Cover Story

Dead seriousness

"Dead seriousness" Continued...

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

Scholars debate another hard question: Are the later “eye for an eye” prescriptions literal requirements or limiting devices? (No more than an eye for an eye.) They note that Lamech was looking for vengeance out of proportion to the offense—“If Cain’s revenge is sevenfold, then Lamech’s is seventy-sevenfold”—and was laying out the future of fighting from the Hatfields and McCoys to the start of World War I following the assassination of an archduke. Since man’s vengeance and counter-vengeance almost always lead to damage far greater than what started the battle, God allows comparable but not greater retaliation.

ROY KENDRICK, 47, shot to death a fellow drug user in 1995, and took from him $40 and a food stamp card. While in prison Kendrick was also found guilty of murdering a cab driver and his wife in 1985: It was a cold case, but Kendrick’s father testified against him. With a glint in his eye and a grin, Kendrick matter-of-factly tells of how he’s been in many fights during his 16 years in prison, stabbing and being stabbed. Many of them were racial, white against black. He has broken jaws and recently had a punctured lung. He never has visitors. His brother is also serving a life sentence.

He grew up near the Big Thicket area of east Texas less than an hour’s drive north of where he now sits in the Stiles Unit thicket of metal and cement. He’d love to “go back in the woods and live there. Get me a squirrel dog, farm, hunt deer.” That is highly unlikely to happen. He has escaped death row and is suffering a living death.

It’s like that as well for other prisoners I interviewed. Anderson Hughes, who killed a policeman, has been in prison for 39 years, the first seven of them on death row: “Maybe it would have been better to die. … Now, I wake up, do the same thing as the day before. … I can’t remember when I had a good day, maybe years ago.” Arnold Johnson, now 37, remembers his time on death row: “At 19 you don’t think they’re really going to kill you. … Now I know I’ll die here. Every day I think about what I did. I replay everything in my head.”

The oldest prisoner I interviewed, Jesus Suttles, 66, lived all his life in San Antonio until in a drunken rage he murdered his ninth wife (four by law, five by common law) in 2002. He’s been a forced teetotaler since then and says prison saved his life: If he were out he’d still be drinking and dying from cirrhosis of the liver or something else. He hasn’t received a visit from any of his ex-wives or his three living children. He’s miserable, but alive.

UNDERSTANDING THE DEATH PENALTY as a maximum rather than an obligation helps to explain what otherwise are biblical puzzles. Why does the Bible prescribe capital punishment in many situations but stipulate evidentiary standards that make it almost impossible to put into practice, unless corrupt people distort the law as Jezebel and her conspirators did? Why does God give us no examples of the process working? Why does God spare those who deserved death, starting with Cain? At a time when most human beings lived on plains, God sent people off to the wilderness: Now, when people live everywhere, even in wildernesses, is excommunication sending a person to prison for life?

Two chapters after the “eye for eye” directive comes a solemn warning that is often repeated in later chapters: “You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in his lawsuit” (Exodus 23:6). Lawyers I’ve spoken with cannot remember rich persons receiving the death penalty: Like O.J. Simpson and many others, wealth buys expensive lawyers who find ways for their clients to avoid maximum penalties and sometimes any penalties at all. The absence of good or even competent counsel in many cases perverts the justice received by a poor person accused of murder. Racial and ethnic discrepancies in sentencing used to be rampant but no longer are: Money rather than skin color now talks.

I’ll discuss other issues online, and explain my positive view of life-without-parole sentencing: WORLD's website will have new posts on capital punishment every weekday from Oct. 7 to Oct. 18. Please join me and add comments of your own. To close, here’s the story of one prisoner sentenced to life without parole who showed a different attitude than the others. James Zarychta, 41, imprisoned since 1993, gets up at 2 a.m. and goes to work at 3 in the Ellis Unit’s law library. Beginning at 4:15 he helps 15-20 inmates through a 2½ hour law library session, then clerks for a second session that begins at 8:45, and a third starting at 1:45. He’s obtained an electric typewriter on which he’s writing a prison self-help guide, a second book on filing petitions, and a third book of fiction.


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