by Judy Keisling, Liberty, Missouri Companion
Listening to Sr. Helen Prejean’s “Dead Man Walking¬–The Journey Continues” presentation on March 7 caused me to reflect on my own journey regarding the death penalty.
I confess that for most of my years I never thought much about the death penalty. When news of an execution made the news, my thought process went something like this: “After all, didn’t the person being executed commit a heinous crime? Didn’t that person have a trial by a jury of his peers? Didn’t the judge proclaim the death sentence? So, didn’t that person deserve to die?”
The first time I gave it any serious thought was in 2001, the year Timothy McVeigh was executed by lethal injection for the Oklahoma City bombing. I remember reading that he showed no remorse for his actions other than saying, “I’m sorry these people had to lose their lives but that’s the nature of the beast.” For a reason I didn’t understand, I felt called to pray for him. When I heard that he had met with a Catholic chaplain shortly before his death, I hoped that he had made a good confession and that God would forgive him. However, looking back, I was more concerned about his soul than the fact he was to be executed.
A few years later, I began hearing how DNA testing led to exoneration for some on Death Row. This was followed by the disturbing news that had DNA testing in death penalty cases been available and/or utilized, it would have spared the lives of some who had been executed.
Until this point of time, I naively believed that our legal system—trial by a jury of one’s peers—was infallible. It now appeared I had some rethinking to do.
Over the next few years I began paying more attention to and following death penalty cases in the news. While I suppose it may be natural for the accused to proclaim his or her innocence—what if they were telling the truth? I learned that if dna evidence that would prove innocence were discovered after trial, some courts would not consider it. I learned that a person’s mental ability is not considered a factor when weighing whether the death penalty should be imposed. I learned that the financial situation of the accused to hire an attorney vs. court appointed public defender could affect the outcome of a trial.
I remember reading about one case in which a man had been sentenced to death some 25 years earlier. He was 20 years old when convicted and had been sitting on death row pending appeal after appeal. During his 25 years of incarceration, he had turned his life around—he was not the same man at age 45 as at age 20. After all appeals were exhausted, an execution date was set. He had become somewhat of a legend among the prison staff, the chaplain and those who knew his story, so petitions were circulated throughout the country, asking the governor for clemency. Unfortunately, that did not happen.
All of this information rolled around in my head as I considered whether the death penalty was really justice. One question kept nagging at me: justice for whom?
Several years ago I came to the realization that I had been ambivalent on the death penalty too long and needed to take a stand one way or the other. After much soul searching and thinking about all I had learned, I became a firm opponent of the death penalty. I believe that life begins at conception and ends only with natural death, and certainly an execution is not natural death. The decision whether one should live or die is God’s, not ours.
We need to pray that Sister Helen’s message and the message of other opponents of the death penalty will begin to change the hearts and minds of judges and juries and all those who are advocates of what they erroneously call Justice.