Don't write off capital punishment just yet — Tuesday's elections gave death penalty a boost

To hear opponents tell it, the death penalty is under fire and losing favor in America.

But is that really true, based on election results in California, Nebraska and my home state of Oklahoma?

And if not, what does religion have to do with it?

We'll get to those questions in a moment. But first, a little background might be helpful: This subject long has interested me, particularly since I spent a few years covering state prisons for The Oklahoman, where I witnessed four executions and wrote a narrative story on a "typical execution day."

More recently, in a freelance piece last month for the French-based global news agency Agence France-Presse, I reported on an Oklahoma referendum on capital punishment:

The ballot measure comes at a time when 36 US states have paused executions, or stopped them altogether, according to the Death Penalty Information Center.
This November, a ballot measure in California -- which has 741 death row inmates -- might end the practice in that state. Conversely, Nebraska voters will decide whether to restore the death penalty.
A key factor is the pharmaceutical industry's mounting opposition to supplying lethal injection drugs, causing a supply shortage.

An opponent that I interviewed voiced optimism:

Decreasing support for the death penalty "is the national direction," said Abraham Bonowitz, an opponent of capital punishment who is organizing the opposition to Oklahoma's ballot initiative. He believes the November election can be an important barometer.
"If we can do our small part in Oklahoma by simply making sure that the vote is not as popular as the proponents of State Question 776 expect it to be, then that demonstrates less support," said Bonowitz, who lives in Columbus, Ohio.

So — since you may have missed this news given the big stunner (think Trump) — how'd the death penalty referendums fare?

• In Oklahoma, 66 percent of voters favored the death penalty measure. In an email, an opponent touted that support as reflecting "a significant shift in attitudes on the death penalty" in Oklahoma. I'm not sure I'm buying that.

• Meanwhile, the Omaha World-Herald reported that Nebraskans overwhelmingly voted "to restore the death penalty and nullify a historic 2015 vote by state lawmakers to repeal capital punishment."

• And the Los Angeles Times reported:

California voters on Tuesday defeated a ballot measure to repeal the state’s death penalty, and instead narrowly passed a proposition that aims to amend and expedite it.
The outcome concluded a closely watched ballot race to address what people on both sides of the debate have agreed is a broken system.
Proposition 62, which would have replaced capital punishment for murder with life in prison without parole, garnered 46.1% of the vote.
Proposition 66 intended to speed up executions by designating trial courts to hear petitions challenging death row convictions, limiting successive petitions and expanding the pool of lawyers who could take on death penalty appeals. 
It won the approval of 50.9% of voters.

In other words, the death penalty got a boost in all three states where it was on the ballot.

But what does religion have to do with it? Good question. Unfortunately, the news coverage seems mostly haunted by holy ghosts.

Nebraska, for example, is described by the World-Herald as a "a conservative, law-and-order state." Might religious beliefs play into that? The Omaha newspaper does not elaborate.

Voices of faith certainly figured in the piece I wrote for AFP:

"In Oklahoma, we're basically a very faith-based, biblically orientated people," said [state representative Mike] Ritze, a family physician and Southern Baptist deacon who has served as an execution witness.
"I think we realize that God allows us to judge actions."
But Connie Johnson, a former state senator and longtime member of the Church of the Living God, a Pentecostal congregation, sees it differently.
"God forgave us for our sins," said Johnson. She herself says she forgave the man who killed her brother in 1981. ...
Some religious leaders, including the state's top Roman Catholic clergyman, have come out in opposition to the measure.
"Today we have non-lethal means to punish offenders and protect people's safety," Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley said in a statement.

My point is simple: In assessing opinions and attitudes on the death penalty in the U.S., the religion angle is a crucial one to pursue.

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