August 24, 2017

Interrupting Death in Missouri

On Tuesday, death was interrupted.

The state of Missouri planned to execute a man, Marcellus Williams, for the 1998 murder of Lisha Gayle. I find the death penalty morally indefensible for many reasons (for some biblical reasons, check out my Word&Way interview with Wendell Griffen). But even defenders of capital punishment should find the case of Williams highly problematic. 

The Williams case helps shows the racial bias in death penalty sentencing. He is black and the victim was white. That racial context remains a strong predictor of who will receive the death penalty. Apparently, old "Lady Justice" is peeking out of her blindfold. Williams also received a trial with a racially-skewed jury and questionable state witnesses. 

Additionally, new DNA testing shows Williams is not a match for the DNA on the murder weapon. Williams was nearly executed in 2015 until the state's Supreme Court delayed the execution to allow DNA testing. Yet, once that testing suggested some other unknown person as the killer, that same Court shrugged and said the new execution date should continue. Meanwhile, Josh Hawley, Missouri's Attorney General, also defended the conviction despite the DNA evidence. It's as if they don't even care what the evidence actually says. 

So, on Tuesday, I joined a vigil in front of the office of Governor Eric Greitens to urge him to offer a stay. We delivered petitions from more than 185,000 people (and told his office that the number had grown to more than 200,000 since printing earlier that morning).


About an hour after we left - and just a few hours before the scheduled execution - Greitens surprised us and actually issued a stay of execution and announced he would convene a panel of five retired judges to study the case and advise him on what to do (perhaps to issue clemency). Greitens should be applauded for erring on the side of life and justice. Hawley and the justices who shrugged at DNA evidence should be condemned - as should our whole system of capital punishment that has sentenced more than 150 innocent people to die.

It's time for us to find a better way as a society. During the vigil on Tuesday, I held a sign that declared, "End the Cycle of Violence." Killing to say we hate killing doesn't make sense. We're becoming the very thing we claim to oppose. 

The title of Shane Claiborne's newest book (an excellent read on the death penalty) captures this idea well: Executing Grace: How the Death Penalty Killed Jesus and Why It's Killing Us. It is, in fact, killing us. Come hear Claiborne speak at a Churchnet event in St. Louis on September 29. It's time for us to help interrupt death.

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