||Susan M. Recinella, Clinical Psychologist for mentally ill adults, and
Catholic Lay Minister to Families of the Executed|
The Whole Truth and Nothing But
By: Dale Recinella
The audience is typical for my Old Testament Death Penalty presentations at parishes and churches. About a hundred people are in attendance. One third are pro-capital punishment. Another third are against it. The remaining third just aren’t sure. Most have been quite surprised by what they’ve heard in the 90-minute presentation. It’s time for question and answer.
“How come we’ve never heard most of this before? Where has all this information been?”
“Well none of it’s a secret,“ I respond carefully to avoid any inference of blame. “Part of the problem is that explaining the realities of the death penalty takes more than a thirty second sound bite or a photo caption. It requires a structured presentation to connect the facts and overcome the decades of half-true misinformation that we have consumed.”
“Even so, what about all the facts you’ve presented tonight about how the death penalty was administered in Old Testament times. How come we have never heard any of that?”
“They’re all true. Everything I’ve told you is supported by Scripture and Talmud.”
“So, why haven’t we heard any of this before?”
“I think the political and media focus has always been on whether we should have a death penalty. Until very recently, almost no one looked deeper than a few Scripture quotes that supported their position. But even if one accepts the premise that ‘eye for an eye’ supports the death penalty, for people of faith that’s not the end of the discussion. That’s only the starting point. We must then deal with how the Old Testament Hebrews did the death penalty? In modern legal jargon we would say that substantive law determines if we have a death penalty. Procedural law determines how we carry out a death penalty.”
“But if what you’ve told us tonight is true, our death penalty procedural law in America—even right here in Florida—is arbitrary, almost barbaric compared to what the ancient Hebrew people were doing three thousand years ago! How come we’ve never heard this before?”
The frustration and indignation of the audience is almost palpable. It’s time for a pause. I find myself remembering Sr. Helen Prejean’s advice: the overwhelming majority of Americans are good, fair-minded and loving people. They just have never been told the whole truth about the death penalty.
“Maybe we need to ask a different question,” the pastor indicates that my pause has been long enough by stepping to the front of the room. “Let’s ask instead, ‘What can do we do about this?’ Maybe our speaker has some suggestions as to how we can start.”
“Start with something that is both specific and obvious,” I suggest. “We’ve heard tonight that God’s people of the Old Testament were extreme to a fault in refusing to execute those who might be innocent, those who suffered mental impairment and anyone who was not yet the age of majority.”
The whole room is nodding.
“We’ve also heard tonight that the mentally ill and mentally retarded are grossly over represented on America’s death rows. The mentally retarded make up only 2% of the population at large. Yet they fill as much as 10% of our death row cells. Studies show that it’s too easy to convict them, even if they are innocent. And most of them are also poor.”
The whole room is shaking its head in a unity of collective shame.
“Start there. Call and write to our legislators. Let them know that for people of faith, even those who support the death penalty, it is not acceptable to execute the mentally ill, the mentally retarded or anyone under the age of majority.”
Update: Under the biblical death penalty, the age of majority was 21-years-old. In America, anyone over 17 can face the death penalty. Also, even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded, it left it to each state to decide what mentally retarded means. As a result, political shenanigans in the extreme are pervading in a battle to define mental retardation at such a ridiculously minimal level that almost no one will be covered by the prohibition. In Florida, bills have been attempted in the Legislature to fund millions of dollars to hire state “psychologists” to administer IQ tests over and over to the mentally retarded on death row and teach them the right answers. That would artificially raise their test scores high enough so that they can be executed. Finally, mental illness is not a defense to execution in the U.S. One can not discuss the American death penalty competently without discussion the execution of the mentally ill.
First published: The Florida Catholic, March 29, 2001
© 2001 Dale S. Recinella & The Florida Catholic
Used with permission. All rights reserved.
No further reproduction or republication without prior written permission.
I Was In Prison
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Dale S. Recinella
, Catholic Lay Chaplain, Florida Death Row and Solitary Confinement
Susan M. Recinella
, Clinical Psychologist for mentally ill adults, and
Catholic Lay Minister to Families of the Executed