The Death Penalty and Human Dignity: Where Do We Stand? by Stephanie N. Arel


On Wednesday, March 22, I had the pleasure to speak at a conference on law, economics, and religion hosted jointly by Georgetown University Law Center and the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. Entitled “The Moral Economy,” the conference provided rich learning from an accomplished cast of rabbis, attorneys, and judges, including Pardes faculty members and alumni.

I presented with Dr. Jenny Labendz of the Solomon Schechter Day School and Dr. Deborah Barer of Towson University in a panel entitled, “Death penalty, human dignity and ethics: Retribution and an eye for an eye?” We engaged in a fascinating discussion that covered Rabbinic and Talmudic Law alongside the Gospel of Matthew, the Beatitudes, and Catholic Social Thought. I felt privileged and honored to learn from them in an interreligious exchange.

The topic of our session though proved pressing. Amidst news reports that Arkansas is “turning its death penalty into an assembly line” – the state currently prepares to execute eight men in over 10 days in April – we queried together, “What is at stake for the prisoner and those implicated or involved in the death penalty process both on moral and economic grounds?”

Arkansas plans to conduct their “killing spree” because one of the drugs commonly used to engineer executions approaches its expiration date of April 30th. The state understands that it will not be able to procure another supply of the drug midazolam. The loss of the drug as a resource to enact the death penalty represents a fiscal one. To justify the rapid enactment of the death penalty based on a monetary argument constitutes an extreme violation of human dignity for all parties involved.

The drug in question is one of three drugs used to administer lethal injection. Midazolam renders its victim unconscious, debilitating the person from recognizing the process of dying. The problem with the drug relates its temporary effects. Used also for healing anesthetic procedures and even sleep problems, midazolam wears off quickly, a fact that has contributed to several botched executions including those of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma and Joseph Wood in Arizona.

Pancuronium bromide, the drug that follows midazolam, induces paralysis and suffocation. Finally, potassium chloride stops the heart. Without an effective drug to debilitate consciousness, the dying process becomes painful and recognizable by the victim. Simultaneously, witnesses and prison employees administering the death are subjected to prolong visual and aural evidence of the suffering.

At stake in the Arkansas case is not only the lives of the men about to be executed but also the lives of both of those doing and those witnessing the killing. Franz Fanon’s work in Wretched of the Earth probes what the ramifications are of enacting any kind of violence. Considering means of torture, he states that the “the militant who faces the colonialist war machine with the bare minimum of arms realizes that while he is breaking down colonial oppression he is building up yet another system of exploitation.”

The system of exploitation being used in the name of protection is represented in the prison system and manifested in the use of the death penalty. Furthermore, the prison system replicates slavery, and the “disgusting, bitter reality,” as Fanon would put it, of colonial oppression in the United States.

In this post, I want to focus attention specifically on the death penalty, as a violation of human dignity. The general point I want to raise relates to what I think we need to do more as we consider any issue or practice engaged in by our religions or our nations where we recognize that the value of life (human, animal, environmental) is being threatened or undermined. Furthermore, the death penalty constitutes a defilement of human dignity and represents what retired prison superintendent Frank Thompson calls a violation of the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution which prohibits both states and the federal government from imposing cruel and unusual punishment upon prisoners.

To understand the implications of employing cruel and unusual punishment, consciousness is crucial. Discussing and confronting behaviors that constitute violations of life are critical to preventing slippage from silence into denial.

Usher in Sister Helen Prejean. Known for her book and the subsequent film Dead Man Walking, Prejean presses us to think about the death penalty. The lack of discussion around the death penalty, she argues, supports the ability to deny that it exists. The negligence of talk and debate around this severe punishment, she asserts, represents one of the “greatest moral issues facing our country” and cripples our ability to make an informed decision about it. Prejean encourages education that promotes an understanding of the stories we tell both about punishment as a concept and the individuals lives it affects. She presses that the sides of those who have been harmed and those who have done the harming be taken into account in order to elucidate the complexities and dangers of the death penalty. Her book represents this intent.

From another angle, NBC News reports that Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals critiques systems of denial that rationalize that lethal injection is an acceptable form of causing death. “Using drugs meant for individuals with medical needs to carry out executions is a misguided effort to mask the brutality of executions by making them look serene and peaceful.” He continues, “executions are, in fact, nothing like that. They are brutal, savage events, and nothing the state tries to do can mask that reality. Nor should it. If we as a society want to carry out executions, we should be willing to face the fact that the state is committing a horrendous brutality on our behalf.” A better option – he suggests – is the guillotine, because it is foolproof. His recommendation is severe, but from it I draw the proposition that if the nation supports killing, then uncovering the brutality of this kind of murder, highlights the reality of the death penalty.

As an opponent of the death penalty, lethal injection, and the prison system in general; as someone sensitive to the ramifications for those witnessing deaths precipitated by the government; and as someone horrified that Arkansas is requesting up to 48 people to volunteer to watch as the state kills eight men, I want to articulate where I get stuck when it comes to the death penalty:   

Ted Bundy’s execution took place when I was a child living in Florida. He was convicted of at least 30 homicides and suspected of nearly 100. Some of these included rape and torture of several woman on the University of Florida campus. I was too young to realize that this was an anomaly (or to have read Fanon). I interpreted college campuses and Florida as simultaneously dangerous places. I remember the day he died. I declared afterward to my mother, a devoted Catholic against the death penalty, that I was sorry, but I supported the death penalty, and I was relieved Bundy was dead. The narrative of the state granting me protection perpetuated my imagination. As an adult, I can correct my assumptions, but the memory shades my assertiveness to be against the death penalty. And I know that the lack of that assertiveness is a slippery slope. To validate such a practice in any way is to validate it in every way.  

So, I return to Sister Prejean for courage and to ground my position against the death penalty.

“What’s the heart of all the traditions?” she rhetorically posits in an interview with Rachel Maddow. “That everybody is my brother and my sister, and I cannot turn a switch and say, ‘You are not human like the rest of us, and we can kill you.’” This decision to respect the other invariably is, she continues, “deeply spiritual. It’s about the soul of all of us.”


Stephanie N. Arel is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Institute for the Bio-Cultural Study of Religion (IBCSR) at Boston University working on the Sex Differences in Religion Project. Her teaching and research interests focus on the intersection of theology, psychology, and philosophy. She is the author of Affect Theory, Shame and Christian Formation (Palgrave Macmillan 2016) and co-editor of Post-Traumatic Public Theology (Palgrave Macmillan 2016).


Categories: Death and Dying, Ethics, Social Justice

Tags: , ,

19 replies

  1. “Usher in Sister Helen Prejean. Known for her book and the subsequent film Dead Man Walking, Prejean presses us to think about the death penalty. The lack of discussion around the death penalty, she argues, supports the ability to deny that it exists.”

    Thanks Stephanie N. Arel for the depth of your understanding here. And thanks also for the link in your last paragraph to the tape of Rachel Maddow’s interview with Sister Prejean — very wonderful, taped discussion between those two women, full of insight and feeling.


  2. In my inbox this morning: an appeal from the ACLU to stop the Arkansas “killing spree.”

    We can all sign this. Maybe it’ll help. But do our governments (federal, state, local) really pay attention to us? We can keep trying to get their attention.


    • Thank you Barbara. I was not aware of this petition. I agree…we can keep trying. Signing such things is a form of honoring human dignity in any case.


  3. A good addition to Margot’s post yesterday. I was “caught” by what Sr Helen said about people just not thinking about the death penalty. Yet, the USA is one of the few countries still using it. And when we suffer a particularly gruesome murder in Canada there is always someone who comments that it’s time to bring back the death penalty. We don’t seem to have evolved very much.
    Thanks for the post and the links Stephanie.


    • You are welcome. Interesting that people want to associate the death penalty with reduced incidents of murder. First, statistically most of the states in the US that don’t have the death penalty have half the incidences of murder than the national average. Secondly, I wonder what motivates these kinds of reactions? I think first of fear and hate, which indicate anger…


  4. I’ve always been against the death penalty. Any murder seems less heinous than state-sanctioned murder in our names. That said, I have held sick and suffering animals in my arms as they died peacefully through lethal injection. There are states that have legalized physician assisted suicide, which is about dying in dignity and comfort. So it seems to me that death by legal injection must be intentionally cruel and unusual, because the means for a merciful death are available. Could anyone explain why drugs that result in suffering are used? Again, I am opposed to the death penalty. Period. But I want to know if the suffering currently inflicted is a deliberate choice on the part of the state,


  5. Interesting listening to Sister Prejean; I certainly admire her courage in conviction, and cannot fault her for taking the stand that she does. It has always seemed to me, however, that the death penalty is not primarily about punishment (which she seems to take as its sole rationale) nor deterrence (which is commonly suggested also). Rather, I find it a best balance between competing moral claims when we have, as a society, decided that a given individual is too dangerous ever to be released, and then furthermore recognize that maintaining them in prison with taxpayer money ultimately entails putting their fellow citizens to forced labor to provide for their maintenance. This becomes especially heinous when we consider that some of those taxpayers are the friends and family of the inmate’s victims. One can argue as to whether execution is “cruel,” but it is not, in the history of the world, unusual. Having a portion of your labor confiscated by law for years, or for decades, to feed, clothe, and shelter the man who raped and/or murdered your loved one, however, is certainly both cruel and unusual. That is why I support the death penalty (though I agree with Judge Kozinski in opposing lethal objection as a method).


    • Hello, Race MoChridhe. The death penalty actually costs the taxpayer more than life imprisonment. I just double checked and there are numerous articles available on that subject, including one from Forbes Magazine by staff writer Kelly Phillips Erb. I would put in the link but have had difficulty posting comments with links. Please do the research before advancing this argument. I have spent time in prisons in volunteer programs. They used to be call penal institutions and now they are called correctional facilities. Whatever the stated intent–and of course the public does need protection from some people–the result is punitive and many people would do not belong there or would do better elsewhere if jobs, training, support services, affordable housing etc,,, were available.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The statistics do support what Elizabeth argues. Last I read, Arkansas has already spent $85,000 to ensure that the killing spree continue.

        Based on global trends, “Moderate penal policies in which prison is used sparingly – as a last resort and for the shortest possible time – are likely to prove the fairest and most cost-effective response to crime in most societies,” reported by the Penal Reform International.

        Furthermore, recidivism, which costs the US $52 million a year (quadrupled in the last 20 years, and not because of more murders) is reduced when the resources Elizabeth mentions are provided.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That is true for the United States, but other countries manage this process far more efficiently then we do. Appeals reform is desperately needed.


  6. Hi first i would like to say what a wonderful article this was. The death penalty is so betting we need to discuss more as a human community. For me the discussion raises 2 questions, the first – Is killing wrong? If your answer is yes, then you must oppose the death penalty there’s nothing more to say. If killing is wrong, then it’s wrong whoever’ doing it just as Mathew Poncetta explains in Dead Man Walking. My second question – Why is the USA providing people with so many tools to kill ie guns etc, when they’re one of the major countries who still have the death penalty?


    • Thanks very much…and this is where I get hung up with the Ted Bunny thing. Killing is wrong. And so I oppose. So my position, regardless of my fear (even as it was a childhood one), remains in opposition. Second question, power and white imperialist patriarchal capitalism…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi first i would like to say what a wonderful article this was. The death penalty is an issue we need to discuss more as a human community. For me the discussion raises 2 questions, the first – Is killing wrong? If your answer is yes, then you must oppose the death penalty there’s nothing more to say. If killing is wrong, then it’s wrong whoever’ doing it just as Mathew Poncetta explains in Dead Man Walking. My second question – Why is the USA providing people with so many tools to kill ie guns etc, when they’re one of the major countries who still have the death penalty?


  8. I agree, Stephanie. I used to support the death penalty, but I came to realize that killing killers makes us no better than them. It is inhumane and it puts a horrible burden on those who help with the execution. There are some people who are a danger to society and they should spend life in prison, I think. My brother is now in prison, for a crime he says he didn’t commit. I don’t know what the truth is, but I do know that as horrible as prison is, it has had a positive impact on him in many ways. He has had to quit drinking and he has learned more job skills and taken a course in anger management. He got seven years to life in prison and has been in for 10. I hope and pray that he will get out one day and that he will be able to stay sober and rebuild his life.


  9. Hi Stephanie,
    Good article on the death penalty. It is an incredibly complex topic on one level and on another level it simply should be eliminated. It is riddled with structural racism, arbitrary application, and inhumanity.
    Might I suggest Foucault, Discipline & Punish: The Birth of The Prison as foundational in understanding state power and the death penalty.
    I am heartened to hear continued work being done in this area but discouraged about how little meaningful public attention is given to these discussions.
    Keep up the good fight,


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