February 16, 2015

A Matter of Life and Death: On the Death Penalty & Forgiveness.


The death penalty has been in the news a lot lately with botched lethal injections in Oklahoma and the execution of a man with an IQ of 67 in Texas.

It’s time I spoke out. I’m not going to rattle off a bunch of statistics that support my point of view or try to convince you that I am right; I would just like to share with you how my philosophy of capital punishment has evolved.

Let’s start with forgiveness. To forgive, according to dictionary.com, is to “stop feeling angry or resentful toward someone for an offense, flaw or mistake.” Forgiveness is not absolution! Forgiveness is not condoning, excusing or accepting bad behavior or harmful and devastating acts. I have further defined forgiveness as “no longer letting someone’s harmful behavior negatively impact me.” By defining forgiveness in this way, I am no longer a victim. Forgiveness empowers.

Sometimes forgiveness creates the space for remorse, as is the case in a book I read called, Azim’s Bardo: From Murder to Forgiveness. This is an incredible story that not only challenges our culture’s ideas about who the victims are in our society and takes the teaching of forgiveness to a higher level, but also challenges the rhetoric we are being bombarded with regarding the Muslim faith.

Imagine for a moment, getting a phone call that your son has been senselessly murdered while delivering a pizza. Would you forgive the shooter? Azim’s Bardo is the story of Azim Khamisa, a father who went through this very thing. Tony Hicks, the murderer of his son, was a 14 year-old gang-banger who confessed to the killing with an attitude. He said during his confession, “I did tell [the police] that pizza man was stupid; he should have give [sic] up the pizzas.” (p. 37)

I remember this case very well because it was to set a terrible precedent in the state of California, where I lived at the time. Tony Hicks became the first 14 year-old-child to be tried as an adult. From the beginning, Azim saw his own obvious loss but also saw the loss Tony’s family was facing. His belief was that Tony was a victim too and even though, “Nothing could bring Tariq [his son] back, if these boys could somehow be saved, shouldn’t they be? Weren’t they victims, too?” (p. 40).

As I read this incredible story, I found myself writing in the margin, “How did he get to this understanding so quickly?” Whereas other people asked him why he reacted to Tariq’s murder with compassion and not vengeance, Azim answered with, “It has driven me to long, hard bouts of probing introspection in search of an answer. And the straight answer is: I’m still not sure. But my response was immediate, and true to whatever is in my soul (P. 51).”

His faith is Ismaili, an offshoot of the Muslim Shiites with a metaphysical approach to the Quran. I believe his ability to arrive at forgiveness so quickly is directly connected to his spirituality. He was raised in this faith and practices it daily. The fact that his beliefs are so much a part of who he is gives him a different perspective from someone who doesn’t have that strong spiritual foundation.

The story doesn’t end there. Struggling to create meaning in his life again, Azim wrote:

An understanding began to grow: to find peace for myself, I needed to find something I could do for him, for his journey. The grief had to be broken for both our sakes. Grief alone could not give meaning to his death. Something good had to be done, and it had to be done in his name, inspired by him. (P. 81)

So Azim formed an organization to help keep other high-risk kids from the dangers Tony and Tariq faced. The icing on the cake, the most generous act of all, was that Azim invited Tony Hicks’ grandfather, Ples Feliz, the man who was raising Tony at the time of the murder, to join him and the organization. The bond was instant and they began working together. While Tony was awaiting his trial, his attorney and his grandfather told him that the father of the boy he had murdered had forgiven him. That he cared a great deal for him. In time, Tony softened and began to feel remorse. He ultimately pled guilty and read a statement to the court. Here is an excerpt:

I have learned about the Khamisa family and their only son Tariq. My grandfather [has] tried to explain to me the compassion the Khamisa family has for me. I’m sorry for killing Tariq and hurting his family. I pray to God every day that Mr. Khamisa will forgive me for what I have done, and for as long as I live I will continue to pray to God to give him strength to deal with his loss.

Tony Hicks was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison.

What happens when neither remorse nor forgiveness occurs? In my opinion, humanity devolves as a result. Does our culture and legal system, a system that allows for capital punishment, help us evolve or contribute to our demise? In the case of Timothy McVeigh, the “Oklahoma City Bomber,” I believe it contributed to our demise. But first, I’d like to explain why I am choosing to examine that case. According to Zimring, author of The Contradictions of American Capital Punishment, the execution of McVeigh played a critical role in reframing the death penalty for Americans while all other westernized countries had abolished capital punishment (Japan is one other exception).

He said, “June 2001 was an eventful time in the modern history of capital punishment. It was the month in which the national government of the United States conducted its first two executions after thirty-eight years” (P. 26).

Zimring’s study is mostly historical and statistical in nature but a couple of his theories jumped out at me regarding forgiveness and remorse. He shows a direct correlation between the history of lynching and the death penalty with very few exceptions. Although the events are over 100 years apart, the states that had the most lynching also have the most death penalties carried out. Likewise, states with the lowest number of lynchings in the past have the lowest number of death penalties carried out. He attributes this to “a strong tradition of vigilante values, which is found in all parts of the United States but is most powerful in the south and the Southwest” (P. 66). In my opinion, these “vigilante values” leave no room for remorse. Vigilantism and forgiveness cannot co-exist.

In the 1980s, America began to “re-market” capital punishment in two ways. One, the way in which people were put to death was changed from methods that seemed cruel and unusual, to lethal injection, which seemed more humane. The second was a “symbolic transformation of execution into a victim-service program” for “closure, not vengeance” (P. 62). As a Spiritual Grief Recovery Specialist, I know the death penalty does not provide closure for victims’ families.

Before I began to walk a spiritual path, I was very much for the death penalty. And for much lesser offenses than murder. I believed if you were a rapist, you should get the death penalty. If you were a child molester, you get the death penalty. Cutting me off in traffic, death penalty! My point is, I identified strongly with the victims and saw their loss as a justification for the death penalty.

This way of thinking also created a degree of detachment from the perpetrator as a human. The day that changed for me was when I saw interviews with Timothy McVeigh’s prison priest, and the parents of two different victims of the bombing before and after McVeigh’s execution. The priest had the greatest impact on me because he said that during his many talks with Tim, he could sense that Tim was approaching feelings of remorse. He was executed before he had a chance to feel remorseful. I began to wonder if his execution had in fact stopped McVeigh’s soul evolution.

The other two interviews tipped my beliefs right over the edge. When the father of a young woman was interviewed, he was adamant, he did not believe in the death penalty. He had in a way forgiven McVeigh and although he still grieved the loss of his daughter, even after the execution, he felt the execution was not a way to honor his daughter. The last interview was of a mother who had lost her son in the bombing. She wanted revenge. She wanted to watch that bastard breathe his last breath and then, she believed, she would have peace and closure. After the execution, she felt no closure or peace. Imagine, if Timothy McVeigh had finally felt remorseful and deeply apologized to this mother, could she have forgiven him and found peace? We will never know.


How a Buddhist on Death Row Helped Save My Life.


Author: Gabrielle Michel

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Video Still


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