Cover Story

Dead seriousness

"Dead seriousness" Continued...

Issue: "Rethinking the death penalty," Oct. 19, 2013

A good day for Mendez is “when I can work in the fields. That’s the only time I get to taste, smell, see the outside—and when it’s 90 degrees you get three water breaks.” A good day is also “when I can watch Law and Order. They all want to watch Jerry Springer.” Mendez got in trouble in July for cussing at a guard and had, he says, a good week in solitary: “No mattress, two sheets, lying on the floor, they bring meals to you. They gave me two pens, 20 sheets of paper, and 20 envelopes.”

Other than those breaks from routine, Mendez feels he’s “living inside a nightmare and can’t wake up. I’m gonna die here and that will be a good day.”

BARBARIC?: A protest against the execution of Kimberly McCarthy outside the Huntsville Unit, where the death chamber is located, in Huntsville, Texas.
Associated Press/Photo by David J. Phillip
BARBARIC?: A protest against the execution of Kimberly McCarthy outside the Huntsville Unit, where the death chamber is located, in Huntsville, Texas.
CELL CYCLE: A prisoner in his death row cell at Huntsville.
Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis/AP
CELL CYCLE: A prisoner in his death row cell at Huntsville.
DEATH WALK: Officers bring a prisoner to his cell at Ellis Unit in Huntsville.
Associated Press/Photo by Brett Coomer
DEATH WALK: Officers bring a prisoner to his cell at Ellis Unit in Huntsville.
DEATH WALK: Texas has about 450 prisoners on death row. A death row cell in the Terrell Unit near Livingston, Texas.
Per-Anders Pettersson/Getty Images
DEATH WALK: Texas has about 450 prisoners on death row. A death row cell in the Terrell Unit near Livingston, Texas.

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OPPONENTS OF CAPITAL PUNISHMENT note that God told Adam he would surely die if he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Since that did not happen physically, some interpret the death as spiritual, but others point to the exile from Eden as an alternative death when compared to the life Adam could have had. Repeatedly in the Bible, the formal punishment of death gives way to the actual punishment of excommunication—and God declares in Ezekiel 33:11, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live.”

God often in Scripture not only tells but shows—yet He provides zero examples of killers receiving death penalties. Cain expected to die after murdering Abel, but God instead gave him a life sentence of exile. Simeon and Levi killed all the males of a city and lived on, but under their father’s curse. Moses murdered an Egyptian and spent 40 years in the wilderness. David conspired to kill Uriah the Hittite and lived with the shame of that and many family repercussions, including at least three dead sons.

Oddly, the one time we see the biblical demand for two or more witnesses followed, the right process leads to an unjust result. As chapter 21 of 1 Kings relates, King Ahab coveted Naboth’s vineyard so Queen Jezebel commanded elders to “proclaim a fast, and set Naboth at the head of the people. And set two worthless men opposite him, and let them bring a charge against him, saying, ‘You have cursed God and the king.’ Then take him out and stone him to death. And the men of his city, the elders and the leaders who lived in his city, did as Jezebel had sent word to them.”

CHRISTOPHER QUIROZ, 36, also entered prison at age 17. He and his uncle, Jesus Aguilar (executed in 2006), had murdered two people in a drug smuggling feud, but Quiroz because of his age at the time of the crime is in for life. He lives with his Wynne Unit cellmate in a 5-by-9 cell with a metal sink, a toilet, and a thin mattress with a built-in pillow on a metal bunk. For our interview, he got a chance to sit in a prison guard’s office and reflect, “I’ve been here since I was a kid. There’s no point living in prison, it’s dead time. I don’t want to get old in here. They can kill me and I’ll donate an organ.”

Jean Paul Sartre famously wrote that “hell is others,” and Quiroz would second that: “Can’t trust nobody here. … You either stay down or you’re gonna ride underneath somebody. … A lot of sick people here. Dudes like to jack off in front of a female officer. … Last night two cellies got in a fight. Pepper spray everywhere. … I live off the land. … Wash clothes for people. Two soups for a shirt, two for pants. … I get privacy on the toilet by using popsicle sticks to rig a little curtain. The guards let us get away with it as long as you move a hand to show you’re still there and still alive. … Most of the time I’d just as soon be dead.”

JESUS WAS CLEARLY citing Scripture when Matthew 5:38-39 quotes Him saying, “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 the one who is evil.” It may seem that Jesus was opposing the Old Testament and asserting a new pacifist doctrine, but the tip-off is Jesus’ speech itself: He said, “You have heard” rather than “it is written.” Jesus customarily used the former when He referred to rabbinical interpretations not necessarily justified by Scripture, but the latter when He cited the Bible (as in the previous chapter of Matthew, while turning aside Satan’s temptations).

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