Sunday, March 10, 2013


So. I’ve now seen a death chamber. Saw an electric chair too but’s that in a museum just outside the prison where I’ve lived this week. Instead, the death chamber currently used at the Louisiana State Penitentiary holds simply a microphone and PA system, so the condemned can share last words with a gathered crowd. And there’s a table with two extended arms- not unlike a flattened, padded cross- on which are straps for wrists, shackle cuffs for feet. That’s it. The death chamber.

Oh, and there are curtains, for covering two large windows looking in on the chamber. Process goes that the prisoner is brought in and then the audience gathers (victims’ family, press, his lawyer, sentencing judge perhaps, but not his own family) and then he says his last words and then he’s strapped to the table. The curtains close while a doctor punctures the man’s flesh with IV lines; both arms just in case. At Angola Prison, the warden stands next to the about-to-die man, holding his hand until the deed is done. I’m told wardens don’t do that elsewhere. Finally, once all’s in place, and after this warden has whispered to the man, “The next face you’ll see is Jesus,” a guard opens the curtain so the onlookers can watch as lethally injected fluids work their way into his system. He dies. They say it takes around seven minutes or so. The man might go peacefully. He might cry. He might “pee and shit himself”. The warden stays and holds the hand all the while. People watch.

Justice is done?

We don’t wrestle with this issue much in Minnesota since, as I recall, we’re one of eighteen states without the death penalty. Louisiana, however, has 84 men on death row, for now. That number was supposed to have shrunk by one a couple weeks ago, but legal maneuvering stayed the case last minute. Apparently, twenty(ish) years back, a man got angry at his child for messing his drawers before church. So he drew a scalding hot bath, stripped the eight year-old boy naked and dumped him in, holding his head below the steaming surface, whapping him several times with a screwdriver to reduce the panicked struggles. One might say he tortured his boy to death in hot water; the skin blistered red when all was done. But the convicted father is not dead because, even after all legal appeals were dismissed, the country where Louisiana buys the killing drugs (Holland) passed a law banning their sale for use in legal executions. Once brought to the judge’s attention, just days away from justice(?), His Honor halted the proceedings until all could be set straight.

I met a man on death row this week who’d been there over twenty years, about the right amount time. I didn’t ask his name. Didn’t know yet this story. But I wonder. And if he wasn’t that particular man, he’d still probably done something else terrible. Some death row felons are innocent, of course, some the victims of racist sentencing policies and bigoted juries. But most are pedophile predators or repeat killers, folk whom many think have squandered their right to live. I’m sympathetic to that notion, to be honest; evil is hard to digest. Though when pressed to consider it fully, I’m glad we’ve abolished the death penalty in Minnesota. I don’t think it’s worth killing a couple innocent men to satisfy our longings for revenge. It costs too much. It’s infected with too many biases. And, ultimately, I don’t want us to play God.

But I get the feeling. This man committed an act that cries out desperately for restitution. Next time you pray the Lord’s Prayer, think of this sin and search your heart. Yet when he and I talked, several things came up- where we’re from, what books we like. And God. “I’m right with God,” he said. “I’ll be welcomed Home.” The radical Good News of the Gospel is that, well, he’s right. God will say, “You’re forgiven. I love you.” No death chamber can change that.

And I wonder if our faith- my faith- is big enough to say the same? Should it?

Grace and Peace,

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