Reading this book changed my heart. There is simply no other way to describe it except to say that I came away from it with greater understanding and compassion for a sector of society that I never before had thought much about: the incarcerated, and especially, the condemned.
I grew up in the early 80s living less than ten miles away from the Ellis Unit in Huntsville, Texas, which is where prisoners on Death Row resided until 1999. I remember watching a media and protestor circus in town every time there was a scheduled execution. One day I accompanied my mom to a barbecue joint across the street from the main prison downtown and saw a large group of people holding signs and chanting slogans against the death penalty.
“An eye for an eye” was the prevailing thought in my neck of the woods. You make your bed, you have to lay down in it. Some crimes were so horrific that only death to the criminal would satisfy the debt to society. I took this perspective for granted and never questioned it. The protestors outside the prison walls were rabble-rousers, to my mind.
And then in my older age, as I studied Jesus more and more, I was struck by his extravagant mercy in dealing with the people he encountered. The only wrongdoers who didn’t seem to receive grace were the Pharisees who pointed fingers at everyone except themselves (Matthew 23) and were concerned with the letter of the law instead of the spirit of the law. Jesus gave endless grace to those who were willing to remove the planks from their own eyes.
When we take a good, long, hard look at ourselves, we see our own brokenness and proclivity to put ourselves before others. That urge we get to honk our horn at the driver of the car going 1mph slower than the speed limit — in the fast lane. The way we sometimes dart ahead of someone else at the grocery store checkout line because we are in a hurry. That time we yelled at our kids because their incessant arguing had us on our last nerve. The day we slammed a cabinet, a door, or a drawer just a little too hard. The juicy gossip we are dying to share about that so-and-so who hurt us or badmouthed us. What goes around comes around, right? We are smug to see the people we dislike being trounced on the national stage. We tweet and say bad words about a political candidate. We refuse to forgive grievances we have and are quick to believe conspiracy theories about the dark motives of the government, candidates, big business, dictators, aliens, the movie stars we are convinced are aliens, and criminals who commit ghastly murders.
Think about the worst thing YOU ever did. Is the totality of what makes you, you, wrapped up in that sin? Or does the grace of God cover that sin?
The truth is all of these people are people made in the image of God. People convicted of murder have broken one of the ten commandments: they have violated the sanctity of life. Yet Jesus died for them as he did for you and me. This truth became even more revealed to me as I read Just Mercy:
Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done. My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice. Finally, I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.
Through my reading of the Bible and some research I did in my capacity as last year’s debate coach, I became convinced that my views on the death penalty were not in line with what Jesus teaches about mercy. I now believe the death penalty is wrong. It puts the power of life and death in the hands of the government instead of in the hands of God.
Beyond that, though, I learned that the death penalty is not equally applied. Poor people are disproportionately given the death penalty. As Bryan Stevenson writes,
“…capital punishment means ‘them without the capital get the punishment.”
The constitution guarantees the right to counsel, but the demographics of those who are given the death penalty clearly show a lack of representative skill, motivation or funding on the parts of the public defenders.
In a scholarly essay, “Counsel for the Poor: The Death Sentence Not for the Worst Crime but for the Worst Lawyer,” published by Stephen B. Bright, JD, in the Yale Law Journal, we learn that income is one of the best predictors for whether or not a criminal receives the death penalty upon being found guilty:
“[A] large part of the death row population is made up of people who are distinguished by neither their records nor the circumstances of their crimes, but by their abject poverty… and the poor legal representation they received…
There are several interrelated reasons for the poor quality of representation in these important cases. Most fundamental is the wholly inadequate funding for the defense of indigents…The compensation provided to individual court-appointed lawyers is so minimal that few accomplished lawyers can be enticed to defend capital cases…”
Another striking detail about the death penalty in the United States is the racial disparity associated both with whether a prosecutor decides to pursue the death penalty in the first place and whether the death penalty is ultimately given. Starkly put, a person who kills a white person is four times more likely to receive the death penalty than someone who kills a person of color. According to Amnesty International USA,
A report sponsored by the American Bar Association in 2007 concluded that one-third of African-American death row inmates in Philadelphia would have received sentences of life imprisonment if they had not been African-American.
Where are the voices of of my fellow Christians, crying out for justice for the poor and the marginalized? Chances are many of my friends, like me, never considered the inequalities in the criminal justice system and trusted it to work properly. But it doesn’t. These statistics show that people of color and the poor face a different kind of justice than those who can afford an attorney.
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)
“ ‘Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly. (Leviticus 19:15)
The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern. (Proverbs 29:7)
Finally, what about the innocent and mentally disabled? Over 150 death row inmates have been exonerated and had their sentences revoked since 1973. Two such instances happened with two brothers in North Carolina. Henry McCollum and Leon Brown signed confessions to rape and murder. They were aged 15 and 19 at the time, and both were given the death penalty. In 2014, DNA evidence implicated another person, and they both were freed. Neither of them was mentally competent enough to understand that he had signed a confession.
As Bryan Stevenson noted in Just Mercy,
“Today, over 50 percent of prison and jail inmates in the United States have a diagnosed mental illness, a rate nearly five times greater than that of the general adult population.”
Or what about Anthony Graves, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in 1994 in Texas? His conviction rested on the testimony of another man who said Graves was his accomplice. Aside from that testimony, which was later recanted, no physical evidence was ever found. Ultimately the charges against him were dismissed in 2010…after he had already spent fourteen years on death row for murders he never committed.
Glenn Ford, who spent 30 years on death row in solitary confinement for a crime he did not commit, died of lung cancer a year after he was released from prison. He was 33 at the time of his conviction. He was exonerated, released, and given no compensation except for a $20 bus ticket after the prosecutor in his case penned this public apology:
“In 1984, I was 33 years old. I was arrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself. I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning.”
These examples are further evidence that prosecutors, human juries and judges are not infallible. Once executed, death is a sentence that cannot be taken back. We take into our own hands the job appointed only to the Lord — determining a person’s length of days. Because God calls us to be merciful…because of the wide disparities in death penalty sentences and the disproportionate representation of the mentally ill…and because the possibility remains that juries and judges and prosecutors make mistakes, I believe the death penalty is not constitutional, nor is it something the Lord would want us to use as a part of our justice system.
The Democratic Party’s platform for 2016 agrees with my assessment, and that is another reason why I am voting for Hillary Clinton for President this year. I can no longer support a party that advocates more punishment and less rehabilitation.
I think Bryan Stevenson says it best:
[W]e would never think it was humane to pay someone to rape people convicted of rape, or assault and abuse someone guilty of assault or abuse. Yet we were comfortable killing people who kill in part because we think we can do it in a manner that doesn’t implicate our own humanity the way that raping or abusing someone would. I couldn’t stop thinking that we don’t spend much time contemplating the details of what killing someone actually involves.”
The death penalty in America needs to be retired. As mamma always taught me, two wrongs don’t make a right.