The Briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, October 14, 2022

It’s Friday, October 14, 2022.

I’m Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

An Urgent Edition of The Briefing: The Parkland Shooter Receives Life Sentence Without the Possibility of Parole

Today, there is one story we have to talk about in a way that is unusually urgent. And that one story comes from the state of Florida, from Broward County, Florida, where in the sentencing phase of the trial of the Parkland School shooter, Nikolas Cruz, the jury eventually came back with a result that ended up yesterday with a life sentence, a sentence of life in prison without the opportunity of parole. But the big headline story is not the sentence that Nikolas Cruz received, but rather the one that he did not, and that is the death penalty. Some of the most basic issues related to murder, justice, righteousness, the administration of justice, murder, aggravated murder, law enforcement, mass shootings, they all come together in this one story.

And yesterday, it came down to one courthouse in Broward County, Florida and the worldview dimensions are absolutely immense. Sadly, there’s almost no doubt that you remember the heinous details of this crime. Nikolas Cruz, who had just shortly before been a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, he had been haunting the school, he had been staking out the school, he had been in trouble at the school, and had made threats against the school.

But on Valentine’s Day of 2018, he entered the school with malice of forethought, with the intention of carrying out mass murder. And with a legally obtained semi-automatic weapon, he ruthlessly and systematically killed 14 students there at that school, 14 teenagers, and then three members of the faculty, a total of 17 premeditated murders. Now, as you’re just thinking about crime and punishment, and of course, the goal of any system of justice is where the punishment to fit the crime, in American and in western judicial history, the big issue has been identifying premeditated murder or what is known as now aggravated murder as the particular crime that most clearly demands and deserves the death penalty.

But the death penalty was not applied yesterday in Florida. And the big question being asked by so many is why. But then the larger question of the death penalty also becomes a part of this conversation. And so, in order to understand this, let’s take the death penalty first. One of the interesting factors historically is the understanding that most cultures, most civilizations, most nations of the world over time have had the death penalty. They have administered the death penalty, they have put people to death for particularly heinous crimes. In the catalog of the application of the death penalty throughout much of human history, I think most modern Americans, even those modern Americans who support the death penalty, would not support the application of the death penalty in every case in which it was administered in the past.

But by the time you follow through the history of Western civilization and Western understandings of law and justice, you arrive at the fact that in the United States of America, the singular crime for which the death penalty is understood in at least 27 states to be deserved is that premeditated murder. Not just homicide in the sense of the killing of a human being, because in our legal system, we make distinctions between involuntary homicide, between manslaughter, and murder and aggravated murder, even different degrees of murder.

The death penalty is reserved in this country now for acts of premeditated murder, intentional murder, sometimes referred to in a literary sense as cold-blooded murder.

Part II

‘Whoever Sheds the Blood of Man, By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed, for God Made Man in His Own Image’: The Imago Dei and the Biblical Foundation for Capital Punishment

But our worldview based in scripture and our understanding of the death penalty should start with the Bible, not with the U.S. Constitution, shouldn’t start with American statutory law or Western legal traditions, we need to go back to the scriptures. And here’s where we need to understand that the death penalty shows up in scripture and the principle of the death penalty shows up in scripture and shows up so early, as early as the Book of Genesis, as early as Genesis 9. But the background to Genesis 9 is the opening text to scripture, including the fact that in the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and that within Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, you have a very clear presentation, you have a very clear revelation of the fact that God created human beings as the one being male and female made in His image.

And the big issue of human dignity and the sanctity of human life, it doesn’t come down to the complexity of our brains, it comes down to the imago Dei, the fact that we are made in God’s image. It is that and that crucially that sets us apart from all the rest of creation. Now, why Genesis 9? Well, you’ll recall that Genesis 1, Genesis 2, the account of creation is followed by Genesis 3, the account of the fall and the consequences of the fall, of the entry of sin into human experience, of our rebellion in sin against God becomes so profoundly clear that by the time you get to Genesis 9, we are looking at the covenant that God makes with Noah after the flood.

So, this is a reset of sorts. That’s how Genesis establishes the meaning of the covenant that God made with Noah. And as a part of that covenant, the death penalty or capital punishment shows up. As God makes His covenant with Noah, He says, “And for your lifeblood, I will require a reckoning from every beast. I will require it and from man. From his fellow man, I will require a reckoning for the life of a man.” Then verse 6 that is absolutely crucial, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image.” So, who says that the image of God, the imago Dei, is tied to the application of the death penalty? God does. Who says thus that it is just and righteous to put to death someone who commits premeditated murder? God says it.

We’re looking again at Genesis 9. Now, as I said, even before God made His covenant with the children of Israel, He had implanted in human beings a moral consciousness and an understanding of the necessity of both order and law that led to the fact that most societies in some way were applying the death penalty simply because when you look at crimes as heinous and as horrifying as murder, the reality is nothing less than the death penalty seems appropriate. And you’ll notice the principle that is set forth in Scripture. The principle is, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed. For God made man in His own image.”

So in other words, the biblical logic of the death penalty is that a man slayer, and that means a human slayer, a man or a woman slayer in premeditated, intentional murder has forfeited his or her own right to life. It comes down to the fact that the death penalty underlines the dignity and sanctity of every single human life. So much so that if a human being intentionally takes the life of another human being, then that human being’s life is to be forfeited for the cause of justice. And again, it’s God who said, “For God made man in His own image.” It is the image of God. It is human dignity. It is the sanctity of human life that is at stake here.

And as you look at the course of development, and yes there have been centuries, indeed now two millennia of development, what you are looking at is a rather consistent trajectory until something happened. And what happened is the advent of the modern age. And in the modern age, one of the issues of the secularization of the society was basically the society saying, “Well, we’re not going to be dependent upon a biblical understanding of these issues, we’re going to try to come up with a humane, modern, autonomous understanding of right and wrong, of justice and the administration of justice.

To make a long story short, this has led to a general liberalization of the death penalty and of laws concerning murder in most Western societies. The fact that in the United States there has been a resistance to that progressivism or liberalism sets the United States largely apart in terms of modern advanced Western nations. You asked the question why many European nations in particular look to the U.S. and ask why, and it is indeed the continuation, it’s evidence of the continuation of a biblical logic and also the formation of a biblically informed conscience that at least in much of the United States, in 27 of the 50 states, means that there is widespread public support for the death penalty.

And by the way, looking at the history of the death penalty in the United States, we need to understand that it was applied in virtually all states until about 1967. The Supreme Court of the United States put a moratorium on the death penalty that lasted a decade from 1967 to 1977. The issue, of course, is whether or not the death penalty violates the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. And for that reason, many states revise their death penalty statutes to make very clear the fact that the death penalty would require not only the crime of murder, but premeditated murder, and in almost every case with something described as at least one aggravating circumstance.

The fact is that in the United States today, there is very widespread support for even political demand for the death penalty. But you are looking at that demand, that public support for the death penalty being unevenly distributed. By the way, there should be no shock in that. Look at how support for laws banning abortion are unevenly distributed. By the way, there is not an exact overlay on those issues but pretty much so, and this gets back to the basic question of what justice demands, particularly with the crime of homicide.

But there’s something else we need to recognize, and that is that when for instance Americans are polled or surveyed on the question of capital punishment, the context of the question and the timing of the question, the background issue at stake in the question, that has a lot to do with how the answer’s going to come. So for example, right now, in response to the news coming out of Florida, the reality is that many Americans are appalled, absolutely disgusted, confused as to why the death penalty was not applied in this case.

There is no question that Nikolas Cruz carried out those murders. There is no question that he had malice of forethought, that it was premeditated, that he had strategized about how to kill as many students as possible. There is no question that we’re not just talking about one aggravating circumstance according to the law, but multiple aggravating circumstances as so many people in that courtroom and after that verdict made very, very clear.

The question is, if the death penalty is not deserved in this case, then in what case would it be deserved?

Part III

The Broward County Courthouse and the Trial of Alvin Ford: My Confrontation with the Issue of Capital Punishment

But speaking of the Broward County courthouse there in Florida, I want to say that it was in that same courthouse that I had to think through the issue of the death penalty for the first time in the unfolding of my own life. I was 16 years old at the time. I was a high school student in Broward County, Florida. And as a part of a special school program, I had the opportunity to devise a curricular program or an academic plan that would include a study of a particular area in which I had interest. The area in which I had interest was the law, and criminal law, and prosecution. And I had the opportunity to be out of class for a number of weeks in order to attend a murder trial, at that point, the most famous murder trial in the city of Fort Lauderdale in Broward County, Florida.

It had to do with the murder of Fort Lauderdale policeman, Walter Ilyankoff, a young man with a wife and a young son at the time, who interrupted an armed robbery at a Red Lobster restaurant on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale. There were multiple criminals involved in the armed robbery. Officer Ilyankoff did not know what he was interrupting when he arrived at the scene because there were signs of an alarm. And when he attempted to find out what was happening, the robbers were leaving the Red Lobster restaurant, and in the course of leaving, one of them calculated the situation, understood that a police officer was present and pulled the trigger, killing the police officer.

The murder trial that I attended as a teenager was the trial of Alvin Ford, who was the triggerman in this case. And the evidence was overwhelming. Over the course of the layout of this trial and the eventual sentencing phase, and yes, I had to go back to class between those two, during the trial, it became evident that there was no question that Alvin Ford had committed the crime. There was no doubt that the others involved in the crime by Florida law were also guilty at some level of murder. But Alvin Ford had held the gun, he had pulled the trigger, he was the shooter, he was sentenced to death.

Now, sitting there as a 16-year-old in that courtroom observing all that was going on, quite frankly, it was almost overwhelming. But the death penalty was a massive issue for a 16-year-old young Christian to consider. And as I considered the death penalty, it became very, very clear to me that this premeditated killing of this police officer in the course of carrying out an armed robbery clearly justified, indeed demanded the death penalty.

The issue for me as a 16-year-old Christian trying to process these issues and think about this trial was that the death penalty, which had been abstract in my thinking, was now focused on one man I could see right there in that courtroom, sitting in that chair that made the issue all the more urgent in a whole new way. And it required me to think through this issue as biblically as I possibly could.

About the same time, simply because of the importance of this issue in our area in Broward County, Florida where I lived at the time, my pastor, the First Baptist Church Robert Leonard Smith, preached a sermon which was later printed on the Bible’s understanding of the death penalty. Similarly, another pastor who had a massive influence in my life, that would be Dr. D. James Kennedy, senior pastor of the Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, he also preached on the issue and his sermon was subsequently printed.

So I had not only two sermons, I had two printed sermons to consider. Both of those sermons made clear the biblical understanding of the death penalty, and that was extremely helpful as I was even watching firsthand the unfolding of this murder trial.

Part IV

‘If This Was Not the Most Perfect Death Penalty Case, Why Do We Even Have the Death Penalty At All?’: The Haunting Question

As I said, the gunman who was convicted of the murder, Alvin Ford, was sentenced to die according to the law on the death penalty in the state of Florida. And he did die on death row but he was not executed by the state of Florida. This same man, Alvin Ford, actually appealed his death penalty conviction, claiming that he was mentally unstable during the time that he was on death row. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. But before the entire process had run out, he died at a relatively young age of a respiratory disease on death row in Florida. There was no final judicial declaration in his case. He died on death row but he was not executed according to the death penalty.

But that issue brings us back to Nikolas Cruz. Why was the death penalty not applied? And the answer basically comes down to the fact that in Florida, according to the Florida law on the death penalty, revised just a matter of something like a decade ago, there has to be a unanimous jury to hand down a death penalty sentence, not a unanimous jury just when it comes to the murder phase of the trial, but rather the sentencing phase of the trial. So, what happened in that phase? Well, what happened was the presentation of a great deal of evidence. And much of that evidence was so horrifying that those jurors themselves spoke of how horrific, how difficult, how overwhelming the evidence was that was presented to them and had to be presented to them as they were considering the application of justice.

So what defense, what argument against the death penalty would Nikolas Cruz’s defense offer in this case? There is no question that it was premeditated. There’s no question that he was the gunman. There is no question that there were aggravating factors. So, what was the issue? It had to do with whether or not Nikolas Cruz was mentally competent or you might describe differently, mentally impaired if there were psychiatric or psychological factors at the time that mitigated his personal responsibility in such a way that the death penalty should not be applied.

Subsequent to the developments yesterday announced in court, the foreman of the jury indicated that early in the process, one juror had made very clear that she would not vote for or affirm the death penalty under any circumstances in the case of Nikolas Cruz. The justification she gave is that the issue of the mentally troubled young man in terms of his mental state at the time was so overwhelming that there was no evidence that could be brought into the sentencing phase that would change her mind. Eventually, two other of the 12 jurors joined her case.

So, as you’re looking at the 12 jurors, it was a vote of three against the death penalty. Even though the majority, the very clear overwhelming majority would’ve applied the death penalty, three jurors did not, would not. And in Florida, just one juror voting no on the death penalty means that the death penalty cannot be applied. Now, right now, that is a big stumbling block, a big issue of controversy for many people in Florida including parents, and relatives, and friends, loved ones of those who died in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting.

The mother of one of the victims in the shooting said this after the verdict. “If this was not the most perfect death penalty case, then why do we have the death penalty at all?” Another relative in this case, the father of a 14-year-old girl murdered in the attack asked the same question, “What do we have the death penalty for?” His wife added, “I just don’t understand this.” The report in The New York Times summarized the response in the courtroom this way, “Relatives of the victims appeared horrified and baffled as they learned that Mr. Cruz’s life had been spared.”

I think we can easily understand that response. They were horrified and they were baffled. Why? Because indeed, as that one mother stated very clearly, if the death penalty is not appropriate for this crime, then when would it ever be appropriate? And the answer is that most people still know, because of the knowledge that comes by our conscience, which is another part of the image of God, that an ultimate crime demands an ultimate penalty.

This has become clear, by the way, even in many of the European nations that in their modernism and in their liberalism had ended the use of the death penalty. So, you’ve had horrifying mass murders in places like Scandinavia where there is no death penalty and where the mass murderer is basically in something like, and this is not an exaggeration, something like a prison condominium with a widescreen television and all the rest, there is in many of those nations, a very clear majority or at least there is an incredibly high percentage of citizens who believe that the absence of the death penalty is itself an injustice.

In terms of a biblical perspective, it’s not just the demand of justice, it is not just the biblical logic of the death penalty, it is also our understanding of human grief that leads us to have such grave concern over how the law against premeditated murder and the consequences for the committing of that murder was actually carried out there in the state of Florida, there in Broward County, there where grieving loved ones and so many in the community want to know how could this have happened.

And I just want us to note the moral impulse that is simply crying out. The premeditated murder of these human beings demands the ultimate penalty.

Part V

‘Even So, Lord Come Quickly’: The Sheer Heinousness of Sin and the Crying Out for Ultimate Justice

But there are a couple of final thoughts today that we do need to consider. One of them has to do with the fact that there are severe limitations on human justice. As you look at God’s gift of government, even when you look at a text like Romans 13 which even affirms specifically the responsibility of the government to execute justice against the evil doer and to uphold righteousness, you come to understand that at its very best, the human system of justice is just a hint at the justice of God. Now, we are to aspire to the rightful application of that justice and we are to be appalled and outraged at a failure of our justice system. And face it, our justice system faced a test in Florida yesterday.

A final thought just at the deepest human level, we are looking at a grieving community, we are looking at deeply grieving and clearly outraged loved ones, family members, and others who are bearing the deep, deep grief and the tragedy, not only of the murder, but now of the trial and the sentencing. And what we have underlined here is the sheer heinousness of sin, of crime in any form, but particularly when it comes in the form of murder. Because in this case, the grief is just compounded over and over and over again. And that just reminds us as Christians that there is no ultimate righteousness, there is no ultimate justice in this age. Perfect justice, perfect righteousness will be achieved only in the age to come. But in Christ, that age is coming.

And so as the Bible teaches us, we simply have to come to this conclusion with the Christian affirmation and prayer. Even so, Lord, come quickly. Sadly, we didn’t get to questions today. I fully expected to but this news demanded our attention and I think demanded the stewardship of the opportunity of speaking to these things today.

I think you’ve been thinking about them as well. Our hope is to think about them faithfully. We’ll try to get to questions as soon as possible next time.

For now, thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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