I am writing on the morning of September 16, 2015. At 3:00 this afternoon, Richard Glossip is scheduled to die. Barring a court-ordered stay, he will be executed by the state of Oklahoma. Governor Mary Fallin has refused to intervene.
Glossip has been on death row for eighteen years. He was convicted of planning the murder of his employer. In fact, he was convicted twice because his original conviction was overturned and he was retried. He has always maintained his innocence, rejecting plea bargains that would have kept him off death row.
Over the past few weeks, Glossip’s case has attracted a fair amount of attention from the media. His lawyers, assisted by Hollywood celebrities and opponents of the death penalty, have been claiming that Glossip’s conviction was mistaken. They point to inconsistencies in the evidence. They allege irregularities in the legal proceedings. Most recently, they claim to have discovered exculpatory evidence. They are asking for a sixty-day stay of execution so this new evidence can be brought before the court.
Prosecutors claim that Glossip’s attorneys are manufacturing a media event. The governor’s office insists that any new evidence should be presented to the court. Glossip’s attorneys did offer a binder of documentation to the governor, but she has responded that, “we have determined the vast majority of the limited content they have presented is not new; furthermore, we find none of the material to be credible evidence of Richard Glossip’s innocence.”
Standing with Glossip are activist Sister Helen Prejean, actress Susan Sarandon, conservative Senator Tom Coburn, and football coach Barry Switzer. Also supporting Glossip is the United States Attorney for the eastern district of Oklahoma, John W. Raley, Jr. A petition for a stay of execution is being hosted by the “MoveOn.org” web site.
Glossip’s sympathizers point out that the only actual witness against him is Justin Sneed, the man who admits to committing the murder. Sneed worked for Glossip, whom he claims hired him for the killing. In exchange for his testimony against Glossip, Sneed received life in prison instead of execution. Supporters claim that the remaining evidence is so ambiguous that without Sneed’s testimony, Glossip could never have been convicted.
Obviously the governor views the evidence differently. Her office has evaluated the evidence, including the recently-presented binder from the defense. All other things being equal, the governor’s office should be assumed to be a disinterested party, capable of impartial evaluation. The controversy, however, does raise questions in which conservative Christians ought to take an interest.
Conservative Christians tend to support the death penalty. They can find reasons in both testaments. In the Old Testament, capital punishment was instituted by God as the penalty for murder (Gen. 9:6). In the New Testament, the apostle Paul wrote that the civil authority does not carry the sword for no reason (Rom. 13:4), and a sword is not carried to spank people. Whether or not these passages make the death penalty obligatory during the present age, they certainly mean that it is not unjust.
But Scripture also establishes strict requirements for the conviction of criminals. Repeatedly the Bible forbids conviction on the strength of a single witness: at least two or three are required (Num. 35:30; Deu. 17:6; Deu. 19:15). Furthermore, false witnesses must suffer the same penalty that their testimony would have inflicted on the defendant (Deu. 19:16-20).
The rule requiring multiple witnesses was repeated in the New Testament by both Jesus (Matt. 18:16; John 8:17) and Paul (2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19). It was also referenced by the writer to the Hebrews (Heb. 10:28). These multiple repetitions indicate that this rule was not merely intended for Israel, but that it is an aspect of moral and natural law. It is binding upon all people at all times and in all places.
So far, so good. But what is the role of physical evidence in fulfilling the multiple-witness criteria? What about experts who are skilled at interpreting the evidence? Do they count among the witnesses? These are questions that Christian advocates of capital punishment have not usually addressed. Even Wayne Grudem, in his magisterial work, Politics, fails to give this matter full attention.
Arguing for the justice of capital punishment is one thing. Implementing the death penalty justly is another. Scripture seems adequately clear on the former issue: capital punishment is just. It is authorized by God for those who commit certain crimes. A government that executes murderers is acting as the minister of God.
The second issue is the problem. All human systems of justice are fallible. People have a tendency to believe what they want to believe, and that applies in the case of criminal convictions. Of course, a legal system may be adequate even though it is fallible. The requirement of two or three witnesses, however, underlines the importance of a high level of proof.
One wonders whether a witness who has been promised his life in exchange for his testimony should be reckoned among the two or three. One wonders whether witnesses who can testify only to circumstantial matters are sufficiently weighty to meet the requirement. Unfortunately, conservative Christians have offered little sustained reflection and argumentation on matters such as these.
Of all people, Christians should want justice. On the one hand, they should advocate capital punishment as just retribution for certain crimes. On the other hand, they should be equally concerned with the just application of the penalty, and that concern obligates them to protect the falsely accused.
Many conservative Christians have written in favor of the death penalty. Few have concerned themselves with ensuring that the legal system applies the penalty as justly as possible. We ought to do both.
What about Richard Glossip? During the writing of this essay, the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals has given him an eleventh-hour reprieve. His lawyers have until the end of the month to make their case. Christians might pray for a just result.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
From Whence This Fear and Unbelief
Augustus Toplady (1740–1778)
From whence this fear and unbelief?
Hath not the Father put to grief
His spotless Son for me?
And will the righteous Judge of men
Condemn me for that debt of sin
Which, Lord, was charged on Thee?
Complete atonement Thou hast made,
And to the utmost Thou hast paid
Whate’er Thy people owed;
How then can wrath on me take place,
If sheltered in Thy righteousness,
And sprinkled with Thy blood?
If thou hast my discharge procured,
And freely in my room endured
The whole of wrath divine;
Payment God cannot twice demand,
First at my bleeding Surety’s hand,
And then again at mine.
Turn then, my soul, unto thy rest!
The merits of thy great High Priest
Have bought thy liberty;
Trust in His efficacious blood,
Nor fear thy banishment from God,
Since Jesus died for thee.