As we stop here on this holy ground, we remember the Passion and Death of our Lord Jesus Christ. We try to imagine the horror and atrocity of seeing a man be put to death in such a gruesome, agonizing method. We can barely stand the thought of the Son of God, our Redeemer, suffering with such intense torture of body, mind, and spirit.
There are many who say they follow Christ, and yet see Him only as the Risen Lord and forget that his brutal death was the same capital punishment that we have today. Still as arbitrary, still as mind-numbingly cruel.
Some Christians continue to quote the Book of Exodus, from the Old Testament, when talking about punishment for crime; what I hope they would quote instead are the words of the Savior of the world who brought us a New Covenant… Jesus said, according to Matthew, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also… You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have…? Be merciful, therefore, as your heavenly Father is merciful.’
In this city, there are 137 men and women sentenced to die, because they are considered the ‘worst of the worst.’ Out of these incarcerated on death row, almost 62 percent are people of color. Our Southern states prove over and over that racism is inseparable from capital punishment. The death penalty is rooted deeply in slavery and in lynchings of Black men. White vigilante-ism persists probably daily in one form or another, and the race of the victim (namely, white) is taken into consideration where justice should be blind.
Our nation, along with North Carolina, lives by archaic rules and often questionable ethics, especially concerning capital punishment. What makes us think that our government has the final word on whether someone lives or dies? Why do we keep allowing our government this right? How can we continue to bring capital cases to our courtrooms when we KNOW that potential jurors are being asked questions that will eliminate them by the prosecution… because the person happens to be a Black female or a Roman Catholic? Is it justice when a jury is chosen that will weigh-in heavily on the side of a death sentence? Why does one co-defendant get a life sentence while the other gets death? Is this fair and impartial? Do we have a criminal JUSTICE system or barely a criminal legal system?
When people say that the death penalty is a deterrent to crime, the numbers dispute this theory: Crime rates are higher in the states that still have capital punishment on their books. These facts are easy to check.
When some proclaim that it’s cheaper to put a person to death, I want to say, “Do your homework, and you’ll find out it costs more for a capital trial than for non-capital cases – sometimes millions of dollars more.” A Duke University study showed the death penalty costs North Carolina over two million dollars more per execution than the cost of sentencing murderers to life imprisonment. Most of these costs occur at the trial level. The money saved could be used for rehabilitation, education, and restorative programming for those incarcerated.
So why do we, as Sr. Helen Prejean says, “Keep killing the killers – in the name of justice in the name of peace”? Why don’t those who call the men and women on death row “predators” see that, as Albert Camus once wrote “The death penalty is the MOST premeditated of all murders.”? And I ask you, when another child of God is put to death by poisonous injection or by electricity or by firing squad, do you in fact feel safer that night when you tuck in your children and turn off the lights?
As I ask you these questions though, let us pause to think of the survivors of homicides. How DO they find a sense of safety and peace? Will they find it in the continuation of the cycle of death or by seeking a culture of life? As Jesus prayed Psalm 22 from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…?” I offer a portion from Psalm 34 now – for the survivors:
“The LORD is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves. Many are the troubles of the just person, but out of them all, the Lord delivers him…”
I can’t help but wonder too what Jesus’ Blessed Mother prayed as she watched her son’s homicide take place before her eyes. How could she know that the cross, on which her Son was murdered, would become a tree of Life one day…
Isn’t it ironic that all 405 death certificates of those executed at Central Prison state their Cause of Death as “Homicide”? Coroners recognize it as such, why can’t enough Americans? When will we vote in a way that will remove our name from the unenviable list of nations that still have the death penalty – fifth in line after China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia… and us – the United States?
The men in Unit 3 at Central became authentically more human, in a new way to me in 2019, when I began to write to one of them. I enjoyed reading his fine cursive handwriting and knowing that he too liked to drink coffee, he told me how he got his nickname from playing basketball, that he loves listening to Adele on his radio, reads history books over and over, and worries about his family and friends… I’ve written to others as well. They, in turn, have sent me cards and thank you notes with blessings. These men share their dreams and their faith in God or A-llah. They can be so amazingly vulnerable at times that it takes my breath away. When I told one of the guys I was going to sing outside Central on Christmas morning this past year, he wrote a text saying, “It’s going to be extremely cold. Be sure you dress in layers!”
These men are not monsters or any other pejorative. These are young and older men, with deep wounds, now scarred over from lives of neglect, anger, abuse, poverty, and addictions. Their scars have created the men they are today – not perfect, BUT, like you and me – forgiven. They are more than the worst day of their lives or the worst thing they’ve ever done! They came into this world, created by the same loving Father who created us, saved by the same merciful Savior who died for us, and sanctified by the Holy Spirit that breathes life and goodness into every baby ever born. We must work to save their lives. Redemption is possible; no human being has the right to take that opportunity from them or from anyone else. Let’s end the death penalty in North Carolina before the state can take anyone else’s life before its time…
I’ll close now with this last thought: Almost four years ago, Patrick O’Neill, who’s with us today, said something unforgettable to those of us gathered here to sing on Christmas morning while pointing toward the prison. He told us, “If you can love these men, you can love anyone.” A simple statement that affected me profoundly. I have thought of those words every time I disagreed with someone’s ideology, opinion, political views, or bad behavior – and I’ve been set free by that simple statement! We are all called, in our Catholic Christian hearts, to love the men inside those walls, as the wounded and broken children of God that they are. I see redemption IS possible, and my constant prayer is for the saving of their lives, the salvation of their souls, and the abolition of the death penalty.
God bless you for being here today. Amen.