The former high finance lawyer has accompanied three inmates to their executions
By Gary Blankenship
Dale Recinella was a second-year law student the first time he ventured into a jail as an eager law clerk. The incarcerated client grabbed his tie through the cell bars and banged him into the steel rods. His wife commented on the precise geometry of his bruises.
That experience was enough to keep him away from criminal law.
But now, the former high finance lawyer has a surprising new calling. He’s a Catholic lay chaplain patrolling the grim, unair-conditioned, tiny, death row and maximum security cells at Florida State Prison and Union Correctional Institution. As part of his duties with the St. Mary’s Catholic Church (in Macclenny) FSP/UCI Prison Ministry Program, he has accompanied three inmates to execution.
And he has written a book, The Biblical Truth About America’s Death Penalty. The book bypasses much of the modern legal arguments about the ultimate penalty, but instead examines the underlying belief of many supporters that the death penalty is authorized by the Bible.
His conclusion, perhaps startling, is that the American death penalty meets none of the scriptural requirements of the ultimate sanction and that the Christian stance is to support its repeal.
“One of the tasks of the book was to decide what the critical question was; it’s the same as saying, ‘What is the issue of the case?’” Recinella said. “The question that seemed to me to be the most pertinent was can we use the Bible and the death penalty in the Bible to support the American death penalty.
“And in order to answer that question, I take the reader through a comparison and contrast of both substantive and procedural issues.”
That involves a detailed look at the first five books of the Bible, which are also in the Torah, and an examination of the centuries of Talmudic law that interpret those scriptures.
“As it was done in the Old Testament, to meet the requirements of scriptures, and that includes the Talmud, I compiled about 44 critical issues and we do not comply with a single one of them,” Recinella said. “We are zero for 44.
“That result completely destroys the shallow approach of there’s a death penalty in the Bible, so what we’re doing must be okay.”
His analysis didn’t stop there.
“The derivative question is can we fix what we’re doing in the United States today, and that is where we get into what the Constitution requires . . . what makes it impossible to structure a death penalty that would meet the requirements of scripture,” he said.
“The person who uses the Biblical death penalty to decide whether they can support the American death penalty has to reach the conclusion to abolish the death penalty, coming from a faith perspective.”
The 400-plus page tome is meticulously footnoted (more than 800) and has an extensive bibliography.
Recinella said his analysis has nothing to do with political philosophy, noting, “I would not in fact categorize myself as a liberal.” And, he added, people are usually surprised at his conclusions.
The reactions are usually of two kinds: “Many people, upon hearing it, realize that it’s true, but had just never realized it before. And their reaction is, ‘Of course, it makes sense. How could you come to any other conclusion?’” he said. “The other reaction is, ‘This can’t be true. If this were true, I would have heard it before.’
“I’m very encouraged that as this analysis and the message gets out, we have a chance to have a different discussion about the death penalty from a faith standpoint and about the need for us to discontinue this practice.”
Getting to the point in his career as an author and lay counselor has been quite a journey.
A 1976 magna cum laude graduate of the Notre Dame University Law School, Recinella worked for Ford Motor Company before a career in Florida law focusing on project finance, and working for both the Ruden, McClosky and Greenburg, Traurig law firms. In 1996-97, Recinella and his family lived in Rome, where he worked at the Studio Avvocati Associati Baker & McKenzie international law firm, and also taught.
When they returned and settled in Macclenny, Recinella took up his new duties as a lay chaplain at the state prisons. The change wasn’t as radical as it might seem.
In 1995, at the request of a friend, he worked pro bono on a death penalty appeal which drew him into that highly complex and emotional legal field.
“I had been involved in prison ministry for six years before I went overseas,” he said, noting he was acting at the request of the local Catholic diocese. He had previously worked with people with AIDS, and a priest asked him if he would work with prison inmates with AIDS.
“After a couple more years, I became more involved in general ministry,” he said.
“My wife [a nurse when Recinella got his geometric bruises] is a psychologist and works at the Northeast Florida State Hospital. At the time we were moving here [in 1998], the priest who had been covering [the two prisons] for 15 years needed someone to take over the cell-to-cell ministry,” he said.
That involves going to both prisons and walking literally from cell to cell and being available to speak to the inmates and offer spiritual support. It includes about 365 inmates on death row and around 2,000 in “close confinement,” the modern term for solitary confinement.
“I wanted to become directly involved in reaching out to people who had been marginalized,” Recinella said.
His lawyer skills prove valuable.
“When I come to each cell, I’m meeting the man for the first time, particularly in solitary, and we need to size each other up very quickly and find the basis for having a relationship,” he noted. “That’s what you do with a group of people when you’re trying to put a deal together.”
But no legal deal in his earlier career matched the emotional challenges of Recinella’s current calling. In addition to serving communion, an inmate on death row can choose to have Recinella as his spiritual advisor, instead of a priest, as the inmate approaches execution.
In three cases, he has witnessed the execution. Twice, the inmate chose to be executed without Recinella being present, and twice the inmate received a stay pending further appeal.
“You are letting yourself care about someone, letting yourself become their friend and brother, while knowing there is the very real possibility you will lose that person and grieve them,” he said.
The work also extends beyond the inmate. Recinella typically meets with the inmate’s family, and many times with the family of the victim, as does Recinella’s wife, who provides counseling services. Meeting with the victim’s family “is essential for us to keep our balance on what horrible violent crimes do to families and society,” he said.
Meeting with the inmates’ families reminds that “many of the men facing execution have children; they have parents; some have wives,” he said. “The families, who have done nothing wrong, are going through that with them.”
In fact, one conclusion Recinella has reached is that “the grief and agony of the victim’s family is the same as for the family of the murderer who is killed by the state. I think that surprised me. I didn’t expect that.”
It was about six months into work at FSP and UCI “when I found myself asking the question, ‘Why are we as a society choosing this as a response to violent crime? Was this the solution?’” he asked. “As I started researching that to satisfy my own understanding, I was very surprised to find that a tremendous amount of support for the American death penalty was based on what the American people thought was required by the Bible.”
He was also surprised about the history of the U.S. death penalty, which explains the economic and racial disparities in its application. That historical approach also showed that 86 percent of the executions since 1976, after the Supreme Court’s moratorium ended, have occurred in states that also once allowed slavery, a coincidence Recinella sees as important.
As he reached his conclusions about Biblical requirements for the death penalty and began talking about them, Recinella said he saw the need for the book. He also recognized that the work would have to be thorough and painstaking, which is why he spent five and a half years on it.
To avoid claims that his findings were based on only one version or translation of scriptures, Recinella used three: the original Hebrew texts, the authorized King James 1611 edition, and the New International version.
His conclusions are eye-opening.
For example, the Bible requires that in death penalty cases, the penalty for prosecutorial misconduct is “let it be done to them as they sought to do him,” a stricture that American law fails to meet. Judges must not be appointed based on their appeal to the masses, and those who seek judicial office are immediately disqualified from sitting on the bench.
Recinella also addressed the oft-quoted Romans 13:3-4, which is cited by some as the Apostle Paul’s condoning of the death penalty. One version quotes Paul, when speaking on the authority of kings and secular rulers, as saying, “[B]e not afraid, for he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”
“When one goes to the actual Greek underlying the translations, there are two amazing discoveries,” he said. “The Greek word for ‘sword’ is not the broad sword, which was used for capital punishment, but a short sword on the belt.” That, he said, was a symbol for justice.
“Secondly, the word ‘execute’ does not appear in the Greek text. The Greek text implies a verb and the word ‘execute’ is used in the King James edition as a synonym for carrying out or to perform or to complete, like executing a football play,” Recinella continued.
“Government is vested with the authority to maintain order in society by punishing those who commit crimes against people. . . . It is a Biblical authority for Christians to impose punishment for crimes, but that’s what our prisons are for. It does not mandate killing people.”
Recinella’s book is not available at bookstores, although most can order it on request. It is available on Amazon.com (where all three reviewers have given it a five-star rating) and from Northeastern University Press, which can be contacted at 37 Lafayette St., Lebanon, NH 03766, by phone at (800) 421-1561, or via the Internet at www.upne.com.