Death row to life

May 24, 2024

I have often been confounded by deep, complex issues in my life, at times losing sleep over them. One of those issues is the death penalty. After thirty years in the legal system I’ve come to a conclusion, which has generally been very useful in tackling a wide variety of subjects-the issue isn’t the issue or put another way, the big question is sometimes a distraction from what I and others should be focusing on.

I address the issue of the death penalty in my book SACRED DUTY, but not as you might expect. I chose to, as delicately as I could, deal with even more profound issues that hold the same space but are rarely discussed when the death penalty is brought up. It’s always, ‘Do you believe in the death penalty?’ Obviously, the question is important, but my hope is that we turn our focus, energy, resources toward what ultimately brings us to this question.

When a case is prosecuted as a death penalty case it has been throughly scrutinized through several levels of analysis and reviewed by senior prosecutors, specially assigned trial lawyers and in many cases a committee. Only the worse of the worse offenses find their way to such designation. They are the cases with SPECIAL CIRCUMSTANCES. Generally, they involve the most heinous murders such as rape/murder, multiple homicide, robbery murder and so on. And, most commonly the perpetrator has a record of violence. The defense approach is very different. Let’s talk about that.

Setting aside what is know as the GUILT PHASE, the initial process of the prosecutor proving the case, much of defense work in special circumstances cases centers on presenting mitigating evidence in what is called the PENALTY PHASE. In essence, the defense presents a story, normally a very sad story of horrible abuse, things that often rival the actual underlying murder or murders, such as terrible poverty, mental illness, unimaginable abuse, you get the point. The argument is, he did it but you can see why. He was made into a monster by the life he was given. (There are other components to defense work I will not address here such as lingering doubt). Ultimately, the defense tries to convince the jury that because of the defendant’s horrible past he should be spared and be given life in prison instead of the death sentence.

When I’m asked if I believe in the death penalty I think of this-what led this person to do such a heinous act? Yes, I support those who want death for those who killed their loved ones, and support those who do not. But so often we are rightfully consumed by emotion that we fail to adequately consider and discuss at a policy level, in our conversations, and in the court, the genesis of the evil.

That is the biggest failure of government, the biggest failure of the our court system. We are processors of brokenness. We react to evil, and bad decisions, but rarely seek to solve problems in that we fear getting into what we believe is too complicated or beyond the traditional boundaries of government. By way of example, I remember proposing that we help develop a mentorship program for young offenders who had no father figure in their lives. I had church groups willing to volunteer, but the idea was shot down because fatherlessness was not an appropriate issue for the court, nor was association with a church. So nothing was changed. We just continued “processesing,” moving cases along, changing nothing.

Unquestionably, the foundations of brokenness are complicated and rife with politics. But as I said in the meeting, “We’re on a merry-go-round of insanity.”

Even with a mentorship program or other efforts I’m aware that we, the institutions constructed by man will still fall short, but perhaps even a small change is better than nothing.And nothing is what we’re doing.

Today, though I left the court system very early, by any metric, I have not given up hope, but have changed course finding what seems a better way for me as a writer seeking new terrain to change the world one story at a time. That’s bold thing to say, but I’ve had thirty years to discover this personally and professionally.

SACRED DUTY, my new book begins in the bleakness of death row and ends in the same prison but in a place of freedom and deliverance of prisoner’s soul. The story is not about the death penalty or the criminal justice system. Again the issue is not the issue, but the deeper things that we would be wise to pay attention to.