Are We Our Brother’s Keeper?

| June 24, 2014
Death-Penalty

The death penalty in America—both an anachronism and turbulent symbol of our culture.

EDITORIAL—Violence has been inherent to man since the dawn of time; since Cain slew his brother, Abel.  When Cain murdered Abel out of spite and jealously for his position, God interrogated the admonished older brother and queried, “Where is your brother Abel?”  Cain responded to God, “I don’t know.”  Cain, almost thinking aloud, pressed to the Lord, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  Truly, Cain was asking, ‘am I my brother’s defender and protector?’  In the twenty-first century, as in the beginning of the world, men have continued to exact violence against others.  A sad and staunch reality of life on this planet is that violence is among the few things which are likely never to be eradicated.

The cover of the Friday, June 20 edition of the Washington Post detailed the story of a Monticello, Florida country lawyer as he tenaciously defended his client against the ‘grinding machinery of the death penalty.’  To say attorney Baya Harrison, III failed in his mission is a rather reductionist sentiment.  Indeed, on Wednesday, June 18 at 7:43pm, Mr. Harrison’s client, John Ruthell Henry, a convicted double murderer, no longer drew breath—his heart no longer pumped blood through his body; he was 63-years-old.  Baya Harrison was given the case by the court to represent the indigent Henry—but Harrison would not allow the state to execute a man without exhausting every possible legal avenue.  Harrison took an oath to provide the most vigorous legal representation possible to his client.  To that end, Baya Harrison didn’t lose; he very much typified the notion that in our system of justice, even the most wretched defendant deserves adequate and assertive representation.

Harrison’s tireless last ditch effort to fight for his client, with just hours before his scheduled execution, speaks to his character.  In late-May, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down their decision in Hall v. Florida and determined that an absolute IQ threshold was insufficient to determine the mental competency of the condemned in order to be put to death.  Prior to Hall, in Florida, an inmate may be executed if his IQ exceeded 70.  Harrison seized on this new opportunity for his client, who’s IQ was 78.  Harrison worked through the early waning hours of June 18, writing as fast as he could, an emergency appeal to be submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Previously, Harrison’s appeal on the grounds of his client’s IQ was denied by the Florida Supreme Court and in a 2-1 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit in Atlanta.

Then Baya Harrison called his client, likely the most difficult facet of his entire last ditch effort, and told John Henry he was working on an eleventh hour appeal to the Supreme Court and couldn’t make it to the execution—he noted this may be the last time they spoke.  It was.  Baya Harrison’s emergency writ of certiorari on John Henry’s behalf was denied by the Circuit Justice for the eleventh, Clarence Thomas, and the execution proceeded as scheduled.  Henry’s execution was the third carried out in a 24-hour period across three different states, the first sentences fulfilled following the botched April execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma, leading to widespread criticisms as to current death penalty practices throughout the nation.

Interestingly, Baya Harrison is not an idealistic opponent of capital punishment.  Quite the contrary, he believes that it serves as a deterrent against future crime.  Harrison has represented three condemned murders—Henry, a double murderer who killed his wife and son in 1985; Danny Rolling, a serial killer; and Oba Chandler, who drowned an entire family, while vacationing in Florida.  Unequivocally, these were evil men.  But this is what makes Harrison a hero; possibly, a reluctant one.  In many ways, Harrison is an offshoot of the famous country lawyer Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s 1960 classic tome, To Kill a Mockingbird.   Albeit, in the novel, Finch represents an almost ‘overly’ honest and innocent man, Tom Robinson, accused of raping a white woman in Depression-era Alabama; Harrison is not too far from the likes of Finch.  He, like so many other attorneys, implicitly believes that our system of justice is founded upon the notion that all men, regardless of the crimes they’ve been accused of or committed, deserve the best possible representation before institutions of government, prior to being stripped of life, liberty, or property.  To think of Harrison and those like him otherwise, would be an affront to our very system of justice.

The larger question, in the post-Clayton Lockett era of capital punishment, is what are we to do with the death penalty in our nation?  Take John Henry, who in 1985 was a drug addict that chose to viciously murder his wife and, after feeding his son fried chicken from a restaurant drive thru, slew his own child with the very same kitchen blade that was used to kill his mother.  John Henry never expressed remorse for his crimes to his attorney.  We can look to Henry and see a man that embodies the very basic idea of senseless evil in our world.  To personally opine, as an impartial observer, the mind goes back and forth.  I thought of Henry, murdering his wife and son, and I thought of the evil man who died last Wednesday in that Florida death chamber.  Ostensibly, one cannot but feel a sense of justice, a sense of relief for ridding the world of a depraved killer.  But, on the other hand, in a democratic society, we must come to the realization that each death sentence carried out is done in our name.  To employ an analogy, our finger is not on the trigger, but the fatal gunshot is done so on our behalf.

As a Catholic, I oppose the death penalty not in spite of my religion but because of it.  Yes, John Henry committed absolutely evil acts.  Yet the difficult part of Christianity is realizing that no man is beyond redemption—that each of us is loved wholly and equally by God; even John Henry.  In the age of the new and illusive two drug lethal injection cocktail, one cannot but question the morality behind capital punishment.

Rev. Lawrence Hummer frequently ministers to those on death row at the Chillicothe Correctional Institution in Chillicothe, Ohio.  Among his flock was Dennis McGuire, a man who admitted to Fr. Hummer that he raped and murdered a young woman, Joy Stewart, and her unborn child in 1989—an absolutely evil act.  McGuire and his family wanted Fr. Hummer to be present at his execution—it was Fr. Hummer’s first execution.  What the Catholic priest noted is that, in the past, when he sat at the bedside of the sick and dying, they’ve all left this world peacefully.  McGuire met a terrible, violent, and evil end, in the priest’s estimation.  To Fr. Hummer, the 26 minutes it took McGuire to die, as he visibly gasped for air, clenched his fists, and contorted his stomach was an absolutely horrifying and abhorrent way to depart our world.  Simply put, McGuire’s death was inhumane.

According to the Guardian, our use of the death penalty in the U.S. juxtaposes us beside nations such as China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen—all sitting comfortably on the top ten list of nations with the most executions annually.  Further, nearly every nation in the entire Global North (i.e., the developed countries), with the exception of the United States, has abolished or functionally eliminated capital punishment within their borders.  In the 1987 Supreme Court case, McCleskey v. Kemp, the defense team for Warren McCleskey, a convicted murderer from Fulton County, demonstrated the racial bias in death penalty sentencing in Georgia.  The study was conducted by University of Iowa law professor, David C. Baldus.  The Baldus study contended that defendants were disproportionately more likely to receive the death penalty in Georgia if they murdered white victims.  Thus, in Georgia, the Baldus study demonstrated that the sentencing of the defendant was directly related to the race of the victim.

Rightly, McCleskey is often poignantly derided as the ‘Dred Scott decision of our time.’  Writing for the court, Justice Lewis Powell asserted that the petitioner’s conviction could not be overturned based upon on a quantifiable, aggregate study of race and the death penalty.  In a few words, unless the petitioner could prove that racial bias was employed during the sentencing phase in his particular case, the compelling evidence that racial bias is employed, generally, in death penalty sentencing is extraneous and erroneous with regards to this particular defendant.  Although the Baldus study could not save Warren McCleskey, it is important to understand the underpinning racial bias, particularly in the Deep South, inherent to death penalty sentencing.

What’s more, the death penalty, as a legal, political, and penal process, is more expensive than sentencing a defendant to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.  According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the State of Florida could save, on average, $51 million annually by modifying the sentences of all death row inmates to life imprisonment.  Similarly, in Texas, each execution costs the Lone Star State three times the amount it would cost to imprison an inmate for forty years in a maximum security penal institution.

If death penalty abolition among all other developed states, racial bias in sentencing, and shear cost isn’t reason enough to severe our nation’s reliance on capital punishment—twentieth century French philosopher Michel Foucault offers a more metaphysical repudiation of the anachronistic practice.  In his seminal 1975 masterwork, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Foucault contends that the overarching purpose of punishment no longer seeks to chastise the corporal body (via torture and public execution), but the soul (through penal institutionalization.)  To Foucault, human civilization has willfully progressed away from the very public displays of violent executions out of humanitarian concerns.  Not solely out of a concern for the condemned, but also because of concerns for the spectators, the executioner, and the possibility—following a very violent demise—for public sympathy to shift on behalf of the condemned individual.

The death penalty in this country is a multi-faceted, moral, religious, political, ethical, and cultural issue.  Returning to Cain’s query generally—are we truly our brother’s keeper?  Baya Harrison has demonstrated that he is his brother’s keeper.  As has Fr. Lawrence Hummer.  The former fights in our system of courts and law to ensure that each defendant, regardless of their crime or offense against our society is afforded the best possible representation prior to being deprived of life, liberty, or property.  This notion sits at the cornerstone of American jurisprudence; it goes by a rather famous name: due process.  The latter, quite frankly, prepares the condemned to die.  This author cannot imagine some of the crimes perpetrated by those in Fr. Hummer’s prison congregation; nevertheless, as a fellow Catholic, I implicitly recognize that there is no crime against man or God too reprehensible for those men to be deemed beyond redemption.  I believe this is among the most difficult hurdles for death penalty proponents to coalesce behind.

The next question is the most difficult to come to terms with: are John Ruthell Henry, Dennis McGuire, Clayton Lockett, Warren McCleskey, and those like them their brother’s keeper?  God answered Cain, tacitly, that, of course, he is his brother’s keeper—but he is now disgraced, a fugitive consigned to wander the earth.  These murderers were their brother’s keeper, but failed to protect and uphold the dignity of their fellow man.  Nevertheless, because these men spilled blood, does that negate our obligation to them?  For are they not still our brothers, and we their keepers?  This is the double-edged sword of both moral and Christian obligation to each and every fellow man.

On a small British network television interview (that can be found here), Fr. Hummer was pressed by the program’s host if the death of McGuire would give the family of the woman he murdered a sense of closure.  The response by Fr. Hummer noted that, as Christians, closure and understanding can only be found by the grace of God—not through the death of a murderer.  To add charity to Fr. Hummer’s statement, those who rejoice in the death, even of a convicted murderer, are grievously contorting the purpose of capital punishment.  We shouldn’t rejoice in the death of any man, good or bad, moral or immoral.  Remember that the man lying on the gurney in the death chamber is still a human being, with a beating heart, loved ones (likely in the viewing area), and endowed with an undying soul, just like you and I.

Among faith leaders, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, American Baptist Churches USA, the Episcopal Church, the National Council of Churches, the U.S. Presbyterian Church, the United Methodist Church, the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis have all officially expressed their support for the abolition of the death penalty.  Interestingly, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints placates on the issue, claiming it to be a matter confined to state and civil law.  Further, the National Evangelical Association continues to support a narrow usage of capital punishment, and the religious-political organization, the Southern Baptist Convention has largely been ambivalent, though claiming it to be a Biblically-sanctioned act.

To yield to a more austere authority to summarize the intricacies of capital crime and punishment, one can turn to the Gospel of John (more specifically, see John 8:1-11).  In Jerusalem, Jesus ascended the Mount of Olives to reach the temple mount.  There he found a woman, accused of adultery, a capital offense at the time of Christ, and set to be stoned by the men of the community.  The would-be executioners pressed Jesus and asked what they should do, for it is ordered that, under the Law of Moses, this woman should be stoned to death.  Jesus turned to them and instructed, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”—words to consider, particularly when demonizing, marginalizing, or rejoicing in the death of the condemned are practices all too common in modern society; an age marked by treating those consigned to die as if they are not worthy of our care, of our understanding.  Thus, are we, as a people and society, truly our brother’s keeper?

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11 Comments on "Are We Our Brother’s Keeper?"

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  1. Papi says:

    Nicky, you are back;

    Why worry so much about the execution of worthless murdering THUGS? When we allow thousands of INNOCENT BABIES to be murdered through abortion? I’ll share with you my humble opinion, this society tolerates abortions because their is money to be made through them. Why do we worry so much about saving the life of a worthless murdering THUG because there is money to be made by prolonging their worthless life while sitting in prison. It’s all about money, GOD doesn’t fit in the society we are living in. It doesn’t matter what all your religious scholar suggest when it comes to the BIBLE is we either obey it in it’s entirety or we are disobedient sinners there are no in between when obeying GOD. Anyone who tell you different, I would venture to say his name is would be satan!!!

    • Nick Rudnik says:

      Papi,

      I think conflating two very different issues, women’s reproductive rights and state-sanctioned capital punishment, is a fairly reductionist paradox—and quite frankly, rather specious. Personally, I don’t feel it would be productive to delve into women’s reproductive rights with my column. It is a very deep-seated issue with many who hold good-faith views on both sides, thus I don’t think anything I say would bring about a substantive conversation. Further, please note that I abhor that language ‘worthless murdering thugs’ in my piece and contend it has not place in this debate; I also note that many demonize these convicts because they are unwilling to accept these individuals as part of the human family—you’ve proven my point. On God, I’m no expert, although my minor is in religious studies. It seems like you could gain a great deal of insight from Fr. Thomas Merton, the renowned 20th century Catholic monk and mystic in his work, Choosing to Love the World: On Contemplation (http://www.amazon.com/Choosing-Love-World-On-Contemplation/dp/1591798043). It certainly gave me a more compassionate, optimistic, and fuller perspective on life on this planet—I hope it’ll do the same for you.

      Regards,
      -Nick

      • Papi says:

        Nicky,

        The only spiritual guidance that I contemplate for my personal spiritual life is the teaching of the only truth known to man the “Holy Bible”. Outside of that I take the opinions, thoughts and theories of men with a grain of salt. As far as women reproductive organs rights your answer is the biggest white wash answer I have ever heard. Lastly, that you abhor my reference to convicted murderers as worthless THUGS, oh well. That just tells me you never had anyone close to you murderer by a worthless murdering THUG. So the best suggestion I can give you, is get over it. This is the real world we are living in not the Land of Oz. Go back to the BIBLE maybe it will cleanse all that worldly trash that has filter into your mind through the secular studies you have expose yourself too. I will be praying for you!!!

        In Christian love,

        Papi:-)

  2. Jim says:

    We get it Black Conservatives(Thomas)are the devil and murdering babies get no mention in your “moral” quest of correcting our backward ways.

    Can we expect a story on Tim Scott, Mia Love or Col. Allen West next week?

    • Nick Rudnik says:

      Jim,

      Black conservatives are not the devil; those are your words not mine. I’m not going to re-litigate Carson, but my issue is not who he is (an African American conservative), but the substantive policy solutions he offers in his platform. For instance, take his insurance plan (health savings accounts with the government paying each individual $2,000 annually), with the average heart surgery costing over $100,000, that’s not insurance—that’s simply taking away insurance for every American. The $2,000 he’s offering wouldn’t even pay for an individual going to the ER with strep throat. I know that both this editorial and the previous two articles appear to be moral pleas for the soul of this nation, but personally, my politics are what could be described as results-oriented. From that perspective, the death penalty is not fiscally responsible—this point is well understood and has been demonstrated with decades of empirical research. Regarding women’s reproductive rights, please refer to my previous comment to Papi above, and I’ll repeat and reiterate them here: “I think conflating two very different issues, women’s reproductive rights and state-sanctioned capital punishment, is a fairly reductionist paradox—and quite frankly, rather specious. Personally, I don’t feel it would be productive to delve into women’s reproductive rights with my column. It is a very deep-seated issue with many who hold good-faith views on both sides, thus I don’t think anything I say would bring about a substantive conversation.”

      Best,
      -Nick

  3. Baya Harrison says:

    Dear Mr. Rudnik:

    My son sent me your 6/24/14 article regarding the execution of John Henry that went down on 6/18/14 at FSP near Starke, Florida. I deeply appreciate the kind things you said about me. I especially appreciate you pointing out that I support the death penalty in certain cases since I sincerely believe that it can be a deterrent to murder. I wanted you to know the basis for that belief.

    Those of us who represent persons charged with very serious felonies know full well the extent of depravity that humans beings are more than capable of. Without ruining your day, I can with ease tell you and your readers that what John Henry did was utterly horrible but I have seen the files on inexplicably cruel crimes that are even worse.

    Many murders are cowards, and I have had them tell me that they did not kill a child or person who they have cruelly treated because they feared being put to death for it. So when these disgusting individuals know that they can be put to death for their cowardliness, they sometimes don’t take that last step.

    You captured the essence of why I do what I do. I come from a very conservative perspective. I simply do not feel that it should be easy for the government to use force to kill a human being. I want to make sure that the accused receives due process of law. That is what separates us from societies that do not respect individual liberty.

    And I hasten to add that it is young people like you who do much more than I do in an effort to preserve those basic human rights that are so critical to our free county. Without an informed citizenry and a free press, we would all be in chains.

    So don’t get upset if you get slammed by people who think what we do is coddling to criminals. Your critics have every right to be upset. I understand them and feel for them. But if we make it easy to imprison or kill a bad person, think how even easier it would be for the government to do the same to an innocent person.

    Sincerely,

    Baya Harrison
    Monticello, FL 32344

    • Nick Rudnik says:

      Mr. Harrison,

      Thank you for your kind remarks. Your perspective is particularly sobering because it is coming straight from the source. Your outlook is a breath of fresh air, not solely because of your gratuitous statements, but because this is your expertise, this is the work you do each day. I was going to contact you electronically to notify you of this piece, but I see I’ve been beaten to it by your son—it’s great to know my editorials are reaching a broad audience. Please know that I’ve written you formal correspondence thanking you for opining and you should receive a letter in the mail in due time. Again, thank you for your service to you client and to the law.

      Best Regards,
      -Nick

      • Papi says:

        Nicky,

        I was asking a legitimate question. Does this fine man works on this cases pro bono?

  4. D. Miballzich says:

    So we should allow people to sit in prison for heinous acts against others? All while getting medical care, food, entertainment, education, religious counseling all at the expense of people who do have a moral compass and live by the rules of our society? Many of those things that citizens cannot even have with the ease. The biggest problem with the prison/”corrections” system is that it’s no longer a deterrent. The average thug who spends time in and out of the system has no fear because most have it better inside than they do outside. Even those who commit some of the most disgusting acts against their fellow man have the chance to live to a ripe old age either through appealing decisions or just luck of the draw. To hell with religion and it’s interpretation in these matters. The fact is some people are just broken and cannot and should not have the right to walk amongst the rest of us or continue on wasting our dime. Look how many rapists and child molesters get out and go back to their old habits. I think the Death penalty should be expanded to include rapists and child molesters. I also think that in the cases where there is no shadow of doubt that someone acted in cold blooded murder then that person will not wait on Death Row but be taken from the court, and executed within 2 days. Add to that again that persons who DO get to squeeze by and avoid a death penalty crime that they will NOT have access to cable t.v., work out equipment, educational materials, religious, etc and instead be assigned to chain gangs doing the most dangerous, and disgusting labors. Make prison scary again and I guarantee a reduction in crimes. Our prison system and education system are jokes to the rest of the world.

    • Papi says:

      I concur!!!

    • Nick Rudnik says:

      Thanks for opining; however, there are a couple of problems with your argument. First, evidence suggests that when inmates are treated like ‘human beings’ prison conditions improve. Norway has some of the world’s ‘cushiest’ prisons and also has the lowest recidivism rate in Europe (see http://www.theguardian.com/society/2013/feb/25/norwegian-prison-inmates-treated-like-people.) Further, as heinous and terrible the crimes of rape and child molestation are—the government is not permitted to impose a capital sentence on the defendant. This is well pronounced in two Supreme Court cases, Coker v. Georgia (1977) and Kennedy v. Louisiana (2008). Coker applies to the rape of a woman and Kennedy to the rape of a child. Though, I understand why you’re angry at rapists and child molesters, and you have every right to be—there’s simply a legal reality which cannot be ignored. Your final point, “in the cases where there is no shadow of doubt that someone acted in cold blooded murder then that person will not wait on Death Row but be taken from the court, and executed within 2 days.” I’d refer you to Baya Harrison’s comment above. I’ll reprint what he noted: “I simply do not feel that it should be easy for the government to use force to kill a human being. I want to make sure that the accused receives due process of law. That is what separates us from societies that do not respect individual liberty.” The government’s monopoly on violence to maintain order on its own citizens is a paramount power in democratic government. It is truly the collective, the democratic body politic, sanctioning violence against one of our own via our judicial institutions as punishment. This should not be taken lightly and executions take a great deal of time because vigorous representation is that which ensures each right inherent to every defendant was adequately carried out and not abridged. Taking a convict “out back and shooting him” is among the most specious and bloodthirsty arguments offered by death penalty proponents—it is an argument devoid a basic understanding of why our justice system is purposefully unwieldy, particularly in death penalty cases.

      Best Regards,
      -Nick