Well, the jury has been selected, the witnesses sworn in, the defense team has had its last minute meetings to tie up loose ends. And tomorrow, the trial begins. The State of Texas is seeking to kill one of its citizens-accused. I, and the rest of the defense team stand between our client and state-sanctioned homicide.
I’m sure the media will be there. I know the families of the defendant and the victim will be there. The vocal anti-death penalty advocates will be nowhere in sight. The pro-lifers wouldn’t find themselves near the place because that would mean that they recognizing that the sanctity of life means every life.
Capital Punishment is one of those topics that our denomination gives little ink to and even less time preaching on the subject.
Our Social Principles are quite clear:
164.G The Death Penalty
We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore and transform all human beings. The United Methodist Church is deeply concerned about crime throughout the world and the value of any life taken by a murder or homicide. We believe all human life is sacred and created by God and therefore, we must see all human life as significant and valuable. When governments implement the death penalty (capital punishment), then the life of the convicted person is devalued and all possibility of change in that person’s life ends. We believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and that the possibility of reconciliation with Christ comes through repentance. This gift of reconciliation is offered to all individuals without exception and gives all life new dignity and sacredness. For this reason, we oppose the death penalty (capital punishment) and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.
This statement has changed little over the years. But, like so many things we do as United Methodists, we work in our missional silos. We don’t see the nexus between crime and mental health. We don’t see the connection between unequal access to education and poverty. We ignore to tie between mental health care and criminality. We fail to see the powerful impact that race, colorism and culture are embedded in who the government seeks death against and who the government waives the death penalty.
I remember a time, not too many years ago, that one of my clients was being executed. I was teaching my Death Penalty Project class at SMU Law that day and decided to stay on campus, as a vigil was to be held at the flag pole in front of Dallas Hall that evening at 6:00 pm. I didn’t want to be alone so I decided to join the vigil.
The case I will never forget. The defendant was accused and convicted of breaking into the home of an elderly neighbor, brutally stabbing her, and stealing some of her personal effects. During the early stage of the trial, the victim’s twin sister approached me and asked if she could testify on behalf of our client. She informed me that both she and her sister were Christians and felt it was her duty to forgive our client and ask the jury for leniency. The lawyers felt she couldn’t be trusted to say those things and refused to use her as a witness. I carried the guilt of not pushing hard enough to convince counsel that we needed to put her on the stand throughout the trial. I carried that guilt to that flag pole on the night of the execution. I carry that guilt to this day.
You see, Michael, our client, died alone on a gurney that night. And the vigil? I was the only one to attend.
It is apparent that, despite eloquent statements like the one in our Social Principles, no one really gives a damn. Not the advocacy groups, not the pro-lifers, and certainly not The Church. There will be no protesters at the trial, there will be no clergy willing to risk their reputation by standing up for someone accused of such a heinous crime as capital murder. There will be only family of the victim and family of the accused. There will be the media because “blood leads.” There will be the State prosecutors and staff and the defense team and staff. There will be 12 jurors and a few alternates. There will be a Judge and his courtroom security staff. And there will be one man, sitting in the courtroom, who, despite all those around him, will be alone.
I often use a quote in class, “proprium humani ingenii est odisse quem laeseris.” Translated, it means it is a condition of human nature to hate those we have hurt. That is how the death penalty is often meted out. Rather than recognize our societal responsibility, and thus our own moral culpability for creating an environment that breeds violence and mental health treatment shortcomings, we demand individual responsibility and accountability. So what if we have a disastrous Child Protective System? Who cares if the justice system is fraught with systemic racism? Why worry that our education system is failing our student, teachers and administrators? And why care that we use our penal system as mental health treatment facilities? Because all these factors, as well as many others that we allow to occur in our communities, help create the person who often stands charged with the most serious of crimes and faces the ultimate punishment. We, as a society, sweep our own societal responsibility under the carpet we like to call Justice. The hurt we inflict is often the failure to take action to save children from the ills of society (brought on by governmental budget cuts to invaluable programs like education, mental health systems, foster care/CPS programs, drug and alcohol treatment programs and health care) and then we hate those kids when they grow up and commit these crimes. Well, if we aren’t going to take care of our vulnerable children, we might as well start executing 7 and 8 years-olds as a preemptive strike.
I was once asked, after the particularly brutal trial of the case I mentioned above, if I ever got tired of losing. My response was that, “If I measured victories by verdicts, the answer would be yes. But I don’t measure success by verdicts. I have the ability to change lives. It might be the defendant, it might be the defendant’s family. It could be a juror or a member of the victim’s family. But more times than not, it is my own life that changes. I develop a greater sense of the sanctity of life and a closer relationship with my God. And when my time comes to be judged by that God, I wouldn’t have tired of losing. I will have done well because I did good!”
So, tomorrow my client will not be alone. I will treat him with respect. I will treat him with compassion. I will treat him with grace. I will treat him with love. I will see Christ in him. May he see Christ in me.