Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A personal reflection on the death penalty

Before you read this, please understand that this is a very personal reflection about a very difficult and politicized topic: the death penalty. The views here are mine, and mine alone. I speak for no one but myself.

And I am not talking about politics, not here, not this time.

Please also know that my descriptions are graphic. They reflect my experience about people very dear to me.

This is long. Please forgive the length.

I am writing this because I need to write it.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, I was a newspaper reporter in Riverside, a town east of Los Angeles where great beauty and great ugliness sit side-by-side.

In the considered opinion of those of us who lived and worked there, Riverside was the murder capital of Southern California. It wasn’t just in the high murder rate; it was in the endlessly cruel ways that human beings found to kill other human beings in Riverside.

And I saw it all. My beat was the courthouse, and I covered more murder scenes, murder suspects and murder trials than I can now remember. Some of my work eventually became subject of a chapter in a 1984 book, Killings, by Calvin Trillin, a writer with The New Yorker. That we will save for another day.

In those years, the Riverside courthouse crowd congregated every morning at the Wagon Wheel, a dingy dump of a coffee shop across the street from the ornate Riverside County courthouse (photo above). Cops, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and the reporter from The Press-Enterprise – me – would share a cup of stale coffee before heading into the courthouse or out onto the streets for our daily dose of mayhem. I could dependably plan my day based on the tips I’d pick up at the Wagon Wheel in the morning.

Later, after I had filed my story for the day, those of us in the courthouse crowd who were single – which were most of us – would down a few beers before going home. This was my life every day for six years, with time off for vacations and a brief and unhappy stint covering City Hall. I was part of a very tight-knit courthouse community and I loved it.

We had a judge in those years, Roland Wilson, who was tough as nails. He was not universally liked, but he was universally respected. When Judge Wilson meted out the death penalty, he delivered what became known as “Roland’s Rolaids speech.”

It went something like this: “The night you are put to death, I will not have to take a Rolaids.”

If you had asked me about the death penalty in those years, I would have told you that I was against capital punishment based on my Christian principles. But deep down inside, I have to admit, there were some frighteningly horrible people who came through my courthouse about whom I had to agree with Judge Wilson: On the night they were dispatched from this earth, I would not have to take a Rolaids. And the sooner they went, the better.

One of the regulars at the Wagon Wheel was Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputy Jim Evans, a lanky red-headed cop who was well liked by everyone (photo at right). He had been an Army lieutenant and Green Beret in Vietnam, but Deputy Evans was best known for helping kids who were confused or headed for trouble. He had been a mentor to the son of my managing editor. No one was better liked at the Wagon Wheel than Jim Evans.

When Deputy Evans was gunned down in a ferocious firefight on May 9, 1980, everyone at the coffee shop was in a state of shock or fury or both. On that day, five “survivalists” robbed a bank in Norco, a usually quiet little suburban town a few miles south of Riverside. They believed that the eruption of Mt. St. Helens signaled Armageddon (after all, it said so in the Bible), and they needed to stock up on provisions.

The robbers commandeered a utility truck and a chaotic chase ensued across two counties. The robbers shot up 30 police cars, wounding several officers, and shot down a police helicopter. I jumped into a car with a news photographer, and we got into the chase. The melee ended in the San Gabriel Mountains, 30 miles from the bank.

On a narrow mountain road, Evans was overpowered by the robbers wielding military assault rifles. He saved at least two other officers before he was coldly gunned down. In the battle, two of the five robbers were killed. The three surviving suspects were arrested a day later, bedraggled and wandering in the mountains. They became known as the “Norco 3,” named for the town where they had robbed the bank.

If you had polled the regulars at the Wagon Wheel, the vast majority -- even the defense attorneys -- would have favored executing the three bank robbers. There was no question the district attorney would seek the death penalty against all three. Not surprisingly the trial was moved out of the county; I spent a year of my life on the road covering the trial, taking turns in the courtroom with another P-E reporter, Bob Labarre. I was even called as a witness, took the stand and came close to being jailed for refusing to disclose sources and unpublished notes.

The three bank robbers were eventually convicted of murder, but the jury hung up in the penalty phase. When the Norco 3 avoided the death penalty, and were instead sentenced to life with no possibility of parole, there was a deep sense among the courthouse crowd that justice had been cheated. The three murderers, by the way, are still in prison and certainly will never be released in this life.

I moved away from Southern California 25 years ago, and I have rarely been in a courtroom since. Much has happened in my life in the intervening years including becoming an Episcopal priest.

It’s been 30 years since Jim Evans caught a bullet in his eye, and lately my thoughts have returned to him and the events that took his life. I’ve wondered if there’s been any closure for his family, or his buddies, or anyone whose life was turned upside down on that day in May 1980.

Recently I had occasion to be back in a criminal courtroom, and it was a difficult experience. I went with Lori to Sacramento County Superior Court for the sentencing of two young men who were convicted of robbing, torturing and murdering a friend of ours, Jim Arthur, who was only 23-years-old (photo at right). We had known Jim since he was a small boy and saw him grow into a wonderful young man and artist.

I had gotten to know the Arthur family when I moved to Sacramento in 1985. Jim's dad, Jeff (now deceased), was the chief aide to state Senator Bob Presley of Riverside, who had been the undersheriff of Riverside County before he was elected to the Legislature. The Arthur family introduced me to Trinity Cathedral in Sacramento. In a way, it was that Riverside courthouse connection that got me back into the Church.

A year ago, Jim Arthur befriended a young couple, Jeremy Ackerman and Nadine Klein, and allowed them to hang out at his mother’s house for a few days while she was out of the country. His guests decided to rob him of his video games to fence for drugs.

They brought another friend to help with the robbery, a sociopath by the name of Jonathan Baker. When Baker learned our friend Jim was gay, he went berserk. Jim was bludgeoned, tied up and stabbed 140 times. The others joined in the carnage and left him to die in his mother’s basement. They were caught a few days later, their bragging to friends and text messages betraying them.

Jim Arthur’s mother, my dear friend, Anne, sat through the entire trial. The only testimony she skipped was the gruesome autopsy report. Many of her family and friends – our friends – sat with her through many agonizing weeks of testimony.

If anyone ever deserved the death penalty, it would be his murderers: Jonathan Baker, Jeremy Ackerman and Nadine Klein.

On July 1, the day we went to court, Baker (photo at right) and Ackerman were sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole (a jury had hung up on Nadine Klein, and she will face a second trial in September).

Life-with-no-parole was the strongest possible sentence because the prosecution did not seek the death penalty. No one connected with the case wanted to invoke the death penalty.

Yet in seeing these murderers in the courtroom, I again had to ask myself what I think about the death penalty. My thoughts turned to my friends of so many years, those near and far away. Old feelings about Deputy Evans welled up inside me.

Anne courageously addressed the court. She looked into the faces of her son’s murderers. Baker smirked; Ackerman looked sick. Anne never broke down. She told the judge how her life has been devastated by the death of her youngest son. Yet she also spoke of how she grieves for the families of the murderers – and grieves for the murderers themselves. There was not a vengeful word from her lips. Later, outside in the hallway, she hugged the mother of one of her son's murderers.

The judge, Stephen White, himself a former District Attorney and veteran prosecutor in dozens of murder cases, remarked about how impressed he was at her courage and calmness, and the calmness of her friends. The judge said he had never witnessed such serenity from crime victims in his courtroom. There would be no Rolaids speech that day.

It struck me in that moment that these murderers no longer had an ounce of power over Anne, or an ounce of power over her family or any of us, her friends. They could smirk, or look sick, but they were powerless. They were now men in orange jump suits in handcuffs headed to the Joint for the rest of their natural lives.

The idea that the death of these individuals would somehow bring “closure” was ludicrous. To grant them the idea that their deaths would bring closure would be to give them a power they should not have. To allow the death of these killers to be the measure of our own closure is to give them a privilege they do not deserve.

Death is too easy an out for them.

My sense of life after death brings me there. I am convinced that this life is not all that there is, that death is only horizon over which we cannot yet see. Those we love who are gone from us are just beyond the horizon, but they are very close to us. I preach that at funerals, and I believe that to the depth of my soul.

I believe Jim is in a place of healing, where his wounds are swept away and his spirit is renewed. I don’t think Jim’s murderers deserve to be in the same place, at least not yet. They do not deserve the easy closure of their own death. They should be looking at the walls of a steel-and-concrete cell. They ought to wait a good long while before going beyond the horizon to wherever God will take them. I believe we should leave their lives and what comes next entirely to God alone.

There is another reason to allow them to live in prison.

By letting them live, we break the chain of death. We declare that death is not the solution to our grief, that death no longer has power over us, that death cannot represent “justice.”

Death represents only death.

Death is the enemy. As the apostle Paul proclaims (1 Corinthians 15:26), “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.”

Can we believe that enough to live? Can we believe that long enough to let others live and break the cycle of murder and death?

Death has many cruel weapons. Maybe the cruelest of all is the thick wall death erects for the living. We cannot see over that wall to the other side, though we get hints of it if we look. Death spawns a resignation that there is nothing on the other side of that wall. Death breeds futility, and that futility paralyzes us into inaction and despair in this life, and then without realizing it we are co-opted by death. If we let it, death robs us of life before we die.

We need to stop cooperating with death. We need to stop seeing death as a solution to that which hurts us. We may not be able to break the chain of death everywhere, but we can try where we can. Death is a cancer, not a cure. We need to see over the wall: “We will not all die but we will be changed in the twinkling of an eye,” says Paul (1 Corinthians 15:51-52).

We can start by saying no to the death penalty. Today is not a good day to die. Today is a good day to live.

Photographs by The Press-Enterprise of Riverside County, and The Sacramento Bee.


Walt Wiley said...

Jim, this is powerful. Wonderful.

-- Walt Wiley

Janice Dean said...

Amen. Thank you for sharing, Jim. I was talking with a friend yesterday about how, to me, "turning the other cheek" doesn't mean not defending oneself, but rather means breaking the cycle of violence--taking the power away from those who would perpetrate violence. I hear deep, resonant echoes of that in your reflection, and I am grateful for your eloquence and honesty.

GLJ said...

Jim, Thank you for your time and reflection that went into this piece. It is a difficult result, but the right one.

Ilana DeBare said...

Powerful and profound.

Perhaps the only thing I would argue with is the concept that
"death is the enemy."

In the context of what you're writing about, that certainly makes sense.

But in other contexts, I think we may do too much to fight death. I think about this with advances in medicine that are allowing us to live longer and longer -- advances in genetics that may, within the next century, produce something close to immortality.

Humankind has been fighting death for millennia, and maybe we are getting close to defeating it.

But what would that mean for future generations? for our planet? If every human alive today were to be granted immortality, what would be left for the next generation to do?

Death can be a friend when it makes room for new life, new ideas, new creations.

But that is really far afield from the death penalty and death as an attempt to punish, avenge or bring justice.

Zeno said...

While I do not share your faith that there is something "over the horizon," breaking the chain of death in the here and now is a worthwhile endeavor. It has too much power over us and you rightly point out how the quest for "closure" is specious. I doubt that I would have the strength of character to act as the victim's mother did in this instance, but she denied the killers of her son the satisfaction of having reduced other people to would-be killers. The murderers can sit in confusion and helplessness in prison for the rest of their unnatural lives.

George said...

Jim, I think I'm close to your view on this, certainly on a theological level. Additionally I think we have to balance the cost to the people of the death penalty--appeals, and all, vs. the cost of lifetime incarceration. This brings me back to when I spent two years in law school (before work became more demanding and I was unable to continue). I interviewed with the public defender for an internship. Part of the process was an interview with one of his subordinates, Christie Warren, who asked what I thought of the death penalty. I replied that if we could be 100% certain that the conviction was accurate, and that the death penalty was carried out in an expeditious manner, I would be in favor of it as it would likely serve as a deterrent to further abhorrent criminal behavior. (Didn't get the job.) Unfortunately, in California, being sentenced to death, the reality is that you are much more likely to die in prison before being executed, living in much nicer surroundings than the general prison population, and costing perhaps millions in public funds in the process. Thus the deterrent argument doesn't work. Therefore, for both moral and practical (fiscal) reasons, I'm in your camp on this one. Anne, we're all praying for you and support you.

Anonymous said...

A powerful reflection, Jim.

My thoughts are very much like yours about the death penalty. However, I could not have expressed them so eloquently.

When I was a therapist working on a crisis team I worked with a mom whose two son's were killed by gang members. I felt very fortunate to minister to her during this time. Telling your story helped me put words to mine, plus remember something I had filed away. Thanks.

Barb Chandler said...

A powerful reflection, Jim.

My thoughts are very much like yours about the death penalty. However, I could not have expressed them so eloquently.

When I was a therapist working on a crisis team I worked with a mom whose two son's were killed by gang members. I felt very fortunate to minister to her during this time. Telling your story helped me put words to mine, plus remember something I had filed away. Thanks.

Barb Chandler said...

A powerful reflection, Jim.

My thoughts are very much like yours about the death penalty. However, I could not have expressed them so eloquently.

When I was a therapist working on a crisis team I worked with a mom whose two son's were killed by gang members. I felt very fortunate to minister to her during this time. Telling your story helped me put words to mine, plus remember something I had filed away. Thanks.

Christian Roberts said...

Thank you, Jim, for sharing this experience so honestly. I am struck by the power of forgiveness - that without it, death would have had the last word. The victim's mother showed courage and strength of character that must have come from the heart. What a lesson for us all.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jim,

Terrific piece; what a way to start my Sunday morning. First it got me nostalgic for the old days of being a reporter in Riverside and Palm Springs.

Second, I somehow thought you were going to come out in favor of the death penalty so when you didn't, that twist in the post to me felt like a mix of O. Henry and M. Night Shyamalan.

What felt most powerful to me was the idea that Anne had the inner strength, sagacity and serenity to act the way she did and thus, as you pointed out, take the power away from the killers.

A lot here. Wonderful writing, thought-provoking ideas and a reminder to me about the infinite rewards (and interesting twists and turns) available to those who take the high road.