Palm Sunday, the Crucifixion, and the Criminal Justice System

Today is Palm Sunday. All lectionary churches read from The Passion of Christ from the Gospel According to Mark, believed to be, according to Biblical scholars, the first written account of the four Gospels. (It’s actually one Gospel, with four accounts of the life and death of Jesus – from Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John.)

When I studied theology, I learned about the different ways to look at Biblical texts. There is the religious-confessional approach (think the Nicene Creed); the historical-critical approach; and a literary-critical approach. However, as a criminal justice practitioner, I tend to look at certain texts in the Bible from a criminal justice lens.

The arrest, trial, conviction, sentence and execution of Jesus reads like a true crime story one would read today. The accusers and prosecutors are people who have something to gain; the “eyewitnesses” are unreliable; Jesus’ co-conspirators or codefendants betray and deny him; Jesus has no lawyer to defend him (note that before the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, there was no universal requirement that people accused of crimes and standing trial would have legal representation); Jesus has a speedy trial (ironically, something most people do not get today; think Kalief Browder, a teenager, who was held on Rikers Island for nearly three years awaiting his day in court for a crime he did not commit); Jesus is sentenced to the death penalty; he has an indifferent judge who could care less if he lives or dies; a blood thirsty public that calls for his execution as they mock and abuse him; police brutality on his way to death row; and faithful women who are there till the end.

A number of years ago, I gave a homily on this passage, entitled, “We Are All on Trial.” In it I stated something like what the cross revealed that fateful day was where all the players stood in relation to the cross, to justice. How they responded in that moment revealed where they stood on the important issues of crime and punishment. Today, the cross still carries that message. Every crime implicates the People of any given state, in that everything that plays out in the criminal legal system is done in the name of the People, The People of the State of New York v. Anyone Accused of a Crime.

If this thing called criminal justice is done in our name, then we ought to make it as fair and impartial as humanly possible. Otherwise, justice is just a word. But it should be more than that, because people are deprived their precious liberty, held in prison for extraordinarily long periods of times, and sometimes executed in the name of People.

One of my favorite justice quotes, which I almost always looked to find a way to sprinkle in a legal brief or motion, was, Fiat justitia ruat caelum. I would cite it just like that, without the translation, hopefully sending opposing counsel and the judges, who might as well had been dead to the idea of justice, thus their penchant for communicating in a dead language, to the definitive legal dictionary, Black’s Law Dictionary.

Let just be done though the heavens fall.”


About William Eric Waters, aka Easy Waters

Award-winning poet, playwright and writer. Author of three books of poetry, "Black Shadows and Through the White Looking Glass: Remembrance of Things Past and Present"; "Sometimes Blue Knights Wear Black Hats"; "The Black Feminine Mystique," and a novel, "Streets of Rage." All four books are available on
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