Thursday, January 16, 2014

I Am a Human Being

This is a personal one.  Due to the nature of my mother's work as a specialist criminal defense lawyer, I was raised on a steady diet of real-life courtroom dramas better than anything Law & Order could manufacture.  By the time I could legally drink, I had conversed with convicted murderers and played blackjack with their children (how the criminal justice system affects a criminal's innocent children is an entirely different, but extremely imperative, topic).

And I had also watched a jury listen to competing attorneys ask them to either kill or spare a man's life, which may be legal under American law, but I cannot imagine is legal under the law of a God who says unto Paul, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." (Romans 12:19)

I have seen what I have seen, and I know what I know, and I have long ago come to the conclusion that capital punishment, no matter how we practice it, violates the Christianity-based ethic that all human life belongs to God and thus is sacred.  If life is the ultimate gift of God, then it should not be up to mere mortals to decide when to take that gift away.

(And let me nip this in the bud: I emphatically believe that people should pay for their crimes.  I 100% support life-without-parole sentences for first-degree murder convictions.)

In any case, my religious beliefs are such that I object to capital punishment on those grounds, but I additionally have long harbored objections over how capital punishment is meted out--that it unfairly targets racial minorities, that it costs the state far more money to implement, and that it constitutes, essentially, experimentation on humans every time we come up with a new death penalty protocol.

Witness, then, today's execution of Dennis McGuire, an inmate in Ohio, who, according to news reports, gasped and convulsed for up to ten minutes before dying from an experimental cocktail of lethal drugs.

McGuire's crime could not have been more heinous--he raped, sodomized, and murdered a young, seven-months-pregnant woman named Joy Stewart.  I would have been more than happy to see McGuire live out the rest of his days and ultimately die in prison.

But two profound wrongs do not make a right.  We do not get to torture people as they die.  The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution (banning cruel and unusual punishment) should have covered that.

But it hasn't.

And, like I said, it's personal.  My mother is now fighting around the clock to keep a client of her firm's from being executed in similar manner (with a similarly suspect injection protocol) by the state of Missouri.


Enough already.

Because this isn't the first time something like this has happened when we have tried to kill a man.

Far from it.  In reading the account of McGuire's death, I was reminded of this excerpt of the book The Death of Innocents by Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J.:

(warning: graphic descriptions ahead)

David Lawson chose to die in the gas chamber.  He said he wanted the people of North Carolina to know they were killing a man.  He tried to have his execution videotaped and broadcast, but state and federal courts denied his request, arguing that he did not have a constitutional right to make his death public.

In a last appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, David Lawson's lawyers requested a stay of execution, arguing that execution by gas was a form of cruel punishment and in violation of the Eighth Amendment, but the Court refused to hear the petition.

On June 15, 1994, David Lawson was killed by the state of North Carolina for the murder of Wayne Shinn, whom he had shot during a burglary in 1980.  It took thirteen minutes for the gas to kill him.

Lawson, wearing only socks and boxer shorts over a diaper, sat in the chair and watched as guards strapped his arms, chest, and legs to the chair and hooked up an electrode over his heart.  Guards then placed a leather mask on his face.  Soon after 2:00 a.m., the cyanide was dropped into the acid and the lethal fumes began to rise.  Lawson, choking and grasping and straining against the straps, took short breaths and cried out, "I am human.  I am a human being."  He pushed up on his feet and kicked his legs.  His hands gripped the ends of the armrests.  Drool and tears slid from under the mask.  A few deep breaths of the gas would have killed him sooner, but David Lawson continued taking short breaths and despite paroxysms of choking cried out until his voice was but a whisper: ""

I pray for the continued healing and closure for murder victims' families everywhere, and alongside those prayers I also pray for the David Lawsons and Dennis McGuires of the world, that their humanity, however wretched, would at long last be recognized by a society that knows it is sinful to kill.

Yours in Christ,

1 comment:

  1. In the midst of my current swirl, your column is almost too painfully moving....It is beautiful. I am so glad you wrote it. Love, Mom (yes, I do get to say that on the Internet)