The Bible and the Death Penalty: An Interview with Dale S. Recinella

Dale S. Recinella left his law firm to become a lay Catholic chaplain to condemned prisoners in the Bible Belt. When he realized good Christians were supporting the death penalty because they thought it was in the Bible, he began to research the issue. The results were surprising.

By William Bole

For Dale S. Recinella, death row is a family affair. Since walking away from a high-powered law firm in the late 1990s, the former attorney has been going cell to cell as a volunteer, lay Catholic chaplain to condemned prisoners in Florida. His wife, Susan, a clinical psychologist, ministers to families of prisoners awaiting execution, while their five children have corresponded with those inmates and visited others. The Recinellas also serve as a "Christian mentoring family" to a convicted killer in jail for life. They comfort the families of murder victims as well.

Living deep in the Bible Belt, near Florida's border with Georgia, Recinella decided to undertake what he describes as a journey of research into the supposed biblical underpinnings of capital punishment. The result is his book, The Biblical Truth About America's Death Penalty (Northeastern University Press, 2004). He spoke with me about his journeys into the death chambers, and why neither the Bible nor the Church offers moral support for the death penalty as carried out in the United States.

WILLIAM BOLE: Did you always have strong feelings against the death penalty?

DALE S. RECINELLA: No. In fact, if you had come to me in 1985 when I was a partner in a major law firm, I would have told you that I support the death penalty. And the depth of my analysis was, "It says 'eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth' in the Bible." I really didn't think much about it.

Since 1976, 87 percent of executions in the United States have taken place in the Bible Belt.

I was strongly pro-life. I'd been actively involved in working against abortion since I was a college student but had never considered the death penalty a life issue. The teaching of the Church and my personal involvement in prison ministry, which started in 1990 [and extended nearly full-time to death row in 1998], gradually caused me to question my position. And I came to accept the Church's leading that this is a life issue. So long as we can protect innocent life in society without executing people, we need to do everything we can to offer them a humane incarceration and the chance to repent and come back to God.

In a column for Florida Catholic, you told of a death-penalty opponent who accused you of being part of the "machinery of death," because you work inside death row and have witnessed executions. How do you plead? Is that something you wrestle with?

What happens is that if a [condemned] man has asked me to be his spiritual adviser, I meet with him regularly during the weeks leading up to his execution, and then serve as his witness for his execution. Most of the other witnesses are state witnesses and lawyers. His family is not allowed to be there. And my wife stays with his family, after they have to leave the prison grounds six hours before the execution. The question I've had to wrestle with is: Do I somehow support the execution by my presence there? And sometimes activists have challenged me on this.

I came to peace with it after prayer, spiritual counseling, and Scripture study, after looking at our Blessed Mother Mary, Mary Magdalene, and others who loved him and were present at his Crucifixion. I asked myself, "By being there, were they supporting what was being done?" And the answer of course is absolutely not. They were there for him.

People hadn’t heard of any reason why they shouldn’t support the death penalty.
They were there so that when he looked down from the cross, he saw his mother and some people who loved and cared for him. That is exactly the reason why I'm at the execution. I'm there so that when the man on the gurney looks through the glass, there's at least one face that is there for him, not in support of the crime, but in support of the fact that he is a child a God, and that he is loved and that his humanness remains. And that is how I came to peace with my involvement in the process.

Otherwise, is it safe to say that where you live is not exactly a bastion of Catholic anti-death-penalty activism?

We live in a small town [Macclenny, Florida] of 3900 people, very good people, salt of the earth people, almost all Christian. But our neighbors had never met a Catholic before. And when we moved here, our two youngest children were still living at home, and their friends in school had never met a Catholic before. So the one thing we had to say to ourselves right away is that we really need to behave ourselves, because however we act, this is the way people will think Catholics act. But the other thing we found out is that the people here had not heard of any reason why they should not support the death penalty. Most of the evangelical and Pentecostal denominations support the death penalty and do so with short quotes from Scripture.

As I became more involved in trying to understand support for the death penalty in America, I found out that since 1976, 87 percent of executions in the United States have taken place in the Bible Belt. The backbone of support is a religious support by good people who believe that in order to be good Christians, they have to support the death penalty because it's in the Bible. This prompted me to start a whole journey of religious research into the actual death penalty under the Bible, back when it was the law of the land, in the Torah, in the Old Testament, and to construct a comparison between what's in the Bible and what we're actually doing.

Neither the Bible nor the Church offers moral support for the death penalty.
For example, in Exodus (23:7), there's a command: Thou shalt not execute the innocent. This is already stated in some other places, but right there, very specifically, it's clear: absolute certainty—not beyond a reasonable doubt, not clear and overwhelming evidence—absolute certainty was the minimum threshold requirement for the biblical death penalty.

In America, if one talks about requiring absolute certainty as a condition to the death penalty, the response is, "We couldn't possibly afford that. It would be too expensive to have absolute certainty." But if we can't afford absolute certainty, then we certainly can't afford the death penalty if we're people of biblical faith.

That's part of your pitch to Bible Belt Protestants. What do you say to Catholics?

Well, thankfully with the leadership of the Pope and our bishops, it's much easier to explain to Catholics. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is very clear that while continuing to uphold the right to resort to the death penalty by governments, it's not appropriate for governments to resort to that right, unless there's absolutely no other means available to protect innocent life in society. And in modern First World societies like our own, modern prison systems make it absolutely clear that we can keep people from killing again without having to execute them.

Still, many say they don't shed a tear when murderers are executed, because they're guilty as hell. What do you say?

I say, ‘Come with me’ and distribute communion… the people you're going to meet are overwhelmingly human.

I say, "Come with me."

File an application to come with me and distribute communion. Not because the people you're going to meet are mostly innocent, but because the people you're going to meet are overwhelmingly human. And what happens when we strip away the monstrosity image and start dealing with people with names and faces is that we realize these are human beings, that these are people just like ourselves who have made mistakes, perhaps much worse mistakes, and that there is a humanness to them that needs to be respected.

I would say come with me and meet the people you think may be suitable for execution, not because the crimes weren't horrible, but because by standing there and praying with somebody, you enter into their humanity. You see that they too are children of God, and God is working in their lives. I think it changes the way we look at people who fill these cells.