Dialogue on the Death Penalty: Finding Common Ground

In this election season, a time of partisan posturing with a hyper focus of the media on the ideological divides in our nation, I was recently treated to an unusually thoughtful and substantive discussion on what has been historically seen as a “controversial” issue: the death penalty.  On Friday, October 22nd I was one of about 50 people who attended a death penalty forum in Nashville sponsored by First Amendment Center and Vanderbilt University Law School.

The forum’s moderator, Vanderbilt Law Professor, Christopher Slobogin, played the role of a governor considering the adoption of a death penalty statute in his state. The distinguished panel, acting as his advisors, consisted of a number of experts in their field, including retired Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Adolpho A. Birch Jr.; President of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Richard Land; Death Penalty Information Center Director, Richard Dieter; Nashville clergyperson and murder victim’s family member, Charles Strobel; along with representatives of the media, the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office, and an expert in forensic psychology.

While the discussion among the diverse panel members highlighted some of the traditional ideological dichotomies, it also provided a surprising level of consensus. The continuing racial and economic bias that plagues the administration of the death penalty system emerged as a concern for all panel members. The costs associated with implementing the death penalty and problems with the process surfaced as other reasons not to adopt a death penalty statute.  Perhaps the most troubling aspect of implementing the death penalty, for all panel members, was the prospect of innocent people being executed.  Panelists, such as Dr. Land and Father Strobel, who come to this issue from very different theological and philosophical perspectives, were in full agreement that if we are to have the death penalty, then we must strive for 100% accuracy. Anything less is unacceptable.

Ultimately, members of the panel more than fulfilled their duties and offered attendees a thoughtful and nuanced discussion. The panel’s willingness to engage the issues and the common ground that emerged offered this observer hope that rather than being irreparably divided on the topic of the death penalty, we might be much closer than we think.

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