On Life and Death
I’ve shaken the hand of an inmate on death row.
Like most of the people on death row, he was poor, uneducated and his victim was white.
He had killed a college student, a few years older than himself, during an ill-conceived carjacking after an even worse conceived armed robbery of a convenience store.
At the time, he was high.
Needless to say, he and the three other guys were arrested minutes later by police. He was the oldest of the four and despite persuasive evidence that he had significant mental deficiencies and likely wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger, the police decided he was the ring leader and he was charged with capital murder, convicted and sentenced to death in less than four months.
When I met him during my third year of law school, he had been on death row for five or six years.
His was the third death penalty appeal I had worked on, but he would be the first (and only) defendant I actually got to meet.
The Supreme Court had overturned his original conviction, and we were in trial court for a pre-trial hearing for the retrial.
My first dose of Southern hospitality was when the D.A. objected to our pro hac vice motion because “one New York lawyer was enough to defend a murderer in a waste of time retrial.”
The judge overruled that objection but cautioned us all to remember that his was “not a New York court.”
I was seated in the courtroom galley, so I didn’t meet our client until later.
I was nervous.
Scouring trial transcripts for mistakes and researchng nuances of constitutional law was one thing (well, ok, two things) but being locked in a room with a convict was an entirely different matter. Sure, there were four other members of our team and two armed guards with me, but still.
I lingered outside with the first year associate on the case until the partner called us in.
“After you,” I said hanging back.
But when I finally went in, there were so many people there that I couldn’t see him anywhere. Then, I caught a glint of sunlight reflected off a shiny object.
I peered through the people and saw handcuffs, attached to a chain around his waist, attached to another chain attached to shackles around his ankles.
He sparkled all over with silver and sunlight.
The most startling thing about him was that he was white.
I don’t know why, but for the six weeks I had been on the case, I pictured a black guy in my head.
He was very skinny, and tall, but with the tug of the ankle chains pulling down from his waist, he was in a bent posture the entire time.
The partner introduced me.
“Bennie, this is Dawn. She’s a law student.”
“Nice to meet you, miss” he practically whispered as he held out his handcuffed hands to me.
I leaned in and took the left one in my own.
His hand was soft, but extremely cold.
“I hope you can learn something good for school from all this,” he said quietly. I smiled nervously and stepped away from him.
How had he come to this? We were practically the same age (although I have gotten younger since then, so now he’s quite a bit older than I am) and yet the great state of Virginia was set to execute him.
Two of my other death penalty cases also involved teenagers convicted of killing white people. The murder charges were dropped in one case and the other has been appealed and awaits a decision.
It’s a sad thing that the United States has led the world in so many ways, yet lags behind with the likes of Cuba, Rwanda and Iran on the issue of state sanctioned killing.
One can only hope that the supposed Christian revival and triumph of the “moral majority” will mean an end to the death penalty. And it will finally go the way of the firing squads and electric chairs of the past. Even today’s sterile, “lethal injection” and gas chambers trigger a horrifying death of suffocation and simulated drowning.
It’s simple really, there is no humane way to take a healthy, living, walking, speaking, thinking, breathing adult and turn him or her into a corpse.
It’s an old bit Karol and I have. She says something like “so and so is pro-life.”
“Really?,” I reply “A Republican that’s against the death penalty? Sweet.”
Of course, nine times out of ten, I’m mistaken and so and so is not against the death penalty at all.
I interviewed the warden at one of the most notorious death houses in the world about his job. He was as emphatic and bible thumping a Christian as one finds in the backwaters of Louisiana. (When asked why he puts a cross on the grave of every inmate who dies at Angola even though some are Muslim or Jewish who don’t believe in salvation through Jesus Christ, with a straight face he replied, “well, they sure believe in it now.” Presumably, as they burn in hell.)
I asked how a Christian could kill a man. Both testaments seem pretty clear on this one. It was the only time that he faltered.
“It’s hard,” he admitted, “but the bible says render unto Caesar’s what is Caesar’s,” he recovered.
Hmmm, using a tax law to justify the death penalty, pretty smooth.
Some fairly brutal killers have been executed. I suppose it’s true enough that they “deserved” it. But what about us as a society?
What do we deserve for calmly, deliberately, methodically taking the life of another for no other purpose than vegeance?
No person on death row today was deterred from murdering, kidnapping, raping or robbing because of the death penalty. Most of these crimes are perpetrated by fools who think they’ll get away with it or sick individuals.
There’s no rehabilitative purpose served by the needle.
Putting a societal pillow over their faces until they are dead, just makes us criminal.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for punishment.
I’ve also held the hand of a mother whose son was shot to death in a tragic case of wrong place/wrong time, I’ve seen the face of a close friend in the hospital after she was raped and attended the funeral of a kid killed by people “sending a message” to her father.
I know there is terrible evil in the world.
But does the death row warden ending Bennie’s life end the evil or further it?
I have been following the seemingly never-ending Michael Ross saga and finished watching Court TV’s ‘The Exonerated,’ that I taped on Saturday, the death penalty has been much on my mind these days. It’s been almost eight years since my first visit to death row and five years since I met Bennie, but since it’s been four years since federal executions came roaring back after a 40 year hiatus with Timothy McVeigh’s lethal injection in 2001 and the tri-state area is about to have its first execution in 45 years, I get the feeling things are only going to get worse, before they get better.