Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Politics, Faith and the Death Penalty

It has been a strange couple of days. Unlike last year when I was a volunteer advocate for both health care and juvenile justice, this year we have more volunteer advocates and I thought I could concentrate on health care. But there were few health care bills early in the session and my justice friends started begging me to sign on with the repeal of the death penalty, so last week I agreed. The repeal bill was introduced late on Friday and the first hearing, before the House Judiciary, came yesterday. It was a long hearing -- more than nine hours of testimony from families of victims both for and against the death penalty, former wardens, people speaking from their faith perspectives, exonerees, District Attorneys both for and against, prosecuting and defense attorneys, professors, law enforcement officers, even a death penalty jury foreman. We heard a letter from a former corrections official who said "when you execute the death penalty, dig two graves -- one for the prisoner and one for the executioner. My grave is a psychological one." Those words stuck with me, echoing in my head much of the afternoon and evening. I can quote them almost exactly even more than 24 hours later.
Those in favor of repeal, in purple clothing and wearing purple ribbons, far outnumbered those opposed to repeal. Even most of the families of victims testified, amidst tears, that the lengthy process of a death penalty trial constantly kept their wounds open, that the execution itself was painful and did not bring the healing they had expected. Several said "killing him did nothing to bring back my brother/sister/son/husband/etc."
Even though I testified in favor of the death penalty, I had to wonder about the victim's families who felt confident that an execution would bring justice and/or resolution to their suffering. In one case, there are many years of appeals to come before the execution. For another victim's brother, the execution was converted to life in prison without possibility for parole (LWOP). For him, it seemed there was no hope of resolution. He testified in great, gruesome detail about the grizzly details of his sister's kidnapping, torture and murder by a gang. It sounded like a story he felt compelled to tell, almost as if the telling of it might eventually relieve his pain.
I wondered if hearing so many witnesses quote  the Bible about "Vengeance is mine. says the Lord" was painful. Did they still have faith in God? Had that died along with the relative? Had their need for revenge or justice or whatever replaced their faith? Did it anger them to hear others who lost loved ones in a violent murder scene take a different view than theirs? Is their grave a psychological one, dug along with their loved one's grave? I heard one victim's sister testify in a hearing today say that it hurt to see the attorney that initially represented her brother's murderers. Her anger extended to that attorney and his mere presence at at the hearing the night before upset her.
I found myself praying for the families, that they might come to some sense of peace within themselves, that they not have a psychological grave.
There was no vote on the bill last night. At the time, I took the Chairman's words at face value, that the decision was too serious to be made at such a late hour after so many hours of wrenching testimony. The technical term is that the bill was laid over until a later, unspecified time. It was sadly unfulfilling. There was no resolution. I began to identify with the victims families, needing resolution. What I did not know until much later was that the Executive Director of the Department of Corrections had been murdered in his home. Apparently, word of the murder had reached the members of the committee.
In the middle of today's flurry of calls about what might or might not happen with our repeal bill, a friend called to tell me that her father decided not to have surgery to remove the large tumor growing in his brain. He is at peace with his decision to die, but his daughter is not there. Everything in her screams that it is too soon for her father to die, she is too young to be without a parent. Her son doesn't understand why his grandfather is not fighting this tumor. We talked about how hard it is to relinquish control or our perception that we are in control. I wonder if my friend will find her sense of peace and resolution at her father's death, if she will recognize that the decision was not hers to make or if she will wonder if things would have been different if only... I pray she will not find a psychological grave, but instead bury her need to "fix" in time to share a few peaceful months with her father. She has that opportunity.
The families of the victims don't have that possibility and I do not think the death penalty will help.

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