by | Jun 25, 2000 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

This is how he died. Guards dragged him from his cell. They shackled his hands and feet. They took him by van, escorted by police helicopters, to a facility 40 miles away. He refused to eat. He did not speak. When they came for him Thursday night, he once again was dragged by guards, strapped to a gurney, handcuffed and taken into the killing room.

There he spoke his last words. “They are murdering me tonight.”

And they did.

He was injected with poison. He died before a small group of witnesses. He died with one eye open and one eye closed. Justice, according to those dishing it out in Texas, was served.

“May God bless Mr. Graham,” said Gov. George W. Bush. The governor felt qualified to hand out God’s blessing, since he was already making His decisions.

Here is how I know the death penalty is wrong. Not because I subscribe to one political party or another. Not because I am more sympathetic to prisoners than I am to victims.

I know because if it feels good to kill someone, then something is wrong with you. And if it feels bad to kill someone, then something is wrong with doing it.

There is simply no way to feel right about snuffing out another human being. You know it in your heart. You sense it in your stomach. Which is why the execution of Gary Graham last week may indeed have been about taking a stand against violence, or adhering to the laws of the state.

But it wasn’t right. It never will be.

No cause for killing

Now, those who oppose the death penalty have a toolbox stuffed with statistics. They show that states with the death penalty have nearly twice the murder rate of those without it. They show that two out of three police do not think the death penalty deters crime. They show that executing a convict costs far more — thanks to all the appeals — than keeping him in prison for life.

They also point out that mistakes are made. They cite 13 death row inmates in Illinois who were exonerated, prompting the governor there to halt the death penalty altogether.

Gary Graham was convicted of murdering a man outside a Houston supermarket in 1981. But only one person claims to have seen it, a woman sitting in a car 30 feet away.

There was no physical evidence connecting Graham to the crime; no fingerprints, no hairs, no fibers. His gun did not match the ballistics of the murder weapon. His court-appointed lawyer, a hack who had been suspended by the bar several times, failed to call six witnesses who were ready to refute Graham being the murderer.

Nonetheless — based on one woman’s testimony — he was sentenced to death. It didn’t help that he was young, black, poor and hardly a saint, with a weeklong crime spree, including 10 armed robberies and a rape on his record. He admitted these crimes, which should have kept him in prison a very long time.

But he denied the murder charge, right to the end, right to the moment the needle pierced his skin and we sent him to another world.

End of the innocence

It’s funny. So many Americans believe O.J. Simpson used his money and fame to wrongly secure his freedom. Why, then, is it hard to believe a poor, anonymous man could lack the means to prevent a wrongful conviction?

“There is absolutely no indication that an innocent person has been executed in America since the 1900s,” said a clearly misguided woman named Diane Clements, president of Justice for All, a victims rights group. “Texas has a wonderful system.”

Wonderful? What is wonderful here? Who felt good when Graham became a corpse? The victim’s family? I doubt it. Revenge usually looks better than it tastes.

The citizens of Texas? More than half of them believe their state puts innocent people to death, yet they still overwhelmingly endorse the death penalty. I don’t know. There’s something bloodthirsty in those numbers.

The rest of us? Let’s hope we don’t feel good. For while our crime rate is intolerable and our penal system is ridiculous, there is nothing positive in Graham’s execution. For all of Gov. Bush’s coziness with God, let’s be honest: If we start feeling good about killing people, we move a lot closer to the murderers than we do to heaven.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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