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2006-01-10 Can civilised society kill its own?

For ten years I have been writing twice a week to Eric Nance on Death Row. My postcards, he said, have been a window to the world for him, my letters - a `lifeline'. This year I didn't send him a Christmas card.

 

On November 28th 2005, Eric was executed by the state of Arkansas, by lethal injection. Eric never got a fair trial, never had a DNA test, and yet despite two stays of execution his life had been ended for him. Eric was the 999th prisoner executed since 1976.

 

In California on December 13th, just after midnight, after more than twenty years on Death Row, Stanley "Tookie" Williams was also denied clemency, and killed by Governor Schwarzenegger, who overnight had turned into a real-life "Terminator". Like Pontius Pilate, Arnie washed his hands of the murder. The execution was seriously delayed as it was difficult to find a vein in the prisoner's muscly arms. In 20 years, "Tookie" had changed from being a gang thug to a positively influential anti-violence crusader. "Tookie" had an international following, including Desmond Tutu, as well as several high profile actors and singers. "Tookie" was even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

 

It ought to go without saying that every human being feels deeply for the families of the victims, whose lives have been horribly changed forever. Once the murderer is killed, they say they can put closure on some of the nightmare. But what essentially is the difference between murder by an individual and murder by a state? When is killing ever legal? How can a state be a safer place to live when those who govern it are themselves murderers? The cycle of murder continues. No-one has the right to take another life. The Bible says "An eye for an eye" : it also says "Thou shalt not kill". It is not right for a supposedly civilised society to kill their own people, to say nothing of the double standards of going abroad on `humanitarian' missions, while killing their own at home. Many killers are evil, and ought to be locked away forever, but who are we as a society to play `God'? And what of the innocents who have been executed?

 

One third of those on Death Row are mentally ill. Most inmates are black. The Death Penalty is almost exclusively confined to the southern states, and has been proven to be anything but a deterrent. Texas alone has killed 355 prisoners since 1976.

 

Last September I visited Eric at his prison. For 10 years, I believe I had got to know him extremely well. We shared so much, and helped each other through difficult times. Our conversation through thick glass was as normal as it could be. My friendship with Eric was inspiring and humbling, and put so much of my life into perspective. My last words to Eric were "See you again soon", to which he replied "I hope I am here for you buddy".

 

In the couple of days leading up to an execution, the treatment of a prisoner is nothing short of medieval. Eric's mind and spirit had already been gradually dehumanised. After the difficult final family farewells, Eric was given a final meal of his own choice. He chose cheeseburgers, fries, Coke, and choc-chip cookie-dough ice-cream. The prison guards lined the corridor, as Eric walked past in leg shackles towards the Execution Chamber. One guard shouted, as always, "Dead Man Walking". Eric was laid on a gurney, strapped in, needles inserted, then raised to the Viewing Gallery, lowered, and murdered - a pre-meditated murder!

The following morning, Eric's Mom collected her son's body, and had it cremated. At Christmas his Mom, daughter, grand-daughter, brother and five sisters will scatter his ashes on his favourite lake.

 

Governor Huckabee said he had given Eric's case `prayerful consideration'. As a chuch-goer, I wonder if the Governor's Christmas prayers were any different. Did he ask for forgiveness for assuming the role of God a month previously? As he shaves in the morning, does he see a murderer in the mirror? Does he fear the highest court of all on Judgement Day?

 

Whoever is pro-Death Penalty must be willing to press that button. For me, I am taking a break from "Lifelines" now - angry and disillusioned with our `civilised world' - but more anti-Death Penalty than ever.