Recently our panel of judges selected Morgan A. Childs to receive the 1st place award ($200). Morgan is a 12th grade students at the St. John's School in Houston, Texas. In the following days we will be posting essays from the other awards winners.
I grew up in opposition to the death penalty for the sole reason that mistakes are made. For years, the only way I could convey my concern towards those who disagreed with me was by presenting the facts – mistakes are indeed made, and with some regularity (as of the day I write this, over 123 inmates have been exonerated from death row, their innocence finally proven). I determined that if I grew up in Harris County, the duty was mine to claim some sort of opinion on the matter; ignorance in the thick of things, I realized, was shameful.
David Dow, a death penalty lawyer who lives and works in Houston, writes in his 2005 book Executed on a Technicality: Lethal Injustice on America’s Death Row, “To those with even the most fleeting familiarity with the criminal justice system, any debate that turns on the question of whether innocent people have been or will be executed is truly inane, for the answer is obvious. […] The fact is obvious, yet it is also irrelevant.” I had the invaluable opportunity to hear Mr. Dow speak after reading his book, and what seemed to unsettle the crowd more than figures and statistics was the evidence that the men and women of death row are, without exception, as absolutely human as those of us who sat in the audience. Evidence, indeed, that seems to disappear in the land of capital punishment. “Innocence is not enough,” Mr. Dow reminds us time and time again.
Innocence is no longer enough for me, either. Last March, I went to my first of many execution vigils with the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. To my surprise, the men and women I stood with that day – there were seven others, I think, a number that seemed and still seems awfully small for what is well-known to be the death penalty capital of the Western World – weren’t quite the hard-as-nails protestors I’d imagined. In fact, they were quite the opposite; ten months later, I know them as the most kind-hearted, hopeful people I have had the good fortune to know. They are advocates of a more virtuous system of justice, one in which retribution does not come at the cost of dehumanization. And I want to see them win their battle.
If I’ve learned anything in my brief career as an activist, it’s that the most concrete evidence remains in my favor: the death penalty is not a proven deterrent; it is more expensive to put an man or woman to death than to keep him or her in a maximum-security prison; defendants cannot be ensured competent representation (and often suffer from their lawyers’ incompetence). It did not take long to learn the facts. What has come with my hours holding a “STOP EXECUTIONS” banner is the realization that on any side of a court sits the potential for individual wrongdoing, and that it is our job as advocates of human rights to shed light on the atrocities of both criminal behavior and punishment. My fellow abolitionists are as aware of the personal lives of their contacts on Texas’ death row as they are of the crimes those inmates committed. They, like Mr. Dow, have learned that decency is as vital an aspect of law enforcement as justice.
My own belief is simple. Because universally we are a flawed race, we have an obligation to call into question the very method by which we correct and apprehend the faults – major and minor – of our own kind. Innocence may not be enough, but the whole truth, the facts, the figures, the statistics, are enough to inspire the pause for which we are so overdue. I believe I know what is just, and I believe the next step is learning dignity. My experience with the persevering people of the Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty has renewed my faith in the value of hope, as well as my faith in the good judgment of people – despite all opposition.