Recently, I’ve been confronted by a pattern regarding high-profile capital cases where conviction was made on flimsy evidence. The pattern is the victim’s family lust for the blood of the person convicted, and then publicly celebrating the killing. This may be regardless of mountains of evidence indicating their innocence or at least the presence of large quantities of doubt. I am reminded of American’s shameful response to the killing of Osama bin Laden.
We saw this with the West Memphis Three. They were finally released on August 19 of this year, after being imprisoned for almost 20 years on ludicrous evidence. One of them, Damien Echols, had been sentenced to death. Steve Branch, father to a child they were accused of murdering, said, “As far as I’m concerned, he was going to pay for killing my son.” Apparently for Mr. Branch, justice is less important than getting an eye for an eye.
Even more recently, the family of Mark MacPhail, the white police officer Troy Davis was convicted of murdering, publicly celebrated Mr. Davis’ killing. Davis was put to death on September 21st inspite of an international outcry over the numerous flaws, recanted testimonies, and racist overtones related to his conviction.
Mark MacPhail’s mother, Anneliese MacPhail, said “I’m kind of numb. I can’t believe that it’s really happened. All the feelings of relief and peace I’ve been waiting for all these years, they will come later. I certainly do want some peace.”
They will come later. I find it interesting that she admits the fulfillment of her revenge fantasy hasn’t yet brought her peace.
But I recently stumbled on a fascinating and inspiring counterexample.
Lawrence Russell Brewer was an avowed white supremacist who was convicted, on very strong evidence, of gruesomely torturing to death James Byrd, a black man, in Texas in 1998. He was killed by the state on on the same day as Troy Davis, though the black family of this victim had a very different reaction than the white family of Mark MacPhail.
Ross Byrd, son of Brewer’s victim, protested the killing of his father’s murderer, saying, “You can’t fight murder with murder. Life in prison would have been fine. I know he can’t hurt my daddy anymore. I wish the state would take in mind that this isn’t what we want.”
My ideal society has no place for revenge killings, even when sanctioned by law. Ross Byrd, in his ability to look past his deep hurt, to see the man who murdered his father as a fellow human being, and to move beyond the desire for revenge, teaches a powerful lesson. Families who have survived the brutal killing of a loved one are certainly allowed to experience the intense pain and loss that naturally follows. Nevertheless, I do not believe that their calls for blood should be condoned under any circumstance — especially when the guilt of the person convicted is supported by extremely thin evidence.
Murder by any other name is still murder.