Thursday, September 22, 2011

My Brush with the Death Penalty

The death penalty is all over the news.  I won’t comment on any case; I don’t know that much about them, BUT –

On CNN last night as a crowd awaited the execution Anderson Cooper commented on how a sizeable detachment of the Georgia State Police were ready to repel anyone who tried to cause any violence or try to get into the prison.   So it’s like “Let’s kill anyone who tries to stop this killing.”  And “Let’s keep everyone out of the prison.”  OK.

When I was Presbytery Exec in west central Illinois I was secretary to the Illinois Conference of Churches.  In ‘98 - ‘01 we were able to present a united front to the state for postponing all executions until the guilt or innocence of those sentenced to death was clearly established.  There had been several cases where newly applied DNA evidence clearly showed that the sentenced were innocent. We could not ask for more because we were divided on the basic issue of the legitimacy of the death penalty.  (Apparently, the death of Jesus by execution wasn’t offensive enough. Must have been that the Romans were justified in crucifying him.)
Finally, then Governor George Ryan halted all executions pending determination of guilt.  So we sought an appointment with him to thank him for this (sort of) courageous stand.  (Certainly was, compared to Gov. Rick Perry!)  So here is a picture of us because his staff insisted on a photo op with everyone who came in.  

I regret that I can not name very many of my then colleagues in the photo.  (I am to the right of the Governor, the two of us sons of Ireland.) This meeting had bizarre qualities.  We were all seated around a large conference table and then George entered.  He stopped and looked across the table to the Greek Orthodox priest, third from the right.  Apparently they had encountered each other before, cause George pointed at him and said forcefully:  “You!  Not one word out of you!”  We were stunned.  But our leader, David Anderson, second from left, ever the diplomat, announced that we thanked the governor for the appointment and that we were there to thank him profusely for his delay of the executions.

The Gov responded gruffly: “Don’t any of you get any idea that I am opposed to the death penalty.  I have not said that.”  David smoothed his feathers and even spoke about how we celebrated growth in our beliefs.  The picture was taken and we left.

Later, George did grow.  The number of challenges and innocents on death row had multiplied.  He granted clemency to all on death row in 2003.  Even later, George went to prison for being too much the politician, selling trucker permits for cash contributions to his campaign, as I remember. 

He needed Saul Goodman, the amoral attorney from “Breaking Bad”on AMC.  (Saul is Irish,too, but he says “Who wants an Irish lawyer.  People want a Jewish lawyer.”) Saul would understand Gov. Ryan.  Saul says “Not all crimes are committed by bad people.”  And “Not all evil people are bad.”  Or maybe it’s the other way around.  Gandhi gets the last word: “An eye for an eye makes the world blind.”

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