Wednesday, September 14, 2011

One of the common responses any death penalty opponent hears often is, "You'd feel differently if it were your family member who'd been killed." I can protest against that until I'm blue in the face, but the death penalty proponent will almost never do me the courtesy of believing that I would hold true to my principles even in the face of a terrible personal tragedy. I can also point out that there are plenty of victims' family members who do not support the death penalty, but that point is usually ignored.

Well, here is a beautiful example of a family, still in the immediate grip of grief, who is standing firm in its conviction that the death penalty is wrong. The family of James Anderson, the black man in Mississippi who was beaten to death by a group of teens for no reason except they wanted to hurt a black guy, has asked prosecutors not to seek the death penalty against his killers. First, the family noted that they, and Mr. Anderson as well, oppose the death penalty. Second, the family expressed the desire for their family member's death not to be used as a chance to somehow even the racial justice scales in Mississippi by finally sentencing white people to death for killing a black person. (In general, people who murder white victims are far more likely to face the death penalty than people who murder non-whites.) The family further expressed the hope that ultimately Mr. Anderson's death and the prosecution of his killers could lead to a larger discussion about whether we want to continue having a death penalty.

This, I submit, is the response I would have if one of my family members were murdered. Nothing could be more insulting to the memory of my mother, for example, than for the state to seek death for her killer. She has been active in the campaign against the death penalty for as long as I can remember, so much so that she produced a daughter who turned that campaign into a career. Knowing what I've dedicated my professional life to, I can't imagine that the people who love me wouldn't make themselves heard all over everywhere if prosecutors ever tried to turn my murder into a capital case. (Indeed, if they didn't, I would haunt them. I can be really scary when I'm pissed off, so add ghost to that and I'd be downright terrifying.)

So I will pass on the message of James Anderson's family and share their hope that a good discussion about whether we really want to continue as a society that perpetuates the cycle of violence and adds to the tally of people intentionally killed can come out of this senseless death. I don't want us to be such a society and now we have clear evidence that people can still feel the way I do even after a family member has been murdered.

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