The American Death Penalty: It’s about misunderstanding the Bible
By: Dale S. Recinella
Catholic Correctional Chaplain for Florida’s Death Row
About nine years ago, I was asked to present the points of my book about the Bible and the American death penalty on a panel at an
international conference on capital punishment.
At the conclusion of my remarks, a very angry professor stood up and castigated me for dragging religion into the subject. “There is no
need to talk about the Bible!” he energetically exclaimed. “Just tell them it’s barbaric and they should stop it!”
Fortunately, the panel moderator had spent a great deal of time in America’s Bible belt and was aware that the Bible belt is also America’s
death penalty belt. He calmly replied to the apoplectic professor: “In America, you have to deal with the Bible if you want to end the
The role of the Bible in the history, existence and practice of the American death penalty is both insidious and pervasive.i A case
decided by the Colorado Supreme Court, People v. Harlan, addressed the fact that jurors can be influenced to impose death sentences
based upon the reading of Bible quotes during deliberations. That is only a small part of the story.
Prosecutors in America have been using Bible quotes to obtain death sentences from juries for years. “There is no indication that the
instances of this practice are decreasing. The most popular scripture quotes to be used by prosecutors are those involving vengeance as
Just a few years ago, prosecutors in Florida argued their misinterpretation of Romans 13:4 to the jury to prove it is God’s will that
the defendant be sentenced to death. He was. Good religious folk on death qualified juries are predisposed to accept the state’s misuse
of the Bible in capital cases.
Perhaps that is part of the reason why the modern American death penalty is a Bible-belt phenomenon. The Bible-belt consists of those
states which are predominantly Baptist, virtually synonymous with the eleven Confederate States plus Oklahoma and the four Border States,
all of which allowed legal ownership of slaves. In its day, slavery was justified by the Christian Churches through so-called “biblical
Now, the use of the death penalty in the U.S. is actually a geographic aberration, localized in the Bible belt, the former slave-holding
states. 85% of the 1,317 state-level U.S. executions (from 1976 through 2012) occurred in that same Bible belt.iii Above and beyond that,
the Bible-belt has hosted all twenty-two of the U.S. juvenile executions that have taken place since 1976.iv
Also, with the addition to the Bible-belt of just three more states--Arizona, Indiana and Ohio—over 92% of the 1,317 state-level U.S.
executions (from 1976 through 2012) have taken place in just 14 of the 50 states.
More than two-thirds of U.S. jurisdictions, the other 36 states and the District of Columbia, are either not participating at all
(17 with no executions in 36 years) or virtually not participating.
It is important to note the relationship between Catholic influence in the U.S. population and the occurrence of executions.
As of the end of 2012, in the nineteen states that are the most Catholic (where Catholics constitute more than 21% of the population), the average number of executions over those 36 years was only 3.37 per state.
In the nineteen states that are the least Catholic (where Catholics make up less than 16% of the population), the average number of executions per state over those 36 years was 29.79, almost 9 times as many per state.
For the twelve states where Catholics are less than 10% of the population, the average number of executions per state over those 36 years was 38.75, 11.5 times the amount in states where Catholics exert the greatest influence.
In fact, at the end of 2012, the eight most Catholic states in the U.S. had a total, all combined, of only 2 executions in the prior 36 years.
☆ In 2007, New Jersey, the third most Catholic state in the union, became the first since 1976 to legislatively abolish the death penalty.
☆ New York, the fifth most Catholic state, ended it judicially in 2004. Neither state has had any executions in the last 36 years.
☆ In 2009, the sixth most Catholic state, New Mexico repealed the death penalty, with only 1 execution in 36 years.
☆ In 2011, Connecticut, the fourth most Catholic state abolished capital punishment with only 1 execution in 36 years.
Many of us may not like the fact that religion plays a major role in the use of the American death penalty.
But like it or not, the facts are the facts.
© Dale S. Recinella, Tallahassee, FL USA
All rights reserved. No reuse without permission.
i See, Recinella, Dale S., The Biblical Truth about America’s Death Penalty (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004), referred to as The Biblical Truth. © 2004 Dale S. Recinella. Used with permission. All rights reserved.
ii The Biblical Truth, at p. 5.
iii Bible-belt Executions (from 1976 thru 2012): TX 492, VA 109, OK 102, FL 74, MO 68, GA 52, AL 55, NC 43, SC 43, LA 28, AR 27, MS 21, TN 6 and KY 3: Total 1,123 out of 1,317.
iv “Juvenile execution” refers to those executed for a crime committed while a minor. TX 13, VA 3, OK 2, MO 1, GA 1, SC 1, LA 1: Total of 22.