The Death Penalty: Not Eye For Eye

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by Sandra Ahten

The 1998 execution of Karla Faye Tucker, a pick-axe murderer who was “born-again” while on death row, was the impetus for my first real contemplation of capital punishment. The Christian Coalition came out in support of not executing Tucker even though they are pro-death penalty. “Why spare her because she’s a woman? Why spare her because she’s a Christian?” I questioned.

It was easy to feel anger at the Christian Coalition for their hypocrisy. Anger is a safe emotion that breeds self-righteousness. Trying to set the anger aside, I realized that I did have sympathy for Karla Faye. Sympathy, sadness, grief– these emotions that bring up vulnerability are more difficult to feel than self righteous anger.

Memory of Karla Faye faded and like most Americans, I didn’t dwell on the subject of the death penalty. How though, could I ignore it, when, in 1998, the “National Conference on Wrongful Convictions and the Death Penalty” was in Chicago? The conference brought together 30 of 95 wrongfully-convicted persons who were exonerated and released from death row.

Sonjia Jacobs spoke at the conference. She was released from death row after her appeal convinced a court of her innocence. Her guilt had been largely established through the testimony of a man who used plea bargaining to be convicted of a lesser crime – and who later admitted his guilt.

Sonjia Jacobs was released from prison. Jesse Tafero, the father of her two children, was not. He had already been executed. Had the evidence for the lone killer been found prior to Tafero’s execution, it is likely his conviction would have been overturned. It wasn’t– and the father of Sonia Jacob’s children was murdered at our hands.

I grieve for those wrongfully convicted who have spent years in undue anguish.

I grieve for those wrongly executed who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.

In my daily life I am confronted only occasionally with news of capital punishment. I am convinced it is wrong — but emotionally I stay detached. Steve Earle, singer, songwriter, and death penalty activist, says, “It’s not about any of the guys on death row…[.] If this is a democracy, then if the government kills somebody, I’m killing somebody. And I object to the damage that does to my spirit.”

I contemplate his words. It is damaging for my spirit to be participating in murder. A little voice nags me,
“Maybe I should at least be informed.” So I decide to engage in some self-education including subscribing to a Death Penalty news service on the Internet. I become hyper-aware as news of executions confront me daily.

I decided travel to Terre Haute to interview pro- and anti-death penalty supporters at the McVeigh execution. Several times during the hours leading up to the execution time seemed to stop and I become aware that a man would be killed several hundred feet from me. I am outraged that I am part of such a vengeful society. Polls show that support for the death penalty drops to below 50% when given the option of life in prison without the possibility of parole. This is the fate I would wish for Tim McVeigh. I know he was wrong, but I not wish him dead. I grieve for Tim McVeigh.

I learn that in 1980 the Supreme Court held that the execution of children fifteen or younger at the time of their crimes is unconstitutional. I grieve for sixteen year-olds who committed crimes for which they will be executed as adults.

I read about a man in Florida, whose conviction relied solely on his own confession. This man had an IQ of less than 60. Twenty one years later he was freed from prison, cleared through DNA evidence. Since 1976, 35 mentally retarded offenders have been executed. I grieve for the mentally retarded who cannot defend themselves – yet, whose deaths are sanctioned by the Supreme Court.

If you are a black man chances are four times higher that you will get the death penalty than a white man
convicted of the same crime. The race of the victim is a factor also. Over 80% of completed capital cases involve white victims, even though nationally only 50% of murder victims are white. I grieve for all people of color who daily live with the knowledge of their diminished worth in our society.

I grieve for an America that wants a safer society and is given the death penalty as an answer. Even Janet Reno states, “I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show that the death penalty is a deterrent. And I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point.” In fact, studies show that there is increased violence from implementation of the death penalty. This is known as the brutalization effect.

Anthony Mertz, 22, from Charleston, Illinois, also made a trip to Terre Haute for Tim McVeigh’s execution. Within 24 hours he allegedly killed a young woman. I think of him struggling with his inner demons as he covers the 60 miles from Terre Haute to Charleston. I grieve for a society that answers violence with violence.

I grieve for the politicians who believe they are forced to support this obvious wrong in order to be elected.

I grieve for the men and woman who those who pull the trigger, push the button, drop the floor, or find the vein. They are killing for a job. They are killing because they were ordered to by the state. They must know that carrying out orders to kill is wrong. Do they think they will be absolved because they needed the job? But even as I think about this, I know that I am not absolved.

I grieve for me. I am guilty if I close my eyes to the fact that 3,661 men and women await their execution. 176 sit on Illinois’ death row, waiting the decision of how our state will proceed on the current moratorium. It is twenty five years since the death penalty resumed. Twenty five years and seven hundred and thirty executions. I try to take action to alleviate my guilt.

Injustice can be a “Catch 22” situation. I feel pain over the injustice and so I try to get I informed so that I can act. But there is more pain with more knowing. I find myself starting to shut down emotionally. I think that society does the same thing– refusing to look at the truth because it causes pain. But emotional shut down is a high price to pay. It causes us to tune out, indulge in addictions, and find ways to “feel less”. We become less empathetic. It becomes more than an eye for an eye– it is a heart for a heart.

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