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Pro-death Penalty



What Happens When the Government Kills

Old Sparky was the notorious electric chair used in Texas for decades

I've been joking that instead of the US trek, I've been on the "death trek" for about the last month or so. Learning about the Vietnam War from those who fought it, and then about abortion from those who are continuing to fight over it both made me weary and emotional. I couldn't escape the subject of death and now my next assignment was to confront the subject head on by looking at capital punishment in the US. With the scheduled execution of Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh on May 16, it appears Americans will now be in the same place I am right now: hearing and pondering death for days on end. I decided to pay a visit to the state that's renowned for its use of the death penalty-Texas. Under now-President George Bush, Texas has executed over 130 people, far and away the most of any state. I spoke to two Texans whose lives have been forever changed by the death penalty. Most of us haven't experienced the trauma of having a loved one killed, either at the hands of a person or the government, and after listening to these Texans' stories, I hope I never will.

"An eye for an eye." That philosophy has been the moral foundation of the American justice system's support for the death penalty for the past two and a half decades. But that attitude hasn't always prevailed in American history. During the colonial days, people were hung even for minor offenses like stealing grapes, killing chickens and trading with Indians. But by the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, doubts were already creeping in about the effectiveness of people being killed by the people. Some, like Dr. Benjamin Rush and Ben Franklin, doubted that capital punishment actually deterred people from committing crimes. The 19th century saw states retaining the death penalty, though limiting it to serious crimes like treason and murder. In 1888, New York built the first electric chair.


The twentieth century has seen the death penalty take center stage several times as political opinion has swayed back and forth. During Prohibition in the 1920s and the Depression of the '30s, there was a surge in executions. 1,289 people died in the '40s alone. But from 1960-1976, only 191 people were executed as public opinion turned against the morality of having the government put its own citizens to death. By 1966, only 42% of Americans said they supported capital punishment. The Supreme Court ruled in 1972 in Furman vs. Georgia that several states, including Georgia, had faulty death penalty laws that were too arbitrary and without guidelines, thus violating the "cruel and unusual punishment" clause of the 8th Amendment. But four years later, in Gregg vs. Georgia the Court ruled that new death penalty statutes in Florida, Georgia, and Texas were constitutional. They also said the death penalty was constitutional under the 8th amendment. Since the reinstitution of the death penalty, 6,000 Americans have been sentenced to death and Americans remain firmly in support of the policy. But when Illinois Governor George Ryan put a halt to all executions in his state on January 31, 2000, it signaled that the death penalty might just be undergoing another critical evolution for this new century.

"He was the love of my life." That's how Carol Byars of Houston, Texas describes her husband Jimmy who was killed by his mother's next-door-neighbor 22 years ago. Carol was pregnant at the time with their second daughter and had gone home while her husband attended a Labor Day barbeque at his parent's house. An argument broke out between Jimmy's family and the neighbors and two of Jimmy's brothers were shot, in addition to Jimmy. Carol heard from others that the argument had been over dogs trespassing on the other neighbor's property. "My husband died because of something that stupid," she said.

The Texas Prison Museum houses exhibitions like this, showing all the weapons murderers use.
Jimmy was able to live for another eight months, a mixed blessing for Carol. "It was horrible to see him suffer like that, but we were able to say to each other what we wanted to," she said. Carol says she felt at times that she could have killed her husband's assailant, but that Jimmy had "given me the most precious gift." He forgave the man who shot him, John Earl. "He told me, 'I want you to have a good life. I want you to feel joy and be happy, so don't let the anger and bitterness and hatred drag you down. I've let it go and you should too."

During John Earl's trial, prosecutors had decided not to seek the death penalty. This might have seemed unusual to some, since Jimmy was white and John was black. One of the main criticisms of the death penalty is the fact that it values white lives over black lives. To site just one statistic, of 500 people executed between 1977-1998, 81% died for killing white people even though the numbers of blacks killed every year is about the same as whites.

Carol credits her family for raising her to be racially tolerant. "I am so grateful everyday that I had the mother I did. She taught us to respect all people and that all of us are equal, regardless of race or religion." Carol admits that in Texas, this isn't always the case as she found out when one man later offered to help out her and her children any time she needed it. As it turns out, he was a leader in a local KKK group. "Thank God I said no thanks!" laughed Carol.

Lethal injection is the most common way to execute someone in the US.
It was at the trial that Carol seriously began confronting the realities of the death penalty, a concept she had never been comfortable with even before Jimmy's death. "[John Earl] took everything from me. My children had to grow up without a father." But seeing John and his wife at the trial made her empathize with them. "His wife had her arms around him and she looked so scared and bewildered and hurt. I saw in her what I myself had been going through every day. She was like the flip side of me." Ten years ago, Carol became involved with a prison ministry visiting Death Row inmates. "It's heartbreaking to see," she said. "It's just such a waste of a life because you can see the potential in some of the guys."


The Warrior Hangs On...

Strengthened in her belief that answering a violent act with more violence was not just, Carol helped to found a local chapter of a group called Murder Victims for Reconciliation (MVFR). The group tries to bring healing to both murder victims' families and to prisoners' families. In contrast to other victims' rights groups who are hostile to the people who have taken away their loved ones, Carol says MVFR recognizes that, "their families are suffering from the same trauma as much as we are; only when our loved ones are killed, we didn't have people cheering." Carol regrets to this day that before she was able to tell John Earl in person that she had forgiven him, he had already died. "I often wonder what happened to his family. I would like to do a mediation someday. Life hasn't been easy for either of us." MVFR has helped Carol to heal from her pain and speaking out against the death penalty, she believes, is the best way to honor Jimmy's legacy.

To the families who want to watch Timothy McVeigh get executed, she says, "My heart goes out to them. I've been where they are and I know what they're feeling. I don't think they'll be healed any more though, for having watched him die."

Texas has put 243 people to death since they first started re-executing people in 1982. Carol asserts that the legal system in Texas is "terrible." "No prosecutor even contacted me before the start of John Earl's trial." Texas does not even have a statewide public defender system, which leaves people of color and poor people even more vulnerable. Carol said of John Earl's lawyer, "I could have defended him better." Several public attorneys have been known to fall asleep during trials.

Gary Graham's execution occurred during the presidential campaign and led many to criticize George Bush's execution record in Texas.
Then there is the fact that more and more Americans believe that many of the executions have been of innocent people. Newly pioneered DNA technology has led eight people on Death Row to go free. Anthony Porter was scheduled to die in 50 hours when a group of Northwestern University journalism students in Illinois was able to discover the real killer and obtain a confession. What does it say about our justice system that a bunch of 21-year-olds are a Death Row prisoners' last resort? It was because of cases like Anthony Porter that Governor George Ryan of Illinois, admitting that the justice system was "fraught with errors," put a moratorium on all executions last year.

International groups and other countries have also criticized the use of the death penalty in the United States. Almost all of Europe has abolished the death penalty. The fact that the US is such a prolific executioner, places it with some dubious countries such as Iran, Iraq and China, who aren't exactly known for their love of human rights. The US is one of six countries along with Pakistan, Iran, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and Yemen who execute people who committed crimes as minors.

Massachusetts does not have the death penalty in their laws. These people want to keep it that way.
Supreme Court justice Harry Blackmun, toward the end of his career, reversed his stance on the death penalty, writing that, "Even under the most sophisticated death penalty statutes, race continues to play a major role in determining who shall live and who shall die." Not only do minorities make up half of the people on Death Row, but they are also more likely to be sentenced to death for the same crime a white person commits. In Georgia before the Civil War, the rape of a white woman by a black man was punishable by death while the same crime by a white man earned a sentence of 2-20 years. Slavery and segregation may officially be illegal, but racism continues to live on in our legal system.

Should civilized societies use death as a valid form of punishment? Carol Byars believes it only fuels violence and sends a wrong message of revenge and retribution when healing and reconciliation are what's needed. "I do think the tide is turning as more people reconsider the death penalty. And we're going to keep on fighting until it's gone," she declared.

It does appear to be true: As Timothy McVeigh awaits his execution date, Americans find themselves once again not being able to turn away from questions of life and death.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Jennifer - A day at juvie - doing time in your teens
Nick - The birth of gangs: a violent reaction to poverty
Stephanie - Military boot camps for teens gone bad
Neda - The prison industry - too many people, too many prisons
Nick - Police brutality is a problem that needs our attention