Rusty Nelson on Peace & War

I believe you know that support for capital punishment in this country: is diminishing; was only a foot deep when it was a mile wide; is based upon fear and ignorance rather than common sense or justice, and; is always weakened when executions are honestly examined as factors in the cycle of violence in our communities and institutions.

You should also know that Gov. Inslee’s moratorium on executions is little comfort to the men on our death row in Walla Walla, who believe they are likely to be killed when a new governor takes office. Believing this is a splendid time to ban the death penalty and that public enlightenment is the best way forward, the Inland Northwest Death Penalty Abolition Group wants Spokane to see its new production of The Exonerated on November 21 or 22, at Gonzaga University. The Center for Justice produced two performances of The Exonerated, five years ago at the Civic Theatre, and is co-sponsoring this show, which will, again, be directed by Bryan Harniteaux, Spokane’s attorney/playwright.

The play is a staged reading of the stories of six persons who survived unjust death sentences. Their own words tell how innocent people spent from two to 22 years on death row. Some of think of one of these exonerees as a friend, because Sunny Jacobs came to Spokane and shared her story, years before being interviewed for the play, and we revel in the recent news that Sunny is living in Ireland, having married a man who was, himself, unjustly sentenced to death and subsequently exonerated in the United Kingdom.

Sunny’s connection to PJALS predated her exoneration. While she was the solitary woman on death row, her mate, Jesse Taferro, was electrocuted by Florida, in a fashion that makes recent travesties of lethal injection appear benign. As editor of the Handful of Salt, I put Taferro’s picture on the cover and told how this probably-innocent man was tortured to death over a three hour period. His immolation ultimately helped put an end to the electric chair, but it did not end torturing people to death in the name of justice. Perhaps it brought more attention to Sunny’s case, for she was finally released after being incarcerated from 1976 to 1992. She was exonerated, but no apology was offered for the gruesome death of the man with whom she had shared life and hope and unjust murder charges, or for taking away her children for the formative years of their lives, or for holding her in a dungeon as her parents were buried after dying in a plane crash.

People have asked Nancy and me how we staffed PJALS for so long without winning more of our struggles. We reply that we learned how to celebrate small victories and how to appreciate avoiding possible disasters. We also benefitted from time with people like Sunny Jacobs, who was anxious to tell her story and determined to help end the hideous history of capital punishment, but steadfastly refrained from hating the individuals who maintain the machinery of death.

Even today, overwhelmed by terrible news from around the world, we find inspiration in the lives that have been reclaimed from death row. It’s not victory over the anachronistic system of capital punishment, yet, but it is refreshment in the struggle against institutional evil.

Speaking of terrible news, like massacres in Gaza, Syria, and Iraq; Russian and Ukrainian violence, including the revolting destruction of a civilian airliner; continuing US spying and drone killings and endless wars, and; racial tensions bursting in a St. Louis suburb after an inexplicable police shooting: I’m not suggesting we should be more concerned about the few innocent Americans sentenced to death or executed each year than we are about thousands of innocent Gazans, Syrians, and Ukranians being killed by war, terrorism, or unnamed violence. In fact, it’s time to confess that our peculiar culture of legal murder is a contributing factor in senseless deaths, from Somalia to Colombia. From Spokane to Ferguson, Missouri.

What was the national news from Missouri before Michael Brown was killed by Officer Darren Wilson? The state proudly moved ahead with its secret source of pentobarbital and executed a man on August 5. Michael Worthington, who spent almost 20 years on death row, was the first prisoner lethally injected since the botched Arizona execution and the 7th to be executed in Missouri, this year.

Gov. Jay Nixon, who can’t understand why people in his state can be so violent when a white cop shoots an unarmed, black teenager, is setting a record pace with his pet death chamber. In March, he executed a prisoner named Ferguson. Strictly coincidence, of course, but I wonder if he remembers that name as the world watches Ferguson, Missouri along with Middle Eastern communities which are more accustomed to military maneuvers in their streets. Jeffry Ferguson was killed for a gruesome crime dating to 1989. Nixon is a former prosecutor and a big fan of capital punishment and would think it foolish of me to believe that threatening to kill a man for 25 years is a violation of the 8th Amendment, no matter how you finally end his life.

I can’t claim that Wilson shot Brown six times because he was inspired by his state’s modeling of a lethal response to its fears, but I can show you documentation of increased violence following executions in virtually every state that uses capital punishment, including Washington. Yes, killing prisoners to make the people of the state safer is not only stupid and extravagant, it’s counter-productive. Look at the other two states with seven executions this year. Florida and Texas. How is it that they remain leading states for violent crime? How is it that the last developed country in the West to allow capital punishment, cannot disentangle itself from messy little wars, wean itself from reliance upon violence, or find enough space in its burgeoning prisons?

Even you and I who hate violence and homicide, are caught in the cycle of violence, trapped in a culture unwilling to move beyond the most primitive forms of security and conflict resolution. We are offered choices between supporting our troops or hating our country, between killing criminals or coddling them, between candidates who will go to war recklessly or effectively.

Officials in executing states will tell you they are against killing innocent people, but when they are put on the spot, they go into denial that it could happen or fiddle with the definition of “innocent.” When work on The Exonerated began, 89 condemned persons had been exonerated in the U.S. Today, the Death Penalty Information Center’s list includes 144, including Benjamin Harrison from Washington. Dozens of other condemned prisoners have been released without being formally exonerated. Hundreds more await new DNA testing, new evidence to show their innocence. We know of wrongful executions since reinstatement, but tremble at the thought of those hanged, electrocuted, or shot after sloppy investigations and bad trials. Help us make this historic play a success and this lynchpin of the cycle of violence a relic of history. –R.N.