In church this month, we are exploring the theme of death. Autumn has always been my favorite time of year, when the veils between the living world and the world beyond are thin, and all that was bounty during harvest fills the pantry or begins to sink back into the earth to replenish and make robust the ground that spring sprouts will take root in.
Autumn gives us the opportunity to begin the process of let-go and ready our minds and bodies, hearts and spirits for a time of intensive inward fortification, time to regroup, reground and distill all that we can from the turnings of this past year. We are offered opportunity to decide what we need, want, wish and hope to carry with us into the time ahead when rich opportunities for sprouting open up again. We are reminded while observing rites of All Souls Day, Samhain, and Day of the Dead that grief and loss are intimate components of transition and transformation. In letting go and honoring our hardships, our losses, our grief, and our dead, we carve out space and time to not forget all that has touched our lives in some small or possibly profound way.
Complicated as death is in our modern world, I have come to realize we have very few honorable and thoroughly impactful ways of negotiating the loss of ideas, ideals, parts of ourselves, and the ones we know and love when it is their time to pass through the gates. Our relationship to death, grief and loss in the modern world is often sterile to say the least though there is growing momentum and capacity for transforming our transitions into moments that open rich space for letting what needs to flow do just that.
There are many other faces of death when walking up to death’s door, whether we know it is coming or not. In some cases we can control for variables with advanced directives, and in other cases we cannot, or do not. Whatever the case may be, all humans deserve a death they are connected to emotionally and spiritually. Now, buckle your seat belt, because I want to fold in to this conversation a current social injustice and grave concern that has once again been garnering increasing public outcry in the past few weeks. And while I can wax on poetically all day about the beauty of death and transition, it is also imperative to look at how our sterile interactions with death contribute to on-going state sponsored capital punishment/executions.
Of the 53 countries continuing to practice capital punishment, a small handful are considered “industrialized”, which includes the US. In these days leading up to the scheduled November 20th execution of Rodney Reed in Texas, we are given an opportunity to let the heart ache of capital punishment illuminate once again how unjust, unfair, and slandered the political justice system is, especially for folks of color and those who present with lower than average IQ intelligence.
For example, prosecutors in the 1989 trial against Wanda Jean Allen capitalized on her having a low IQ, as well as being black and homosexual. She was later executed by lethal injection in 2001. And, while no one is excusing murder by any means, the shape of justice and possible rehabilitation for Allen did not bend in her favor, guilty or not.
At this time groups across the country are working with wrongfully convicted inmates, but the demand is higher than what services are available. Some states continue to execute or nearly execute folks who are innocent of crimes they have been found guilty of. Learning more about the Exonerated5 (formerly the CentralPark5) helped me better understand how folks, and especially young folks of color, are funneled into a for-profit prison system that has in many instances no intention of “rehabilitating” or even working to affirm innocence when wrongfully convicted. In some cases, folks are serving sentences for crimes (such as selling marijuana) that today is not only legal in some states, but has an entire industry behind it that folks are generously profiting from.
In Rodney Reed’s case, there is a complex tangle of problems–including new evidence, initial murder weapon not being tested for DNA, being found guilty as a black man by an all white jury, forensics experts admitting to errors in testimony, a recent confession by another person, and most importantly constitutional rights violations during trial. One such denial is Reed’s constitutional right to a new trial free of the constitutional violations made in the trial that convicted him. The Brady rule is a constitutional right which ensures defendants have access to all of the evidence and testimony against them, and the opportunity to cross-examine in-person anyone who offered testimony that contributed to his conviction. Rodney was denied this right in his convicting trial, and has not been granted another trial to remedy the constitutional violation.
The complexity of such a case is far more than you or I can grasp, however we can acknowledge that certain folks are disproportionately effected by the justice system, and that in Rodney’s case there are explicit constitutional rights violations being overlooked. How can we sentence a man to death in the first place, and especially when there is a whole host of circumstances that violate his constitutional rights?
Capital punishment is a moral injustice. Being only one of 5 industrialized countries that continue to part take in state sponsored executions, we actively participate in human rights violations when there is new evidence to be reviewed and constitutional rights violations being ignored. In cases where guilt is found beyond a reasonable doubt, we do not need capital punishment, we need the capacity to find realistic, humane, evidence based, culturally appropriate, community based, and healing-centered engagement approaches to affirming the humanity in offenders rather than deeming them “evil”, “unstable”, etc. Too often folks are given labels not commensurate with who they are in character. We often overshadow facts and hold implicit bias by throwing around labels and judgements as if we are in any capacity to make such claims about any person.
In discovering what death means to us, and what the ebbing and flowing back and forth between the letting go and the giving in, we will do well by ourselves to consider how death can be beautiful and glorious in all the ways we are privileged to engage with it. But death can also be untimely and unjust, bearing with it the inability to have the capacity for knowing the expansiveness and transformation that it can bring. We are all, each and every one of us sacred and rare, and no matter what we do in this world, our story of entrance and exit, as well as our story of experience of the in-between, matters.
Join me now in signing the petition, sending a letter, and/or making a phone call on behalf of Rodney Reed.
Read more about Rodney Reed’s case:
UPDATE: On November 15th, after over 3million petitions were signed on one platform and more than 57,000 on another, in addition to nearly 26,000 calls placed to the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals granted #RodneyReed a stay of execution meaning he no longer has an execution date at this time. Rallies were held across the country that weekend to mark continued visibility of this case. Stay connected to further developments by visiting The Innocence Project, and deep gratitude to everyone who signed petitions and made phone calls. It takes everyone making small and large contributions not just in money, but also in time, conversation and energy to make something like this happen. Hear a fantastic report-back on The Break Down by Shaun and Rai King.