Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Vigil for Justice

Last night was a sad one for Missouri - Governor Jay Nixon approved the first state execution since 2005, ending the life of Dennis Skillicorn. Skillicorn earned the death sentence for being an accessory in a murder he did not know his friend was about to commit. What is truly tragic about this decision is that Dennis was worth more to Missouri alive than dead. Since his conviction, he turned from his "first life" of drugs and crime to a "second life" of faith and community activism. In the Potosi prison, Skillicorn organized a hospice care system for terminally-ill prisioners, created educational and visiting programs for children of inmates, and authored a book admonishing juveniles to make good choices in life. Skillicorn was a shining example of how the prison system can make rehabilitation possible, but that same system has killed off its model product.

All of us VSC girls have become concerned about the unfairness of the death penalty thanks to Pittsburgh Volunteer's work in the SVDP Criminal Justice Ministry. So, we headed to the prayer vigil happening on the steps of SLU's College Church last night.

My high school self would have thought this a hippie activity, but hey, when else can you be a hippie except when you are young and living in an convent commune. Those attending included the Jesuit Volunteers, some Daughters of Charity, and some people who indeed looked like aging hippies. But there were also people whose own lives have been impacted by the criminal justice system going awry. For instance, this man being interviewed by a reporter was recently exonerated of a false murder charge.

Current criticism of the death penalty is another example of how defending human life requires you to address social problems. Are innocent people sentenced to death? It does happen. People on death row are not necessarily the worst criminals, they just couldn't afford a lawyer good enough to finagle an easier sentence. Why isn't life in a high-security prison enough to protect the public? Do executions solve the problem of murder?

I don't think so. Skillicorn's death doesn't remove the pain of those people his friend killed, or bring back the innocent victims. I'll never forget seeing chilling news coverage of Timothy McVeigh's execution for the Oklahoma City bombing. The victim's families were still sad and still hurting. A few other people were out for vengeance, but just once death wasn't satisfying enough. "Next we need to get Terry Nichols!" one guy told the cameras. He seemed thrilled by the idea of deciding who dies.

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