A breathtaking penalty
Arkansans should end cruelty of death sentences
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.