A breath­tak­ing penalty

Arkansans should end cru­elty of death sen­tences

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - EDITORIAL PAGE - Low­ell Gr­isham Low­ell Gr­isham is an Epis­co­pal priest who lives in Fayet­teville. Email him at Low­ell@ stpauls­fay.org.

Some lead­ers brought to Je­sus a woman who had been caught in adul­tery, a cap­i­tal crime (Deuteron­omy 22:22-24; Leviti­cus 20:10). “In the law Moses com­manded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?”

Je­sus’ an­swer: “Let any­one among you who is with­out sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8) It seems to me as a Chris­tian, that’s our last word on cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. None of us is with­out sin. There­fore none of us is qual­i­fied to ex­e­cute an­other hu­man be­ing. Our crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem is far from per­fect. Je­sus him­self was an in­no­cent vic­tim of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment.

Last year a team from my church vis­ited death row monthly for six months. The team in­cluded teach­ers, po­ets, writ­ers, and artists. They in­vited the in­mates to re­flect on their lives and to put their thoughts and feel­ings into words. It was a pro­found ex­pe­ri­ence for each per­son on that team. A pro­fes­sional writer then col­lected the prison­ers’ words to cre­ate a staged read­ing with six read­ers. They pre­sented “On the Row,” first on death row, and then out­side the prison. The next pre­sen­ta­tion will be Fri­day, March 31, at 21C Mu­seum Ho­tel in Ben­tonville. The re­cep­tion is at 7 p.m., the staged read­ing at 7:30.

My staff mem­ber Matt Hen­rik­sen said, “I carry a lot of grief for the vic­tims and their fam­i­lies, more than I do for the men. I think about some of the vic­tims as fre­quently as I think of the men. Al­though I would not want to meet any of these men free on the street, they are all doubtlessly not the same men who com­mit­ted those hor­rific crimes.”

Don Davis (to be ex­e­cuted April 17) wrote, “The state can­not ex­e­cute the man that was con­victed, I ex­e­cuted him years ago. The only thing the state can do is take me out of this cage.” Team mem­ber Troy Schrem­mer said these are “de­feated men.” Vis­it­ing death row was like pay­ing a visit to folks at a nurs­ing home.

On our team was David Jol­liffe, pro­fes­sor of English lit­er­acy at the Univer­sity of Arkansas. He works across Arkansas to pro­mote read­ing and writ­ing skills. David says the par­tic­i­pants from death row “pro­duced some of the wis­est and most beau­ti­ful art I have seen in my life … While I ac­knowl­edge the hor­ror of their crimes, I’ve also seen close-up that these are not the same men who com­mit­ted those crimes. While I grieve for the vic­tims’ fam­i­lies and wish for them to find what clo­sure they can, I can­not idly stand by and watch any life be taken by the state in the name of jus­tice.”

Jol­liffe said, “Stacey John­son is, quite sim­ply, one of the most elo­quent and thought­ful writ­ers I’ve en­coun­tered my 41 years as an ed­u­ca­tor. The work he pro­duced in our six-month writ­ing ex­pe­ri­ence was vivid, com­pelling, and rich beyond mea­sure … a model of lit­er­acy, earned by dili­gent read­ing, writ­ing, and study.” Jol­liffe wishes he could take Stacey John­son to class­rooms around the state “to il­lus­trate the grace and power of ef­fec­tive writ­ing, some­thing he demon­strates much more clearly than any canned cur­ricu­lum that I have en­coun­tered.” Stacey John­son’s ex­e­cu­tion is sched­uled for April 20.

In­mate Ken­neth Wil­liams in now an or­dained min­is­ter who writes to de­ter young peo­ple from join­ing gangs as he did. He has writ­ten a book and cre­ated a board game to that end. Ken­neth Wil­liams is sched­uled to be killed April 27. This is his poem.

•••

Let the first breath be taken,

A gift the still-born knows not.

Many trou­bles will surely fol­low it.

In the end would it all have been worth it, or not?

Let it be drawn with an un­der­stand­ing, A sec­ond or third breath was never promised. Those for­tu­nate to claim it,

They must make the most of it

To honor those whom never re­ceived it. Let the first breath be taken, En­joyed by hun­gry lungs,

In­haled then ex­haled.

Sweet re­lief will come.

Let it be said,

After this first breath was taken,

For whom it was given,

Oth­ers will be glad it came to be; In­stead of grieved that it ever was given Among the Liv­ing.

Let it be,

That even after a first breath has been taken, Here on earth be­neath,

A sec­ond first breath

Will be taken in heaven some­day,

An even greater feat.

•••

These men did ter­ri­ble things. They are locked up for life. And they have changed.

Who is with­out sin? Let him ad­min­is­ter the fa­tal drugs.

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