The Agony of Losing Someone to Execution

By Christine Smith

Christine Smith 1999, 2002

I recall writing the letter, tears falling, my hand quivering. Somehow between the moments of pain that kept me from keeping pen to paper, I expressed what I wanted him to know. Two weeks later, I lay in my bed listening to moment-by-moment radio coverage of the preparation to cold-bloodedly kill my friend, A.J. Bannister. Death affects all of us, but the harsh reality and mental torture of awaiting the premeditated, calculated killing of someone you care about is particularly painful. I know that pain personally now, and I am a different person because of it.

Not in my name

Years ago, I was a strong supporter of capital punishment, erroneously believing it provided justice. Ironically, the notorious case of serial killer Ted Bundy turned me from strong proponent of the death penalty to a committed activist against it. For through his case, which I originally regarded as a clear example of why capital punishment is justified, I found much to ponder.

I learned in detail of Bundy's crimes, but I also learned the details of his life. I learned the workings of the criminal-justice system and its shortcomings in regard to the defense. I learned of the pain his execution would cause. I saw the horrible party atmosphere outside the prison the night he was executed -- the disgusting cheers, chants and barbecues called "Bundy-cues."

Bundy was a disturbed man. But I saw upright, honorable citizens expressing such hateful sentiments that it was easy to see they were not after justice. They wanted revenge. Murder was in their hearts. Bundy's execution in that atmosphere changed me.

Revenge is at the core of capital punishment.

Soon thereafter, I examined the entire capital-punishment system and began to realize that revenge is at its core. The more I learned of the facts, the injustices, the whole process, the more I opposed it. All it took was the facts -- and an open heart.

Have you seen a mother at the moment she knows her son is being killed? Have you explained to a 9-year-old why he will never see his father again? Have you heard a crowd cheer and laugh when your loved one died at the hands of an executioner? Have you suffered nightmares of holding your loved one before the executioner takes him or her from you to shoot 2,000 volts of electricity through your child's body?

I hope not. Far too many of us have. With nearly 3,000 U.S. men and women on death row, many others also will endure the pain of state-sanctioned killing. The barbaric horror of knowing where, when and how your loved one will die is intolerable in this "civilized" society.

The agony of grief

I believed that before the night of Oct. 22, l997, and I believe it all the more now. That night, I listened to the ignorant, cruel ranting of callers to the radio show broadcasting near the prison. Their only motive was to rejoice at the expense of the condemned: my friend, A.J. Bannister, who at 39 was being executed for the 1983 murder conviction he received for shooting a man during a fight.

The callers did not care about the extenuating circumstances of the case: concerns friends, family and lawyers had regarding the A.J.'s defense; the subsequent court proceedings and sentence; the details of the fight; the worldwide outpouring on behalf of A.J.'s life; the many who loved him.

When a Department of Corrections official's voice confirmed the imposition of yet another death sentence at Potosi Correctional Facility in Missouri, I wept. For the rest of the world, it was just another killer being killed, next news story. For me, it was the loss of an intelligent, compassionate man who had so much to give this world -- even within the confines of prison.

Although executions had occurred in previous cases I had been involved in opposing, this one was personal. Here was someone I knew -- a talented writer, a husband and father, a friend.

A.J. initially wrote to me after learning from a mutual friend from Amnesty International that I am a writer. After getting to know A.J. and reading his book, Shall Suffer Death, I became convinced that given the chance to live, A.J. would have reached, through his story, other young people fatefully involved in drug dealing, which had led A.J. to that tragic fight.

Sadly, save for his book, he was not able to fulfill his dreams. Instead his unnecessary death left us with a grieving mother, wife, baby girl, and family and friends worldwide wondering why he was killed?

Reverence for life?

The pain of losing a man with such promise and who is no threat stays with me. The agony is compounded by the despair of losing faith in this country. This country espouses justice for all and respect for human dignity. But that is not true when we kill our citizens.

Those people whose lives are inflicted with horrors of sexual, physical or emotional abuse often avenge their rage by inflicting horror upon others, but should a "sane" society do the same? If a society truly has reverence for life, it cannot be selective in how it applies that reverence. It cannot have reverence for the victim's life and kill the murderer. It is inconsistent.

Our society dehumanizes inmates, thereby distancing us from facing the capacity for evil within us all. Some criminals may never rejoin society, but they can use their talents, intelligence and compassion within prison. Some, as A.J. expressed, dedicate themselves to warning youth regarding the perils of choosing certain paths in life; others are there for inmates who are ill or have no family. I have known of those who made a difference right where they were -- behind bars.

I have no illusions; I know that many killers know no remorse. Nor am I naive when it comes to knowing the evils some have committed or are capable of doing. On the contrary, I am acutely aware of horrific details most people never will know. But those are not acts to be avenged; they are tragedies to be forgiven. The ability to recognize ourselves in those we incarcerate will lead society to effective preventive and rehabilitative measures.

The capacity to kill is within each of us. The difference is that some people have developed either a social, moral or ethical barrier to doing it and others, because of their life experiences, have not. Losing control of emotions is precisely why people are on death row -- and it is also the weakness that leads this country to execute them. To permit emotionalism to rule our system of justice is to act with the same motives that led many of these people to kill.

Death watch

The cycle of violence must be stopped. Legitimized killing, dignified in a clean, clinical setting approved by the law is no less than the premeditated killing we say we reject. The cruelty of the final phases of the death penalty is manifold: the incredibly small death-watch cell; the restrictive visitation rules; the method of death; the often morbid mayhem of gatherers outside the prison.

Society can abhor the evil and prevent these killers from committing murder again while simultaneously recognizing their humanness and protecting ours. The death penalty changes us. It appeals to our dark nature. It weakens us. It creates wounds that will never heal.

Christine Smith is a professional writer, author, and environmental/social justice activist; her articles have appeared in numerous magazines & newspapers nationally and internationally.

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