Earlier this week as I watched various newscasts, I took note of two related stories—both about the subject of the death penalty—which forced me to write a long overdue perspective on the subject.
In the first story, syndicated morning radio host Tom Joyner was at the center of an extraordinary story. Two of Joyner’s distant relatives were posthumously exonerated after having been tried, convicted, and executed by the state of South Carolina in 1915 for killing a Confederate Civil War veteran. Almost immediately, the case was riddled with doubt, issues of race, and Southern culture taken to the extreme. It was only after being interviewed for a PBS special on the lives of African-Americans that Joyner was even made aware that he had two great uncles who occupied that sad chapter of American history. After the details surrounding the case of Meeks and Thomas Griffin came to life, Joyner took it upon himself to dig up the proof of the Griffin brothers’ innocence, which led to their exoneration by the state.
Syndicated radio personality Tom Joyner's recent ancestors are exonerated by South Carolina officials following an investigation into the circumstances surrounding their wrongful execution decades ago.
In the second news story on CNN’s Headline News, it was revealed that Texas Governor Rick Perry (Rep.) has come under scrutiny for his actions regarding the 2004 execution of a man charged with setting a fire in 1991which killed his 3 daughters. Apparently, Perry fixed the outcome of scheduled meeting between the Texas Forensics Science Commission and an independent investigator looking into details of that case, days before it was to hear evidence regarding the findings of that investigation. The investigator’s conclusions, made up of three separate reports, had shed much in the way of serious doubt on whether the deadly fire which Todd Willingham was ultimately executed for was actually caused by arson. One of these reports was presented to Perry days before Willingham’s execution. For his part, Perry promptly ignored the casting of doubt the report brought on the case and denied a stay of execution for Willingham. Perry, in his attempts to “carry out the will of the people of the state of Texas,” chose to disregard the legal safeguards of reasonable doubt and due process, which are inherently intended to limit the possibility that the government would engage in the most extreme violation of the most basic of rights…the right to life. With regard to the case, Perry is guilty of self-serving politics at the very least; at the very most, he’s incompetence incarnate.
CNN Headline News report from 10/14/09. Texas Governor Rick Perry (R) engages in ethically-questionable, possibly politically-motivated actions in order to ensure a questionable execution from earlier this year.What both of these cases illustrate is that mistakes have and do occur with such an apparatus of finality as the death penalty. Some individuals who support the death penalty, particularly governors of death penalty states and prosecutors who employ its use, would have us believe that the complex legal mechanisms which lead to it being imposed, are infallible…or at the very least has an infinitesimal chance of resulting in a catastrophic mistake like an erroneous execution. And while there have been those who have been successfully proven innocent of accused crimes and exonerated while sitting on the death rows of many states, those individuals were not proven innocent by [the absence of] legal safeguards built into the legal system. In most cases, freed convicts are only spared death by the goodwill of lawyers, private investigators, reporters, or other private citizens who take it upon themselves to look into the facts of such questionable cases.
But the reality is that even entertaining the notion that everyone who has ever been tried, convicted, and executed for a crime in America was guilty is an act in defiance of basic reason, common sense, and not to mention, the law of averages. We’ve all heard the arguments against the death penalty. Yes, it’s applied with racial, gender, and socioeconomic bias. Yes, it’s an outdated as well as barbaric means of dealing with crime. No, it’s not a deterrent to crime. Yes, it’s applied inconsistently. Yes, it’s used often as a political tool. No, it’s not philosophically or ethically moral to execute the mentally-impaired. Yes, it’s hypocritical to consider one “pro-life,” and also pro-death penalty (which many of its supporters often do); I’ll leave it up to you to research the inssues surrounding the death penalty (contact the Death Penalty Information Center, http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/).
All life is sacred, and no one, neither individuals nor the state, has the right to give or take life. Providence along brought each of us here, so only Providence alone should be what removes us from this mortal coil. And contrary to popular opinion, no one (consciously or otherwise) “forfeits” their life based on their actions. We all are human, we all make mistakes, and the overwhelmingly majority of us commits a sin, some worse than others. Taking human life to illustrate that taking human life is wrong is not a sign that an enlightened society which values life, but an indication that in some respects, we fail to advance ourselves and our sense of ethics and morality beyond what we embraced when we were far less civilized.