A few months ago the Orlando Sentinel newspaper in Florida published an article entitled “Justice Denied? On Florida’s death row many lives end – but not by execution” (February 20, 2009 by Sarah Lundi and Vicki McClure) in which the general premise was that when those condemned to death await the finality of that sentence for decades only to end up dying of “natural” causes. Before their date with the executioner comes, they are somehow cheating justice as, by God – we want to see these condemned killers die at our hands, not let them slowly rot away and die of cancer or a heart attack.
What kind of sick twisted mind actually thinks that slowly rotting away in solitary confinement while awaiting the uncertainty of the fate of being condemned to death is somehow too humane a way to die? I’ve heard it said that our humanity is defined by our capacity for compassion. As a self proclaimed “Christian” nation, the Bible - the very words of Jesus – teach that if we don’t forgive others, we will not be forgiven ourselves, and that mercy will be shown to those that have shown mercy to others. And yet, as a society, is this what we really practice?
Lets be honest – the death penalty is not about administering justice but appeasing that primal need for vengeance. In the Orlando Sentinel article the journalists quoted several members of the victim’s families, both of whom expressed their need and desire to actually watch the prisoner, condemned for killing their loved one, actually die. They want a first row seat and watch that bastard take his last breath.
But is this about victim’s right – or is it about vengeance? These families suffered a tragedy beyond comprehension and lost someone they loved to a senseless murder. I do understand their anger and sense of loss – and I pray for them, that by the grace of God they will find the strength to overcome that pain.
The problem is that it is only too easy to hate and want to seek revenge upon those that have caused us so much pain. Maybe that’s why our Christian faith teaches us that we must forgive. When Jesus was subjected to the infliction of a horrific death by crucifixion, he prayed for forgiveness for those that put him to death. In that moment of his own mortality, how much easier it would have been for Jesus to call upon his Father and bring down the very wrath of God upon them?
A few years ago we watched the news unfold as a “crazed gunman” went into an Amish schoolhouse and senselessly slaughtered numerous children for no reason but that he apparently didn’t like Amish people, a sect of Christians long defined by their simplicity and Christian charity.
Few of us could even begin to comprehend the immeasurable depth of pain and loss these people – loving Christians must have felt. Like so many others, I watched this horror unfold on my TV, and then I could not suppress the tears that filled my eyes as these Amish people pulled together, and public ally prayed for the forgiveness of the man who had just killed their children.
Even now, just thinking about it I get a lump in my throat, never before, and never since, have I seen such a remarkable example of true Christian compassion. I remain in awe and wonder of these people whose spiritual faith was so pure and strong that even in that moment of anguish they found the strength within them to pray for the forgiveness of this killer. At that moment I’m sure that angels wept, and the Lord looked down upon this pitiful world and took pride in this creation of humanity that has proven such a disappointment.
When I read about the victim’s family’s need to find closure only by personally watching the man who murdered their loved one die I feel sorry for them as they must be consumed by hate and anger and when it comes down to it hate and anger truly are the cancer of the soul.
Although I certainly do not negate the tragic loss of their own loved one, I can’t help but wonder if the greater loss is their own sense of spiritual peace as one cannot find true spiritual peace while still consumed by the destructive forces of anger and vengeance.
But I also wonder what it says about us as a society when the mainstream media so deliberately provokes this need for vengeance, exploring the victim’s families for no purpose but to sensationalize the facts and sell a few more newspapers. I believe it was famed journalist Edward R. Murrows who said that journalistic integrity is defined by the objectivity of the report.
When I read these all too common newspaper articles that so deliberately exploit the pain of the victim’s families as a means of provoking societies unquenchable thirst for revenge, do they reflect a fair and objective account?
The Orlando Sentinel would have its readers believe that those who dare to die of “natural causes” on death row before the state can kill them somehow cheat justice. But what I found remarkably absent from report is any mention of the pain and suffering that the condemned prisoner’s own family feels as their loved one slowly succumbs to death by cancer, or whatever, dying under horrible and inhumane circumstances.
Consider the case of Frank Lee Smith – conveniently not mentioned by the Orlando Sentinel. Frank Lee Smith was convicted and condemned to death in Broward County, Florida for the brutal rape and murder of an 8 year old girl. Smith swore before God and all who would listen that he was innocent. As year after year slowly passed Smith received few visitors and like so many others, became alienated from the outside world. As the years passed, his own psychological degradation too its toll and he retreated into his own world, isolated and alienated from even those around him.
I last spoke with Frank Lee Smith in 1999, a few months before he finally died a slow and painful death from cancer. Not long after that someone sent me a newspaper article from the Ft Lauderdale Sun Sentinel (owned by the same company that owns the Orlando Sentinel) that told of how after 9 years of fighting the state to test forensic evidence, the test results came back and conclusively showed that Frank Lee Smith was innocent of the crime he was condemned to death for all along. He spent 16 years on death row, and even though his innocence was proven by indisputable evidence, Smith still died on death row.
Just as it is only too easy as individuals to give in to that primal need to hate and demand revenge, so too it is only too easy for journalists to exploit these destructive forces for the purpose of selling newspapers.
Whether we personally support the death penalty or not, capital punishment is a complex issue that reaches far beyond the simplicity of superficial, primal passions of our individual need for vengeance. It is too much to hope that perhaps all of us that call ourselves Christians can learn a lesson from the Amish and find the spiritual strength within each of us to overcome the destructive passions of revenge and instead show mercy and compassion towards these that have caused such tragedy and pain?
As a death sentenced prisoner myself (please see, www.southerninjustice.com ) I have my own prejudices and I apologize to those that might find my opinion offensive. But after a spending over a quarter of a century in solitary confinement awaiting the executioner myself, and watching so many of those around me slowly grow old, waste away and die of “natural causes” I can tell you that they are not “cheating justice” as it would be hard to imagine a more inhumane and horrific way to die then to slowly rot away in a cage. (Please check out www.doinglifeondeathrow.blogspot.com )