Monday, April 20, 2009

Rethinking the Death Penalty

Consider this: your spouse or one of your children heads out of the house to run a quick errand – picking up a gallon of milk or gassing up the tank of the car. While there, a gang of kids approaches them in the parking lot and demands their wallet or purse. Your family member resists, and in the course of fighting off the robbers they are killed. There’s a trial and conviction, and because the killing occurred during the commission of a robbery, the potential sentence could be for the guilty to be put to death.

Fast forward to the sentencing hearing, and you are asked to speak – either in support of the death penalty or of life in prison.

What would you do?

For many years, I always thought that it would be an easy question for me should I (God forbid) find myself in that situation: execution. If someone is going to take the life of someone I love, then it’s only fair that there be retribution and that they pay with their life. I can’t even remember the number of times I’ve seen a news story or investigative report about a killer somewhere had their execution delayed time after time (and I get particularly angry when the killing involves a child) and gotten upset over the delayed justice.

In the past few days, however, everything I thought I knew about how I would react – and my support of the death penalty in general – has been turned on its end. After reading a review of Thomas Cahill’s newest book, A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green, I decided to go out and pick up a copy, and without question it has made me rethink my entire position. Dominique was a young black man arrested, tried and convicted of a murder during a robbery and later sentenced to death. The conviction came about through a combination of ineffective legal representation, backroom deals between the prosecutors and other white defendants, and a flawed system of justice in Texas whereby a person doesn’t even have to be the triggerman to be sentenced to death.

Cahill makes the point that he’s not even sure whether Dominique was guilty or not of the murder, and Dominique - who always insinuated that someone else pulled the trigger – never named names. However, he does an outstanding job of outlining the horrific miscarriage of justice brought about by the Texas judicial system, and it is infuriating to read about court-appointed attorneys not pursuing leads, prosecutors taking the word of white defendants over that of a black man (with absolutely no evidence to back up their position), and countless other intentional “slips” and sidesteps that ultimately pushed Dominique to his death by lethal injection in Huntsville, Texas in 1994.

In the midst of the book, there were several things in particular that really seized me and wouldn’t let go. One was a quote from Sheila Murphy, a retired judge who came into Dominique’s case towards the end and who made a valiant effort to save his life; she is speaking here about witnessing wives and girlfriends bringing their children to visits with their husbands and boyfriends on death row: “No place for children to play, no books, no coloring books. They just have to sit and wait while their mother talks on the phone to their father. They just look on with eyes so sad – such inhumanity to innocent children under color of law.”

Another point that clung to me was reading about Dominique’s horrible childhood: drug-addicted and abusive parents; a supportive grandmother who died while Dominique was still young; and ultimately fleeing the home with his younger brothers to protect them from the same beatings and burnings he had endured. He had to resort to selling drugs and stealing, but all the while doing so knowing that he couldn’t allow his brothers to travel the road on which he was moving.

There was an overwhelming level of support Dominique received from various individuals and groups, both here and in Europe. Cahill talks at great length about the amazing men and women involved with the Community of Sant’Egidio in Rome who, after one member responded to a letter from Dominique published in an Italian newspaper, went out of their way to show him support and – most significantly – love. They developed a deep and genuine affection for him and were in many ways responsible for the transformation he underwent during his 11 years in prison.

I developed an even greater level of respect for Archbishop Tutu than I already have because of his involvement in this story; he took the time in the midst of a packed schedule in the United States to visit Dominique – to listen to his story, to laugh with him, to cry with him, to show (as with those in Sant’Egidio) him a love and compassion that he hadn’t experienced from his own family. Tutu became a champion of his cause and a source of inspiration for Dominique and for all his fellow prisoners on Texas’ death row. During a sermon following his visit with Dominique, he pointed out one of the great paradoxes about the United States: “You are a very generous people, Americans, and it is very difficult to square with your remarkable vindictiveness, which doesn’t square with your remarkable generosity.”

I was amazed by the transformation which Dominique underwent. Recognizing that he was receiving extremely substandard legal representation by his court-appointed team, he took it upon himself to read every aspect of the law and educate himself about every bit of his case. He read books to improve his mind and strengthen his spirit, and over the 11 years of his incarceration his writing and communications skills evolved from someone with little formal education to a young man of great intellect and articulateness.

But the most powerful take-away from this book (and to bring this entry full circle) was the power of forgiveness – the forgiveness that Dominique had for those who had wronged him, but most especially the forgiveness of the victim’s family towards Dominique. They forgave unconditionally, were strong advocates of a life sentence versus lethal injection, and because of their opposition to the sentence were not invited to witness the execution. One of the sons told reporters, “I felt it was dirty, and the state will have their chance to face a higher authority – that is, God…I mean, Andrew Lastrapes was my daddy in the first place, and I forgave Dominique. I know God has a place for Dominique in heaven. The person I met doesn’t deserve to die. He became close to me, and I pray that he goes to heaven.”

The book left me with quite a few questions. On the surface, how can this country – as advanced and moral as we claim to be – allow such an atrocious judicial system as that found in Texas to continue to exist? How can this country – as advanced and moral as we claim to be – be in such a rush to put people to death, the way Romans crucified without hesitation.

How can we do this – a nation as advanced and moral and, according to many, as Christian as we are?

There are questions on a deeper level as well. How is it that a family who has actually gone through the experience of losing a loved one at the hands of someone else can forgive so easily, and yet for much of my life I have felt there should be no forgiveness? Why is that I have tried live by much of what I learned from Christ in the New Testament, yet have such an Old Testament view of punishment? Is forgiveness learned, or is it just done?

Yes, this book left me with quite a few questions – questions that I’ll be struggling to answer for quite some time…


Bilbo said...

Great post Matt. Thanks for sharing....Bill

Kansas Bob said...

I like what you said about the death penalty Matt. Maybe some time you can take a shot at what you would consider the humane treatment of murderers. I think that somehow these (and other) inmates should somehow be given a way to repay society for their crimes and for the money needed to house and feed them.

musingwoman said...

Thank you for such a thoughtful post.

My views on the death penalty have evolved over time. From being strongly for, to now being mostly against.

Many things changed my opinion, but when I read studies that showed the bias of jurors against people of color (or even those who weren't considered "attractive"!) and DNA testing that proved some death row inmates innocent, I became more and more uncomfortable with the practice.

rdl said...

Great post! Certainly in light of this story, it was a horrible, horrible mistake and waste of a life. But, if beyond a shadow of a doubt such a horror is perpetrated upon an innocent child, woman, or man; i don't see why such an animal should be allowed to live out their life - for what purpose. use the money to feed the starving and heal the sick.

Ed G. said...

Read another amazing story of forgiveness today over on erin's blog:

julieunplugged said...

Like musing woman, it's the rampant miscarriage of justice through DNA testing that makes me pause the most. You wrote such a compelling piece, though, that added new layers to my thought processes. Thank you. I love that.

Dad said...

Consider St. Thomas Aquinas - see

Of course times have changed, right?