During my senior year of high school, I started to apply for college scholarships. Though it has been 15 years since that time in my life, I still remember one scholarship application in particular that challenged my way of thinking. The application essay required me to share my opinion on capital punishment. Back then, I wasn’t a snazzy googler so I couldn’t type in “What is capital punishment?” to learn about the policy. And, my high school classes didn’t exactly inspire critical thinking or debate over political issues. So, I went to my mom and asked her what capital punishment was all about.
As a 17 year-old, I didn’t have much context for the idea of capital punishment. Most books I read were fiction, most of which were Christian romances that upheld the principles of the church I grew up in. In my literary world, protecting life didn’t really apply to adults who murdered but rather to the fetuses that had not yet made it to term. Thus, as I wrote my essay for the deadline that week, I didn’t have a full understanding nor had I developed a complete opinion on the topic.
That changed during my freshman year of college. During spring semester of that formidable first year of college, I took Dr. Shaw’s Foundations of Political Science course. In it, we read Dead Man Walking, among other books. Sister Helen Prejean’s book about life, death, and social justice changed my entire way of thinking. Though I grew up with the “eye for an eye” talk, I started to see the messiness of our justice system and the injustice people face on death row. Have you ever noticed that the people sentenced to death row come from the lower socio-economic classes? People with money take pleas or they can hire fantastic storyteller attorneys who woo the jury to finding their defendant innocent of all crimes. Humans have faults and none of us have sound judgment at all times. So, why have we created a system of punishment that allows a jury to decide if someone is guilty or innocent? Do we not realize that our own moral biases affect the way we sit in judgment on one another? And why does the death sentence assume that offenders are incapable of rehabilitation?
It’s weird to be having these thoughts at 3 AM on a Wednesday, but when insomnia awoke me from my sweet slumber and I saw an AP news blast about a woman’s execution in Georgia on my phone, my brain started churning. CNN reported that all federal appeals failed. Even the Pope’s letter requesting clemency was denied. So Kelly Gissendaner was executed.
My frustration with capital punishment continues to grow. Some people have asked me if I would feel differently if a person murdered a family member of mine. I honestly don’t know how I would feel, but I do know that I understand Samuel L. Jackson’s character in A Time to Kill. When the law is unjust, as it is, things get complicated. However, despite how I would react to a crime against my family, I still believe that capital punishment is outdated and unjust. And, I hate that the U.S., a “first world country,” continues to perpetuate the problem by continuing the inequities of our legal system by allowing the death sentence.