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No deterrent, no closure - just more victims

By Carroll L. Pickett, 4/1/2001

During the 15 years I served as chaplain for the Texas prison system, I ministered to 95 men who died by lethal injection. I stood by them as they were strapped to a gurney, as the needles that would pump lethal chemicals into their veins were inserted, heard their final words, and watched as they took their last breaths.

I was the last friendly face they saw. I spent the final hours of their lives with them, hearing stories of their troubled childhoods and the crimes they committed, seeing the anger and arrogance, the remorse, and, finally, resolution on their faces. Often, I would conduct their graveside ceremonies in the prison cemetery the following day, generally accompanied only by inmates assigned to dig the grave.

It never got easier.

I have been a Presbyterian minister since 1952 and should admit there was a time in my life when I embraced the idea of putting murderous criminals to death. Like so many Texans, I was raised in an atmosphere that insisted that the only real justice was that which claimed an eye for an eye.

I was wrong. And as I participated in the endless process that would earn my state infamous recognition for its death penalty stance, I found myself wondering what we were accomplishing.

Does the death penalty serve as a deterrent to crime? When I started as a prison chaplain two decades ago, there were 100 men on Texas Death Row.

Since that time the state has executed more than 250, yet the Death Row population has climbed to almost 500. I submit there is absolutely no proof that execution in any way deters murder.

Then there is the matter of closure, which we hear so much about.

In those dark early mornings following an execution, I spoke with loved ones of crime victims - husbands and children, mothers and fathers - and almost without exception found that the feeling of relief so long anticipated was not realized. A death, however horrible and senseless, cannot be erased by another death, however quick and humane.

What the exercise of the death penalty does, I strongly believe, is simply create another set of victims. By killing a person, we inflict great damage onto yet another family. While I would not like to be viewed as some naive apologist for the evils of those deserving punishment, I know they too have loved ones who grieve just as desperately as do the families of their victims. I've watched them during their tearful visits to the ''death house,'' knowing it would be the last time they would see their loved one alive.

I've seen prison guards hand in their badges. I've seen wardens walk away from their jobs and fellow chaplains sink to such depressed states they were forced to turn away from their calling.

They too have been victims of a legal system that provides the right to take the life of another human being.

To televise the execution of Timothy McVeigh, turning it into a barbarous media event, promises nothing more than martyrdom for a man who does not deserve it. And it has the potential to create yet another wave of victims.

To the twisted mind, he takes on the stature of legend. I am convinced that the media, with their fascination for abhorrent tragedies of our lives from school shootings to profiles of demented serial killers to anger-driven music videos, have only added to our national woe.

To the victims of the horrendous nightmare that McVeigh created, his execution will simply be more reminder than comfort. Having already caused great sorrow, he does not need to be glorified at his own self-serving request. He is neither hero nor martyr, simply a misguided human being who took the lives of others. To murder him in the name of justice is, in reality, nothing more than immoral and illogical retaliation.

It is time that lawmakers and peace-keepers, members of the greatest society in the world, come to the civilized realization that the cruel act of revenge, however cloaked in legal terms, nets us nothing and diminishes us all. We have had enough killing, and it should now stop.

The Rev. Carroll L. Pickett is minister of the Shiro Presbyterian Church in Huntsville, Texas.

This story ran on page E8 of the Boston Globe on 4/1/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.