There’s so many things that people ought to be thinking about when an execution takes place. They should be thinking about the fact that [Cornelius Singleton] was mentally retarded. Are we really comfortable putting people with a mental age of 13 in the electric chair?
A second thing is, who are we killing this person for? The victim was a nun who had been working with this man for several years teaching him to read and write. Her order and her community of sisters and the priests were very, very adamant that he not be put to death. They don’t believe in the death penalty. And yet, all of their requests were ignored. Members of her biological family were equally opposed to this execution.
Third, what are we saying about violence in this society? For the last 20 years we’ve talked about the death penalty as if it’s the only response that we have to violent crime. In the early 1970’s when the Supreme Court initially struck down the death penalty, people got very obsessive: what are we going to do with the crime rate if we don’t have a death penalty? For the last 20 years, we’ve used the death penalty as our response, almost a formulaic response to frustrations about violent crime. At the same time the level of violent crime has continued to rise. This year (1992) we had record levels of murder in many of the states where the death penalty is most frequently sought.
I Watched the State Kill my Friend
by William Vance Trollinger, Jr
Just after midnight on Wednesday, Sept. 24, 1997, the state of Missouri put Samuel McDonald to death by lethal injection. That night I was inside the Potosi Correctional Institute to witness the killing. How I ended up there has to do with friendship.
While I had opposed the death penalty since high school, my opposition had been abstract. I felt compelled to do something, but I acted on my moral outrage in a decidedly modest fashion. I contacted Death Row Support Project for the name of a condemned prisoner with whom I could correspond and that is how I became acquainted with Samuel McDonald, #CP-17.
Over the next few years I was able to piece together Sam’s story. He grew up in a poor, churchgoing family in St. Louis. At 17 he enlisted in the Army and ended up in Vietnam. He earned a raft of medals, but the experience traumatized him, particularly when, in the process of “sweeping” a village, he killed an infant and an elderly woman. Like many Vietnam veterans, he returned to the United States mentally and emotionally unhinged and addicted to drugs.
On May 16, 1981, Sam, high on “Ts and blues” (a heroin substitute), robbed and shot Robert Jordan, an off-duty police officer, as Jordan and his 11-year-old daughter were leaving a convenience store. A poor African-American drug addict shoots a police officer in front of the man’s daughter – that could have been enough to condemn him to death. But Sam was also assigned an assistant public defender who got into shouting matches with the judge. The judge also refused to order a psychiatric examination, despite evidence that Sam was suffering from a classic case of post-Vietnam stress syndrome.
Sam’s appeals had just begun in 1985, when I sent him my first letter. We became regular correspondents and later had frequent phone calls. In conversations, we talked about prison conditions, the status of his appeals and the Supreme Court. We talked about God, organized religion and the efficacy of prayer. We talked about our families. Samuel McDonald and I became close friends.
Last summer Sam ran out of appeals. He was given an execution date: Sept. 24. While Sam handled this news with remarkable grace, I felt devastated that my friend was going to be killed and I worried that I had failed as Sam’s “spiritual adviser.” I also felt guilty for being afraid Sam might ask me to witness the execution. But friends reminded me that Christ requires not heroism (of which I was in short supply) but faithfulness.
When Sam did ask me to serve as one of his six “family and friend” witnesses, I said yes. After being thoroughly searched, I was ushered into a cramped waiting room, where I sat with Sam’s five other witnesses: his son, cousin, attorney, minister and another correspondent friend. I learned much about Sam’s childhood, his family’s love and grief, and the near misses of Sam’s appeals. At 11:40, after a stern warning from the guards that no “emotional displays” were permitted – “no standing, crying out or knocking on the window”- we were ushered into a tiny observation booth adjoining and above the death chamber. (In two other observation areas were the family of the slain police officer and the state witnesses.) Just after midnight the guards raised the mini-blinds. There, in a dazzling white room, lay Sam, on a gurney with a white sheet up to his neck. We could not see that he was strapped down and hooked up to the mechanical apparatus of death. He looked at us; we looked at him. He spoke rapidly, but I had no idea what he was saying. I repeatedly mouthed “I love you” to him. Then, after only a minute or two, his body convulsed, then became still. Sam, my friend, was dead.
After giving us a few minutes to look at Sam’s body, the guards brusquely shut the mini-blinds and ushered us out of the observation booth. For 48 hours after the execution I had a compulsion to shower. The obscenity I had witnessed left me feeling unclean. Never in my life had I been so aware of the reality of evil as I was in that observation booth, watching the intentional killing of Samuel McDonald, a killing done in the name of the citizens of Missouri. For a long time I have known that capital punishment is wrong. Now I feel it.
In all of this I have also learned something about what it means to follow Christ. I began writing letters because I thought it was the easiest, safest thing I could do. But at the end I would have given anything not to have served as a witness to Sam’s execution. This is a story of how even the tiniest step taken in faith can lead you into deep, cold waters where the grace of God is sufficient to keep you from drowning but does not keep you from feeling enormous pain, anger and despair.
Where is the Church?
There are polls showing that people who go to church tend to believe in the death penalty more than people who don’t go to church. I call that a disturbing poll. Because it unmasks the God in whom we believe. We believe in a God who wants to inflict pain and hurt on people who inflict pain and hurt. This makes God just like us. We’re making God in our own image.