Justice Is Not Vengeance

This morning the jury in the Parkland mass shooting case returned their decision as to whether the gunman should face the death penalty. He—and I am not going to write his name—will not. Instead, after pleading guilty to 17 counts of murder last year, he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

I could see from the televised proceeding that the families of the victims were visibly upset that he wasn’t going to be executed, and I get it. I can’t imagine losing a loved one to that kind of senseless violence, dealing with the complete disregard the gunman displayed during and after the murders, and not wanting him and his family to pay the same price.

I was relieved though to see that the jury did not return the death penalty as an option. Part of that is because I was raised Roman Catholic, and was taught that it’s wrong to take a life. It’s always seemed in keeping with the teachings of Christ and it made sense to me.

But as I grew older, and moved away from Catholicism, I needed a basis other than religion to ground my opposition to the death penalty. One of the books I read during that time was Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song, his true crime book about the life, crimes, and death of Gary Gilmore. I was struck by Gilmore’s insistence on being executed and not wanting the appeals process to continue. So I kept reading.

The other book I read that really helped me with explaining why I oppose the death penalty was Sister Helen Prejean’s Dead Man Walking. I was familiar with the role of clergy as spiritual advisors to death row inmates but what helped me the most were her conversations with the victim’s family members who themselves opposed the execution of their loved one’s murderer. Conversations like this have stayed with me for decades now:

Lloyd LeBlanc has told me that he would have been content with imprisonment for Patrick Sonnier. He went to the execution, he says not for revenge, but hoping for an apology. Patrick Sonnier had not disappointed him. Before sitting in the electric chair he had said, “Mr. LeBlanc, I want to ask your forgiveness for what me and Eddie done,” and Lloyd LeBlanc had nodded his head, signaling a forgiveness he had already given. He says that when he arrived with sheriff’s deputies there in the cane field to identify his son, he had knelt by his boy — “laying down there with his two little eyes sticking out like bullets” – and prayed the Our Father. And when he came to the words: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” he had not halted or equivocated, and he said, “Whoever did this, I forgive them.”

It’s our popular national opinion that families get closure from these executions, but that’s simply not a hard and fast rule. And when you factor in racism, the willingness to execute people with mental issues and significant cognitive issues, and DNA tests now being used to exonerate people who have been on death row for years and years, I don’t see how the death penalty is constitutional.

As I have gotten older I have also begun to question what interest the state has in various areas where it asserts itself. One area is abortion where I cannot understand what interest the state has in regulating abortion beyond the safety measures that are mandated for other medical procedures. In the same way, I am increasingly concerned, especially as we see the rising tide of authoritarianism in the United States, with what interest the state has in executing prisoners who can be safely and securely incarcerated.

Study after study proves that the death penalty is an ineffective deterrent against capital crimes, and prisons can hold murders so there seems to be no place for state-run executions. (The issues of incarceration, private prisons, the role of incarceration in keeping BIPOC in poverty are other issues that would factor into a much longer post.)

I’m glad to see common sense won the argument among the jury, even if it’s due to just one juror. I’ll close with a great song about forgiveness:

3 thoughts on “Justice Is Not Vengeance

  1. Excellent, excellent post. I completely agree, and the timing for me personally is great because I recently fell down a Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg rabbit hole. I recommend this: https://podcasts.apple.com/mx/podcast/how-do-we-fix-the-harm-we-cause/id1081584611?i=1000581017058

    Two points she brings up, two of many excellent ones, is we demand that the harmed forgive the harmer if the harmer is a particular type of person, and we are overly punitive about a particular type of person if they are the harmer. Not a good way to run a society.

    And we do NOT have to forgive! If the harmer doesn’t do the necessary work, the insistence on forgiving them (like say Harvey Weinstein) only enables more harm. But we also need to give those people the space to take a redemption journey. It’s wonderful stuff.

  2. A few years ago, SueZann Bosler came to the aid of her father Rev. Billy Bosler, who was attacked in his home by a knife-wielding man. Billy died, but SueZann survived to testify against the killer. Being the daughter of a minister in one of the historic peace churches, she had been against capital punishment, and that belief continued even after surviving a murderous attack.

    She had a terrible time at the trial, but that was because the prosecution and the judge refused to allow her to testify during the penalty phase that the killer shouldn’t be executed, and she didn’t want him to be executed. It’s a fascinating story and SueZann is a fascinating woman. One of my takeaways from her story is how hard the state works to secure a death sentence, even when the people most directly affected by a murder don’t want the perpetrator executed. What, indeed, is the state’s interest in seeking the death penalty under that circumstance?

    Watching the coverage last night on NBC, there was a part of me that heard the frustration and anger from the surviving family members and I wanted to say, “Then get a gun and go shoot the killer yourself; don’t depend on the jury to do your dirty work for you.” Not a very charitable or Christian sentiment, I admit.

    1. it’s an understandable sentiment though. it’s difficult to listen to their anger even if their preferred solution may not have given them the closure they seek. grief isn’t linear.

      thank you for the info about SueZann Bosler. i have been reading about her work against the death penalty. there are a lot of truly courageous people in that community.

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