In the recent News and Observer Op-Ed article, “Under the roof of mercy” a Catholic Mass on North Carolina’s death row was described as a gathering of 6-8 men who come together for thoughtful contemplation of the gospel. The writer goes on to relate a discussion where one prisoner says “The things I’ve done, the hell I’ve put [my mother] and other people through, and still, every day that woman prays for me without fail. Who am I to deserve anything like that?” Though the writer is well meaning, and the theme of the article is mercy and moving on from the past, it is also made to sound as if the man speaking about his mother is expressing responsibility for his death sentence.
I am one of those 6-8 men who have attended Catholic services on NC’s death row for 17 years – quite a bit longer than the writer of the above article. Though all of us are grateful for anyone willing to speak up for our humanity and desire for absolution, it should not come at the cost of individuality. I was at the service spoken of in “Under the roof of mercy” and my friend’s words were taken out of context.
Our discussion of Luke 7:11-17 was a reflection on what all of us – free and incarcerated alike—have put our mothers through at one time or another. Indeed, a murder conviction and death sentence is one of the worst things a mother could see her son go through, but my friend was not confessing his crime or even implying as much. Had there been such an admission as “Under the roof of mercy” seems to suggest, it would have been in the privacy and confidence of the blessed Sacrament of Confession – not as a topic for a public forum in the N&O.
I understand the writer’s good-natured intent even as the subtle tone douses the potential of fiery public indignation for daring to stand up for murderers on death row. It’s not the first time an Op-Ed writer has equivocated on their position when discussing us. A past volunteer at the prison wanted to write about the humanity she witnessed on death row. It was amazing to her that this group of human beings seemed genuinely remorseful, decent and significantly transformed from whom they used to be. Except, in order to write the Op-Ed article and show support for some of the people on death row, she felt the need to single out and lambast a new arrival for his crime. Intentional or not the writer quantified and qualified our humanity and desire for absolution.
Too often I have witnessed a tendency in people who advocate for humanity of prisoners to downplay or even denigrate in a surreptitious manner, the character of those they represent. As if we’re too needy to see the subtle fence straddling. The lack of complete sincerity, the inability to consider us as anything other than “less than” is apparent and a little insulting, but that’s the point, isn’t it? To ward off any potential backlash one might receive after sticking up for the human rights of society’s “bad guys”?
As a group our name becomes “inmate” or the more egalitarian “prisoner”. Occasionally we’re referred to as men or people, but for the most part we’re only identified by the crimes for which we’ve been convicted and sentenced to death. In this characterization our names are erased from the public conscience as easily as our presence in the free world. This dehumanization makes it so much easier when the time comes to open the curtain into a world where the only witnesses are those ready to see our execution and suffering. Our status as people – brothers, sons, fathers, uncles, cousins and grandfathers—has become a footnote in the history of criminal justice.
There is no doubt in my mind many of us on death row regret the crimes for which we’ve been convicted. You don’t spend decades in prison and not feel remorse for all of the wrongs you’ve done. What is being ignored, however, is the very gray area of crime and punishment in which not everyone on death row is guilty of murder and that a death sentence is a legal status, one where the appellate process works with glacial slowness. It does nothing for public perception. Ask the eight men who have had their death sentence and murder convictions overturned, and who were ultimately acquitted of the crimes so many people were certain they committed. Ask 71-74% of the people who were originally sentenced to death in NC and later removed from death row because their sentence and/or conviction was unjust and overturned by the appellate courts. If that is not enough to reconsider the readiness with which we are identified only as death row inmates who are “unworthy” of any other consideration maybe the public needs an absolution as much as we do. I’ll even write the Op-Ed.