So, here’s another thing that David Powell, the man who’s scheduled to be killed in Huntsville on June 15th, has set me to thinking about.
What does it mean, as a matter of public policy, to give up on the idea of redemption?
Now, here’s a man who is 59, and has been in prison for 32 years. And his whole life–even according, it seems, to his jailers and prosecutors–has been virtuous, productive, and gentle, with the enormous, glaring, terrible exception of the horrible crime he committed. That crime being, I feel compelled to say again, the senseless murder of a man named Ralph Ablanedo–a police officer, husband, and father of two children.
One of the things about the death penalty is that, because convicted killers (for a whole variety of reasons) aren’t typically white, middle-class honor students, with reputations for beingkindly, wholesome people, it’s very easy for middle-class people like myself to presume that folks on death row are people from “over there.” Folks from another, meaner America–that hard, irredeemable underbelly of the nation’s poverty and crime. You know, the kind of places you see on “Cops.”
Of course, there are so many things wrong with this presumption that it’s hard to know where to begin. But one obvious contradiction of this presumption that David Powell’s case particularly points out, is that we’ve all, most likely, known “good kids” from “perfectly nice” families who’ve gotten hooked on drugs. We’ve all felt the repercussions of that tragedy–the loss of potential, the family’s pain and torment. The horrible “what if?” that hangs over that screwed-up kid’s life.
Now, imagine if one of the great, sweet, golden kids of your local high school–who made great grades, and volunteered for local charities, and got into a great college–got hooked on drugs, and in a blind fog of addiction, killed a cop who pulled him over for a standard traffic violation.
What do you do to a kid like that?
Do you have to kill him?
I mean, of course, you’ve got to send him to prison. That goes without saying. But is the only purpose of his existence, now, to wait around until the state kills him? Is that really our only option?
Even if that kid, like David Powell has during his 32 years of incarceration, turns his life around? If he never receives a single demerit? If he’s awarded a prison “humanitarian prize,” and serves as a figure of leadership and non-violence to his fellow prisoners?
I mean, I know I sound like I’m arguing David’s case here, and to an extent, I admit I am. But my more basic question is this: Do people who commit terrible crimes have no use or purpose in our world, regardless of what they could ever do in the future?
If a person murders somebody, does it really mean that nothing they could possibly offer the world will ever be as valuable as our right to kill them?
And if that’s the case, what’s the moral implication of having a criminal justice system that’s strictly punitive? A system that in no way believes in, fosters, or promotes redemption? Because folks, that’s pretty much what we’ve got on our hands at the moment.
And aside from the moral implications of that system, what are its practical implications? Even for those of us who live cosseted, cushy, middle-class lives.
Because if the purpose of prison, for people who haven’t committed murder, is just to lock them up, treat them like animals, and then release them on the general, unsuspecting population, then I fail to see how that serves the public interest.
And if the purpose of prison, for folks who have committed murder, is to keep them around, as in David Powell’s case, for THIRTY-TWO YEARS, just in order to kill them, then again, whose interest is this system serving?
For one thing, what is the incentive, for the prisoner, of being non-violent, if their good behavior has no bearing on their eventual punishment?
And for another, what does it mean that we, the American taxpayers, are subsidizing a prison system that seems like the closest possible thing to a PhD program in criminality? Because it seems to me that if you’re not an ace criminal by the time you enter prison, you sure as hell will be by the time you leave it.
What does it mean, for a society, to judge a person’s life by the worst thing they’ve ever done? And to essentially give up on the 1% of our nation’s population who are now behind bars.
To me, it just seems that our current policy is, inevitably, self-destructive; harmful to our national life; and driven by a perfectly natural desire to punish “the bad guys.”
And to me, it seems like a dangerous place to live in–a country that’s given up on the idea of promoting goodness, especially among people who’ve committed the most terrible acts.
And in the particular case of David Powell, who has twelve days left to live, it seems like a system of wasted opportunities. Because if an extreme example, like David Powell–who will be killed for the most terrible, but also the most exceptional, act he’s ever committed–is solely to be judged for his crime, and for no part of his life before or after, then what we’re collectively telling the prisoners of Texas is, “There is no point in turning your life around. There is no point in changing yourself, or in redemption. There is no point in being good.”
And here’s another clip of Marjorie Powell, a woman whose son is about to be killed by the state: