University Essays: Lesson 7, Reading 4
By Willie Jasper Darden, Jr.
Ironically, there is probably more hope on death row than would be found in most other places. Each of us has been convicted of murder. Some are guilty and a few are innocent. But the one thing we all have in common is that we await our demise side by side-the innocent and the guilty alike. We hope because it would be so easy for our fate to be changed. Hope is one thing we have in common with those stricken with a terminal illness.
Every person in our society is capable of murder. Who among us can say that they have never been so angry that they did foolish things, or that they have not wished for the death of one who destroyed their happiness? Isn’t it true that those who advocate the use of capital punishment are just as guilty of homicide as the person executed? Isn’t it dangerous for society to preach a message that some of its citizens deserve to die? Like those stricken with a terminal illness, I want to understand.
Before the Coliseum “games” of ancient Rome, the condemned gladiators stood before the royal podium and said, “We who are about to die salute you, Caesar.” Humans on death row do not have that immediacy of struggle or that intimacy with their impersonal foe on the field of battle. We are humans who face death because of the faulty wording of a legal appeal or the capriciously bad stomach of a judge or juror. If we executed all murderers, we would execute twenty thousand per year; we face execution because we are the scapegoats. Like those stricken with a terminal illness, I feel I was chosen at random. And, while morally it is no worse to execute the innocent than to execute the guilty, I will proclaim until the electric chair’s current silences me that I am innocent of the charge that sent me here.
Our society executes as much “for the person” as “for the crime.” We execute for heresy-for being different, or for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. We execute for the traits of the person found guilty. If the person is black, uneducated, poor, outspoken, slightly retarded, eccentric, or odd, he stands a much higher chance of being executed than do those convicted of even worse crimes than he. Juries find it hard to convict one of their own, so middle-class whites are rarely in our ranks. Like those stricken with a terminal illness, I feel a tremendous sense of injustice. Unlike others preparing to die, empirical studies have been conducted by the best minds in America to show that I am right.
I have been on death row for 14 years and can honestly say that the only description of this place is hell. We send people to prisons to suffer, and prisons have been highly successful in achieving this goal. We live in a society that fosters the belief that inhumanity, revenge, and retribution are legitimate goals of the state. Like those stricken with a terminal illness, I fight my own anger.
Most, if not all, of the humans on death row have souls that can be made clean through love, compassion, and spirituality. However, to acknowledge this threatens our ability to execute, as we must dehumanize before we can kill in such a predetermined fashion. It takes concern and understanding to identify with one of God’s own. Didn’t Jesus glorify the shepherd who left his whole flock just to rescue one lamb? I believe it is the duty and obligation of all of God’s children to save, heal, and repair the spirit, soul, mind, and body of others. When Jesus said, “Love your neighbor,” I don’t think he was talking about those whom it is easy to love. Like others preparing for death, I need community.
The one thing all humans want and need is to love and be loved. I often sit and just watch the men here. I watch them change. I watch, and I feel great pity for them. I feel shame, too. Shame because many of my Christian brothers and sisters in society allow this to continue in their names.
One of the most profound teachings of Jesus is, “Judge not that ye be not judged.” I think that before we can hold up the lamp of understanding to others, we must hold it up to ourselves. That, I believe, is what death is all about.
Willie Jasper Darden, Jr., was sentenced to death in 1974. On March 15, 1982, despite worldwide protest, widespread belief in his innocence, and allegations of prosecutorial racism (including features on ABC’s “20/20” and CBS’s “West 57th Street”), Mr. Darden was executed.
This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372.