Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Prosecutor cites religious views in death penalty plea decision

What's the religious right view of criminal justice? More complex than a lot of people think.

Victoria County DA Dexter Eaves recently entered into a plea agreement reducing capital murder charges to life
with possibility of parole after 40 years in a high-profile local case. Explaining the decision to the local paper, Eaves cited his own religious views about redemption and the value of life as the basis for reducing the charges:
There is always hope for everybody," Eaves said. "If there is hope that they will find God, then I won't go forward with the death penalty... I feel like if people are truly repentant and they do accept responsibility, they should be able to live, albeit in prison for the rest of their life." ...

The decision to seek the death penalty is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, Eaves said.

"I have to look at each one individual. Ultimately I not only have to answer to the people of Victoria County, but I also have to answer to God," Eaves said. "We believe life is precious. It is so sacred it is very rare we will ask the jury for a death penalty."
Taking capital murder charges off the table for defendants who "accept responsibility" represents a significant caveat to how the death penalty is applied in Texas. That's not how they roll in Harris County, for example. I'm not sure how Eaves may judge if defendants are "truly repentant," since even he would admit that only God can look into their hearts. But his comments raise an interesting question:

What is the religious conservative philosophy concerning criminal justice?

The large number religious conservatives populating the GOP's grass roots -- many motivated by social issues like abortion and gay rights -- have been the subject of much news coverage and liberal hand-wringing. And if you're a gay couple who'd like to get married or you work for Planned Parenthood, you've good reason to be concerned.

But if you're a defendant facing Texas' death row, maybe you're not so unhappy to see the rise of a political faction that believes human life is "sacred," who value mercy and forgiveness, and who worship a God whose son was wrongly given the death penalty (based on testimony from a "snitch," BTW, Judas Iscariot). Indeed, Christ forgave the actual criminal hanging on the cross next to him because, as Mr. Eaves said, he'd truly repented.

Are Eaves' comments more evidence of Doc Berman's thesis that there's a "new right" developing in the states on criminal sentencing? Maybe. It's at least a hint of something new: I've not seen pro-life rhetoric and ideology so expressly applied to the death penalty before by a Texas elected official.

Religious conservatives in Texas already have taken leadership on criminal justice reform, from requiring treatment instead of incarceration for low-level drug users, to strengthening the probation system, and requiring corroboration for snitches in drug cases. I wonder what would happen if that faction begins to aim their pro-life political sensibilities toward reforming the death penalty?


Anonymous said...

If they believe in forgoing the death penalty against defendants who show acceptance of responsibility, that in itself may be a good thing.

But I worry that to a Christian prosecutor, "acceptance of responsibility" is often going to mean "acceptance of Jesus."

Anonymous said...

First of all, I assume this means all atheists (and probably non-christians) die.

Second, "acceptance of responsibility" means, if nothing else, pleading guilty. Pleabargains are nothing new, but they're inherently coercive, especially in cases where the death penalty is involved. All this means is that more prosecutors will (improperly or imprudently) seek the death penalty from the outset, saying you can redeem yourself and avoid the risk of execution if you plead guilty.

If life is sacred, you not only don't kill it, you don't torture it in prison either. What would jesus do? Well, he wouldn't send someone to prison for life. He'd forgive them and let them go. Either way, jesus has no place in our criminal justice system. And I say this as a criminal defense lawyer.

Anonymous said...

The funny thing here is that Eaves is a democrat, not a republican.

Anonymous said...

Eaves a Christian!,,,,if so what kind. Try living in the county where he is the local D.A. So many criminal offenes have went thru his hands and have led to nothing. People in this county have got away with so much criminal activity,,because this guy only prosecutes the ones he choses. Evidence or no evidence. And it usually takes a year for them to even get to the case. Sorry Eaves,,I have no need for you or what your beleives are. Why not help the Victoria Law in prosecuting those that need prosecuted.