If you challenged me to name every spectator sport I could think of, I can assure you that “death” would never enter my mind or exit my mouth. That’s why it’s hard to imagine people actively gathering to witness someone’s death. During a state-sanctioned execution, death becomes a spectator sport.
Spectators file into a small room with seating that closely – and paradoxically – resembles that of a modest church congregation. People take their seats on wooden pews, anxiously awaiting the execution. Rather than thumbing through a Bible or hymn book, spectators can fidget with the vomit bags that are conveniently placed in every pew.
Center stage is a brightly-lit room with a small gurney. The clean white sheets on the gurney send the message of sterility. The simplicity of the room sends the message of legitimacy.
In the audience sits the family of the victim; they’re here to watch the execution of the man who killed their loved one. By this time, they’ve undoubtedly sat through hundreds of hours of testimony in a courtroom. They’ve relived the death of their loved one over and over again. They sit in anticipation of a new death that hopefully brings them closure and relief – a killing to avenge a killing.
As a criminal defense attorney, I have a strong opinion about the soundness of executing a person as a punishment for a crime. When I initially decided to write this blog post, I planned on discussing the deficiency of capital punishment by highlighting (a) how it wastes limited resources and (b) how more than 140 people have been exonerated from death row since 1973. But things changed for me while doing the research.
I’ve read dozens of personal accounts from the families of victims. I’ve learned about their tremendous pain. I’ve read details of how innocent victims have been murdered. I’ve felt my own heart aching for the parents who lost a young child, usually in a horrible, gruesome way. I cannot fathom the pain these people feel, and I want to make it go away. I suddenly found myself wondering, ‘Maybe destroying the monster that caused the pain really is the answer.’
It can’t be. After an internal struggle, I’ve come to the realization that I don’t want to be part of a world where ending a life is a solution. Why can’t we just lock someone up and throw away the key? An execution can’t heal the pain that has already been felt. It won’t bring back loved ones. It doesn’t change the past.
After all of my research, I’ve become inspired – not by the horrors I’ve read, not by comments of victims’ families who think killing the person responsible for their pain is the solution – but by the victims’ families who understand that pain can’t be healed through hate.
Marietta Jaeger, whose 7 year-old daughter Susie was kidnapped and murdered, eloquently stated:
I say there is no amount of retaliatory deaths that would compensate to me the inestimable value of my daughter’s life, nor would they restore her to my arms. To say that the death of any other person would be just retribution is to insult the immeasurable worth of our loved ones who are victims. We cannot put a price on their lives. That kind of justice would only dehumanize and degrade us because it legitimates an animal instinct for gut-level, blood thirsty revenge. In my case, my own daughter was such a gift of joy and sweetness and beauty, that to kill someone in her name would have been to violate and profane the goodness of her life; the idea is offensive and repulsive to me.
I felt inspired by what Marietta Jaeger said after losing her young daughter. I felt even more inspired after reading about a family from Atlanta, Georgia.
On June 30, 1974, Alberta Williams King played the organ at Sunday service inside Ebenezer Baptist Church. During the service, a man rose from the front pew and drew two pistols. He began to fire shots, and one of the bullets struck and killed Alberta.
Alberta was the mother of Martin Luther King Jr. She died just steps away from where her son had preached nonviolence. The man who killed her was later convicted and received the death penalty. Despite the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. six years earlier, and the fact that the church gunman also meant to kill Martin Luther King Sr., the King family fought to change the gunman’s sentence from death to life imprisonment.
Martin Luther King Jr. preached for forgiveness and against violence. The King family understood the value of the lives they lost. They stood true to the message Martin Luther King Jr. preached: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Let’s end the hate. Let’s prevent the pain rather than avenge it. Let’s add light to the darkness.