Four years often is a lifetime, and with us it could have been. In the universe of possible life experiences, standing next to a person being publicly sentenced to death cannot be a large sampling. Even smaller, then, is embracing the same person for the first time four years later, and knowing in that embrace the legal sentence of death will never be carried out.
Four years before that embrace I awkwardly said goodbye. What do you say when minutes before society tells one of their number they are unfit to continue living? Do you apologize because your advocacy was not good enough? That even after years of sifting through the records and talking to the people that define a life, you came up short? Try and explain how you just could not stop the gears of state sponsored death from engaging?
Immersion in the details of a life is like jumping down a rabbit hole into some shared Wonderland. In the end it binds people like chewing gum to August asphalt. That bond is forged over years of shared work and discoveries large and small, and in my case, in small steps. It happens in the voice of a ninety year old man re-living in a slow drawl fifty years of teaching those he called educable mentally retarded. The success. The failures. The frustration. These small things bind you because not only do you learn about the best and worst of them, but also yourself.
Yet the victim also lived in that immersion. Life taken is as important as a life worth saving. So it was that many months before that public judgement of death and years before that embrace I stood in a row crop field in a far away state, eyes closed forcing myself into the horror of consciousness disappearing into a terrifying spasm of violence. I felt it because bracing terror lived in that field. Terror as real as that I tried to imagine.
We have the wrong conversation about the death penalty. Yes it is flawed public policy. Yes it has wrongfully condemned the innocent and continues to disproportionately impact communities of color. Yet even states like California with direct ballot initiatives are having difficulty taking it off their books. In the abstract it seems a fair trade. Like a elegant but flawed algebraic formula, the death penalty seems to balance both sides of a symbol for equal. Such thinking will continue until we engage on the most fundamental level on the death penalty: That as a community we are worse off because we kill. Until this is embraced by a majority of those who live among our civilized society, we are doomed right along with it.