scripture about the woman who committed adultery that some wanted to stone to death, but whom Jesus set free. But that Jesus did not here attack the capital punishment as such is obvious by many reasons:

    First, it was not an unconditional freedom that Jesus gave the adulteress. The event – whether it happened or not – ends with the words: “Go now and leave your life of sin.” There is a serious warning implied here, a threat even: Do not do that again!

    Secondly: Jesus’ mission on earth was not that of a judge. Jesus would have committed a mistake if he had sentenced the woman to death. In John 3:17 it says: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world.” Compare with John 12:47.

    Thirdly: It is mainly through the governing authorities that God imposes the death penalty. And it is not the authorities that Jesus is representing at this time. It is only himself as the forgiving Saviour. Therefore the event is not an example of how a legal state is supposed to act. Jesus himself never put on the robes of the authority and he never walked around and sentenced people to different punishments. If he had dressed in the judge’s robe right there and then he would have had to, in the name of justice, also sentence the others to death. But to sentence sinners to death was not part of Jesus’ mission on earth.

    Forth: If Jesus had imposed the death penalty it would have been, in the eyes of the Roman authority, equal to a rebellion since Rome only allowed the capital punishment to be carried out within their own judicial system. The Jews did not have the right to pronounce the death penalty. In other words, the scribes and the Pharisees tried to set Jesus up. If Jesus had said “stone her”, he would have been arrested by the Romans.

    Fifth: It is not possible to use the principle “If any of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone” (v.7) within the judicial system. Since neither judge nor juror is without guilt, trials in themselves would become impossible and no sentences could be imposed. The principle is a good rule to live by, but Jesus did not intend for his words in this context to be included in the judicial system.

    In other words, the answer given by Jesus does not have any legal character or application. It concerns everyday morality between people. And this is often the case in the gospels. Jesus’ teaching and message is, as a rule, aimed at people and their everyday lives, not an establishing or denouncing of judicial legal systems. And when someone, as here, tries to force Jesus to make a statement concerning a certain legal question, Jesus refuses to answer and instead quietly writes in the sand and then he gives a moral sermon to the Pharisees and the woman.

    Besides, the Christian teaching has always been that it is not until the final day that Christ will judge the people. On that day, according to the Bible, all adulterers and other “sinners” will receive their just punishment, 1 Cor 6:9-10. Here on earth the courts are the ones who give the verdicts. On the day of judgement God and Jesus will be the ones who brings the verdict. That role, that mission, was not the one Jesus had when he walked on the earth and therefore he said: “Neither do I condemn you” (8:11). If he had sentenced the woman he would have anticipated the final judgement. But the approximately three years that Jesus publicly worked here on earth was a time of mercy and love, not a time of judgement. The Christian faith would have been shaken to its core if Jesus publicly had legally judged that woman. But Jesus did not let himself get caught by the temptation to judge – the woman was let go. But one day she will also stand before Jesus.

    All of this means that we can not refer to this text if we wish to have an answer concerning Jesus’ attitude towards the issue of the death penalty.

    And here, finally, is a quote from the nun Helen Prejean. She is a well known abolitionist, but despite that she has courage and insight enough to write in this way about this Bible passage:

    “It is abundantly clear that the Bible depicts murder as a capital crime for which death is considered the appropriate punishment, and one is hard pressed to find a biblical ‘proof text’ in either the Hebrew Testament or the New Testament which unequivocally refutes this. Even Jesus’ admonition Let him without sin cast the first stone,’ when He was asked the appropriate punishment for an adulteress (John 8:7)- the Mosaic Law prescribed death – should be read in its proper context. This passage is an ‘entrapment’ story, which sought to show Jesus’ wisdom in besting His adversaries. It is not an ethical pronouncement about capital punishment.” From the book Dead Man Walking.
    http://victimsfamiliesforthedeathpenalty.blogspot.com.au/2015/01/the-death-penalty-and-woman-caught-in.html

    1. Prejan is right, it is an entrapment story. Justice was a concern for Jesus’ as well.

      Thanks for the lengthy reply, but you seem to make some presumptions about how I view that passage. I just used it as a quick example of how someone who could have been executed wasn’t. I know Jesus was not making some grand pronouncement about capital punishment. That really wasn’t my point. I’ve already established that the Bible permits capital punishment.

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