You can't undo death

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king's horses and all the king's men couldn't put Humpty together again."

The children's verse teaches a hard lesson with great imagery. Even a child can see an egg -- dropped on the floor, shattered shell surrounded by clear fluid and an orb of yellow -- and know it cannot be mended.

Claude Jones is dead. Almost 10 years dead. Nevertheless, Jones recently joined a (thankfully) unique band of brothers -- those whose guilt has been called into question or undeniably refuted, long after they were executed for the crime.

I saw a brief mention of Jones' story on the cable news networks and researched his story further online. He was convicted of killing liquor store owner Allen Hilzendager. The only physical evidence linking him to the crime was a strand of hair. Because the DNA test showed the hair did not come from Jones, the evidence used to convict him was insufficient under Texas law, Innocence Project co--founder Barry Scheck said.

Oops. Since 1989, there have been at least 261 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the United States. Seventeen of those convicted, then exonerated, spent time on death row. In 116 of those 261 cases, the true suspects or perpetrators have subsequently been identified.

Now that Jones' guilt is called to question, he joins a laundry list of men who have been executed -- men who may not have been guilty at all -- namely David Spence, Leo Jones, Gary Graham, Cameron Willingham, Jesse Tafero and Ellis Wayne Felker. This, unfortunately, is not an all-inclusive list. There are others. According to the Center on Wrongful Convictions, the number could be as high as 39.

English jurist William Blackstone once said, "Better that 10 guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer."

Some things you can't take back. Capitol punishment is at the top of the list of things done that cannot -- ever -- be undone. Are there persons so evil, so unrepentant, whose crimes are so very horrendous that they deserve to die? Of course there are. We can all name names of those whose guilt was unmistakable and whose crime was unspeakable. But Blackstone's words should give us pause, especially as science opens new avenues of evidence -- evidence of guilt and evidence of innocence.

I admit, through my life, I have vacillated on the death penalty. Should we or shouldn't we? I usually came down on the side of "should" after a particularly horrific crime committed by an undeniably guilty person. I remember the case of a 2-year-old, murdered by her parents after she wet the bed in a motel room. They took turns beating her with a belt until she succumbed to her injuries. After reading the account in the Rocky Mountain News, I was ready to beat the two of them to death myself. But emotion cannot be the rule of law. Because there are some things you can't take back. We cannot restore the years lost to wrongful incarceration and we certainly cannot breath life back into those we have killed.

Jesus said, "You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also'." recorded in Matthew 5:38 and 39. Does this mean that the guilty will go unpunished? Certainly not. But the judgment must be left to the only One capable of true justice. It is not ours to repay. It is God's. Paul said in Romans 12:19, "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: "It is mine to avenge; I will repay," says the Lord.

People make mistakes. Lawyers, prosecutors, the cop on the beat, the judge behind the bench, none of us are immune. Yet, we are a nation of laws, which is as it should be and there are penalties in place when those laws are broken. It is, however, past time to take death off the table. We are not infallible. We are not God.

"David said to Gad, 'I am in deep distress. Let me fall into the hands of the LORD, for his mercy is very great; but do not let me fall into the hands of men.'" 1 Chronicles 21:13 (NIV)

I don't have all the answers, but I know the One who does. Let's walk together for awhile and discover Him; together.


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