Five-year death penalty review is concluded


Daniel Lee Lewis committed his first murder when he was 17 years old. It was July 24, 1990. At a party, he got angry with another young man. He beat, stripped, stabbed him and finally cut his throat. This was only the beginning of a seven-year crime spree that included burglary, bombings, public shootouts and murder. 

On Jan. 11, 1996, he and a partner kidnapped a Tilly, Arkansas, gun dealer with his wife and stepdaughter. Lewis had burglarized William Mueller’s home a year earlier. He came back believing that he had gold and other valuables still hidden. He tortured and killed William, then his wife Nancy and, finally, her 8-year-old daughter in an attempt to force them to reveal the location of hidden treasure.

He was convicted of all three murders by a jury of his peers on May 4, 1999. While his partner, Chevie Kehoe, was given life without parole, prosecutors successfully argued that Lee’s lack of remorse and history of violence — even while incarcerated and awaiting trial — demonstrated that he would be an ongoing threat to fellow inmates and to law enforcement officers.

On May 14, the jury returned a verdict of death. Then-Deputy Attorney General Eric Holder was asked to withdraw the death notice but declined. Nancy Mueller’s mother, Earlene Branch, said, “It’s hard to be a Christian and think of killing somebody. But I don’t see any other answer. I don’t want them out influencing anyone else.”

Since 1999, Lewis has exhausted every appeal to his death sentence. On Thursday, July 25, Attorney General William Barr announced that his execution is now scheduled for Dec. 9, 2019. This announcement also noted the scheduling of four more executions.

It is terrible enough to read the crimes of Lewis. His are the least heinous of the five executions scheduled last Friday. It is important that these histories be kept in mind when talking of capital punishment. Too often death penalty debates remain in the realm of abstractions severed from the reality of evil. 

Typically, the death penalty is not sought in cases of “ordinary” murder. The 62 people on death row in federal prisons have been convicted, not only of murder, but of mass murder, or child murder, or murder accompanied by torture of the most vulnerable people in society. Any rational discussion of capital punishment must begin with these facts.

It is also important to report accurately the timing of Barr’s announcement. Mainstream media outlets reported it as though he were unilaterally lifting some federal “moratorium” on the death penalty. There was no such thing. 

Calling it a “de facto moratorium” may leave the impression that federal law ended the death penalty. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rather, beginning in 2003 pharmaceutical corporations conspired to embargo the anesthetic that was administered before executions. This hampered the Bush administration’s ability to implement the federal law.

Later, under the eight years of President Obama, AG Holder simply failed to schedule any of the executions that were entrusted to him by the legislative and judicial branches. Then, in 2014, he instituted a review of all death penalty procedures and protocols.

This review was ongoing when the Trump administration took office and continued while Jeff Sessions served as attorney general. Last Thursday’s announcement by Barr began by noting that the five-year review is now complete. 

Presumably as a result of that review, the three-drug procedure used at the last execution in 2003 has been replaced by the single drug, Pentobarbital. This is the drug that Big Pharma is selling in those states that have legalized physician-assisted killing.

Having clarified the historical record, we can now turn to ethics. It should be noted at the outset that western civilization has always had a place for the judicious application of capital punishment. 

The difference between pagan Roman civilization and the Christian ethos that held sway after Constantine is this: under paganism, government had authority to execute whomever it pleased, regardless of innocence. Under the Christian ethos, capital punishment is reserved for only the most heinous crimes.

This principle is founded on the teaching of the Apostle Paul that God Himself gives governments the “sword” to “execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Romans 13:4 NKJV). This, in turn, is based on the charge given after Noah’s flood, “whoever sheds man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6).

Note well that the death penalty rests upon the assertion that “evil” is not defined by the government, but by God. The government’s job is to punish it as God’s “minister.” Perhaps this explains why those who were first to oppose the death penalty were avowed atheists.

Robespierre, the henchman of the French Revolution, avidly wanted repeal of the death penalty. He wrote a pamphlet against it in 1791 before executing 40,000 countrymen in 1793 and 1794. 

Likewise, in February of 1917, the provisional government of the Bolshevik Revolution banned the death penalty. After this, the regime killed between eight and 61 million citizens by hard labor, starvation, exposure and firing squad.

Governments are established by God and chartered to discern between objective good and objective evil as His representative. When a nation forgets or denies this fact, it does not become more just. It fails in its primary task and colludes in evil.

Modern arguments against the death penalty deny the very definition of penalty. A penalty is a punishment. It is not primarily designed to reform the individual, or even to protect society from further harm. A penalty, by definition, is a proclamation about the severity of a crime. The harsher the penalty, the harsher the crime.

Abolishing the death penalty is a statement. It is not a statement that life is too valuable to take, but that the lives taken by the murderer were without value. 

It is also a statement about the source and authority of government. If government does not have the legitimate, God-given authority to take life, it has no legitimate authority at all. It has no authority to wage just wars. It has no authority to enforce just laws.

Some tremble to think that a government’s authority derives from God. They have visions of a theocracy dependent upon some private revelation. This fear is unfounded. Precisely because godly governments are established to rule believer and unbeliever alike, just laws rest on the laws written into nature and not upon the revelation of the Gospel. 

Nor should we ever forget that the very notion of a limited government derives from our understanding that government is “under God.” If a government is not limited by God, what else is suitable to limit it? As we saw in both the French and Bolshevik revolutions, and as we see in modern communist China, godless governments unleash unlimited powers despite their best intentions.

I do not relish the execution of the five men named in AG Barr’s announcement. It grieves me to my core. But nor can I argue that capital punishment is unjust and indistinguishable from the killing of the innocent. 

Governments dare not exercise this fearsome power against the innocent at any time. Every check and balance must be scrupulously followed to ensure that innocents are not mistakenly put to death. But it is precisely for the protection of innocent life that some crimes, proven beyond doubt, need to be punished by capital punishment.

Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.

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