The Death Penalty, the Law, the Governor, and Moral Decisions in Alabama

Glen Boyd was executed last Thursday in Alabama for his role in a double murder that

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley

occurred 25 years ago.  He had an accomplice who struck a deal with prosecutors: his testimony against Glenn (full name William Glenn) in exchange for a sentence of life in prison without a chance for prole; Glenn would then be liable for the death penalty.   Glenn said that he was offered the same deal too, to testify against the other man for the same offer, but he declined it.  That decision may have cost him his life.  Either way, I am not at all sanguine about the way we dangle a death sentence in front of a person in exchange for testimony against someone else.   Do we really believe this is a way to get at the truth?  If Glenn had accepted the deal, he would now be in prison and perhaps his co-defendant would now be dead.  Is that what we call justice?  It’s almost a coin-toss situation, with death on the line.

Anyway, Alabama has the death penalty, and uses it.  It’s important in our state for people like Glenn to understand that killing people is not an appropriate way to solve problems, so if they do it here, we kill them.   Such is the logic of capital punishment.

In our state there are two other aspects of the law that must be called into question.  The first is that in Alabama (alone) a judge may overturn a jury’s sentence, which he did in this case.  The jury heard testimony that persuaded them that Glenn should have life in prison without a chance for parole for his part in the double murder.  But the judge overturned the jury sentence in favor of the death penalty.  I’ll have more to say about his judge and these circumstances later – they will shock all but the most cynical among us.

The other law that comes into play is the one that gives the Governor of our state the final say.   The law allows a governor to  commute a sentence, or to grant clemency, or grant a temporary reprieve in order to take more time to study the facts of the case.

But Governor Bentley of Alabama did not make use of his legal authority as Governor.  Instead, despite motivation that might have come from his strong public stand as a Christian, and despite the Hippocratic Oath he swore as a physician, and despite his legal authority, he defended his decision to allow the execution to proceed on the grounds that, as the paper reported,

“I am the governor and I swore to uphold the laws of Alabama,”

The law gives the right to the Governor to commute sentences.

Never mind, for the moment, the question of the level of moral reasoning that does not rise above “law and order” (Jim Crow laws made all kinds of things “legal” – is that the last word on ethics?) there are many procedural, ethical, moral, and for me, as a  Christian, religious reasons the Governor could have had for stopping the execution.   I am deeply disappointed.  It did not have to end this way.


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