Thursday, January 1, 2015

What happens when you spend a year corresponding with a death row prisoner

As those of you who have been reading this blog for a while know, I recently spent two years back in grad school, this time deviating far from my previous education in the sciences, studying law and public policy.  The classes had a varying amount of effect on me and some were more challenging than others.

Last January, I started a class that, for 16 weeks, dealt with two issues that definitely fell into my avoidance category- abortion and the death penalty. We had 16 weeks of discussions and arguments and reading and I despised it at the time. I didn't want to think about the tough issues. It was much more comfortable to continue on my life as a upper middle class white woman living in my affluent neighborhood with my cute children and gainfully employed husband. I did not want to step out of the bubble. Unfortunately, I had a 4.0 GPA going into the class and I had no intention of letting that slip. So avoidance was not an option this time.

One of the assignments for my class was to pick three death row inmates and correspond with them weekly for the entire 16 weeks of the class. Writing to a death row inmate is more challenging than you would think. Every state has different rules for correspondence and they are often buried deep on the state's website. Eventually I did strike up several correspondences- one with a man in Alabama named Jimmy and one with a man here in Washington State named Robert.  Both really impacted me, but writing to Jimmy was a life-changing experience.

Since this post is already getting long, I wont explain all of Jimmy's case, but will link to a 1994 NY Times article about it. Basically, a five day! trial, a death sentence and doubts about whether the right man was even arrested in the first place.

I've been writing to Jimmy for a year, weekly for the duration of my class and about twice per month since then. Every single letter from Jimmy is basically the same- a list of praises for the wonderful things that have happened to him that week, encouragement to me to spend more time praying, discussion of Bible verses that he's been reading, questions about my family and effusive thanks for my letters. You see, ending up on death row changed Jimmy's life. He grew up the only boy in a family raised by a single mom. He only met his father briefly. He did commit petty crimes before being sent to death row.  And I believe, based on what I've read, that Jimmy is innocent of the crime that sent him to death row. But he never talks about that. He's alluded to false testimony that sent him to death row and has talked about how he has forgiven that man and prays for him. But he never focuses on that. He knows that he is where God has sent him to be. He prays with his jailers and other inmates and counsels his family through letters and phone calls.

I hate that my friend is on death row, but I believe as he does that he is where God wants him to be. For now. Corresponding with Jimmy has given me a front row seat to the amazing effects of Jesus's sacrifice on the life of a sinner.

But death row. Do you know that there is not really any rhyme or reason for how someone gets sentenced to death row? Numbers of inmates on death row and the cases that sent them there vary widely from state to state. Here in Washington, the worst serial killer in US history is NOT on death row. And, as has been discussed on the news a lot lately, many states are using untested drugs to put people to death in ways that are sometimes incredibly painful. Do you know why? Because many of the drugs that used to be used were supplied by European companies. And most countries around the world, including those where the drug companies are located, view the death penalty as cruel and unusual punishment. They hoped that, by refusing to supply the drugs, the death penalty would stop being used in the US. They did not succeed.

In  my class, we spent a lot of time talking about Imago Dei or the image of God. And how all people are made in his image and we, as Christians, are called to protect it. Which we're pretty good at doing when it comes to unborn babies. But we stand by and say nothing  when our government takes the life of a man. Even though some of these men are later found to probably not be guilty of their crimes.

I know this is an issue on which there are Biblical arguments on both sides of the issue. I'm not expecting to change anyone's mind. But I think that we need to be informed before we have an opinion. My friend's life deserves defending.

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