Laura Friedman lives in St. Louis.
Botched executions in Ohio, Oklahoma and Arizona and continuing problems with lethal-injection drugs have put the death penalty back in the news. After a brief moratorium following Oklahoma’s debacle, my state, Missouri, has resumed executing its death-row prisoners. One of the condemned men there murdered the wife of the man I would later marry.
The Missouri Department of Corrections keeps victims such as my husband informed of killers’ appeals by sending periodic, bureaucratic letters. After almost 15 years of this type of communication, the latest notification told us that the killer has exhausted his appeals of the jury’s verdict. His execution date will be set soon.
For most people, the death penalty debate falls along ideological lines — liberals are opposed and conservatives are in favor. But for the families of victims, the debate is not so simple and the solution is not so clear. They cringe when they hear left-leaning commentators repeatedly describe the chilling details of a botched execution without repeating the far more chilling details of the crime the condemned man committed. But they also cringe when they hear right-leaning commentators who promote the sanctity of life but do not question state-sanctioned death.
The killing that forever changed my husband’s life is the kind of crime that reinforces the beliefs of both sides. Advocates of the death penalty see an unspeakably brutal murder, committed with no known motivation against a woman alone in her upscale home. Opponents see an African American male suspect convicted by a white jury and sentenced to death for the murder of a white woman, with no eyewitnesses, no DNA evidence and no confession. They are both right. The murder cried out for justice, but the conviction and sentencing fit a disturbing pattern of racial bias and rush to judgment.
As the one who now holds my husband when the night terrors grip, I understand the demand for justice and the desire for revenge. I understand the necessity of punishment and the need for safety in our homes and communities. I understand the call for the gravest punishment for the gravest crime. And I cannot summon sympathy or grief for those who kill in cold blood. Yet I am troubled.
I am troubled by the company we keep as a nation that executes prisoners (China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea). I am troubled by the number of minorities on death row (more than half), by the preponderance of whites among their victims (about 80 percent, even though blacks and whites are victims in roughly equal numbers). I am troubled by the evidence that juries and judges make unconscionable mistakes (144 death-row inmates exonerated since 1973). And I am troubled by the pretense of execution as a medical procedure: As drug makers and medical personnel back away from participating in lethal injections, states are experimenting on condemned men with untested drug combinations and inadequately trained personnel while concealing the source, skills and methods used.
Many people have looked at these statistics and concluded that the death penalty is unconstitutional in its implementation and unfair in its imposition. Some states have banned it in all circumstances. Others, including Missouri, remain committed to capital punishment in principle but struggle with sources and methods. Families of the victims, for the most part, do not weigh in on the debate. For them, it is not a question of politics or policy. It is personal, and whether the condemned killer dies alone in his cell or suffers an excruciating death at the hand of the state, their pain will not be erased by his.
Death penalty supporters talk of closure. That may work as a matter of process — execution rids the state and the justice system of any further involvement — but it is much more complicated for families of victims. Each envelope from the Department of Corrections, each anniversary when the crime is recounted in the paper, every discussion about the death penalty on TV — those are reopenings, not closings. Our excruciatingly slow justice system has put my husband through more than 15 years of this. The killer may be getting what he deserves, but my husband will not be getting what he deserves: an end to the horrific memories that haunt him day and night.
As Missouri moves methodically through its backlog of condemned men and the killer’s last day is finally set, the crime will be back in the headlines. Reporters will be calling my husband for comment, the condemned man’s lawyers will be interviewed, last-minute appeals on other grounds will be filed. In the end, we can only hope that the execution drugs will be swift and effective, that the person administering them has been properly trained and that this will finally bring an end to killing in our lives.
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