Sunday, 3 August 2008

Time to end the death penalty's cycle of violence

Texas’ death chamber is at the Walls Unit, in downtown Huntsville. The so-called Death House is at the far left of the building near the guard tower. Star-Telegram/Rodger Mallison

By RONALD CARLSON Special to the Star-Telegram

June 13, 1983, and Feb. 3, 1998, are two days that will forever be etched in my memory.

On that fateful day in June, I lost my dear sister, Deborah Thornton, senselessly murdered along with her friend Jerry Lynn Dean.

Fifteen years later, I witnessed another senseless act of violence: the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, the woman condemned for the crime.

Before I lost my sister, I had no opinion on the death penalty. But Deborah’s tragic death made the question of capital punishment a painfully personal one. When I learned of the murder of my only sibling, who had helped raise me after our mother died, I was filled with hatred. I would have killed those responsible with my own hands if given the opportunity.

But when I learned that those responsible — Karla Faye and her friend Daniel Garrett — were in fact facing death sentences, I was uncertain that justice was being served.

I’ve since had 25 years — almost half my life — to examine the subject, and the conclusion I’ve come to is a clear one: We as a society should not be involved in the practice of killing people.

Wanting to see those who killed your loved ones suffer the same fate is understandable — no one can sit in judgment of those who have faced such loss — but our justice system should not be dictated by vengeance. As a society, shouldn’t we be more civilized than the murderers we condemn?

Finding faith is what led me to this conviction and helped me confront my pain and anger.

Turning to God enabled me to realize that, while lashing out might satisfy our instinctual desire for revenge, we as a society must strive not to indulge those desires. Jesus preached the need to love one another and the sanctity of life — all life, no exceptions, no asterisks to the rule.

What could be a more egregious violation of his teachings than the state executing its own citizens in retribution?

The death penalty does nothing more than continue the cycle of violence that is corroding our society.

I have stood more than one time with Death Row families as they prepared to watch their loved ones head to the execution chamber. The pain that they feel is no different from the pain that I felt for my sister. When we engage in the practice of capital punishment, we force more people to suffer through the tragic loss I had to endure. We simply create more victims — victims of the very criminal justice system meant to protect us.

The broken nature of this system makes the practice of capital punishment all the more unconscionable. From inadequate counsel to the staggering number of wrongful convictions, it is morally deplorable to continue with the death penalty while these problems persist. Daniel died in prison before his execution could be carried out, but I was present at the execution of Karla Faye as a witness on her behalf. It was one of the most highly publicized executions in Texas history.

Karla Faye’s religious conversion while on Death Row had led many, including Pope John Paul II, to express support for clemency, but it was to no avail. Watching the execution left me with horror and emptiness, confirming what I had already come to realize: Capital punishment only continues the violence that has a powerful, corrosive effect on society.

While many advocated sparing Karla Faye’s life because of her redemption story, I consider myself an advocate for all life — and an opponent of all killing, whether it be the murder of innocent victims or the execution of the condemned.

As I watched Karla Faye die, all I could think was this: I can’t see Jesus pulling the switch.

Ronald Carlson lives in Houston and is an advocate against the death penalty.

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