October 25, 2006

Another Day; Another Dead

You’d think by now I’d have grown accustomed to the ritual I’ve seen played out only too many times. Since I’ve been on death row there’s been many – too many – people put to death. But it never seems to get any easier. Through these many years I have lived in close proximity to those taken out and killed. I come to know them as a friend, even a brother, as when you do live in such close proximity you can’t help but get to know that person in the next cell only too well.

Today, Arthur Rutherford was put to death, executed by the state for the crime he allegedly committed. I‘ve always known him by Dennis, and I’ll always remember him by Dennis. I’ll remember the long conversations we had around the solid concrete wall that separated our cells, often late at night when neither of us could sleep. He was a simple man, proud to be a “county boy” and what you saw was pretty what you got without any pomp or pretense. He could ramble on for hours talking about how barely an adult he went into the Marines and fought for his country in Vietnam. He’d talk of the friends that never made it home, those lost in a war that never made any sense – but it did to him as it was a simple issue... he served his country when they called him to duty, and was proud to do it.

Other times he could and would often talk for hours about his kids. Often while talking he would make small toys for his daughters out of yarn we would get in hobby-craft packages. I complimented him on a little turtle he made once and a few days later he sent me one just like it for my daughter. He did never had much money so I wouldn’t have asked but then I didn’t need to because that was just Dennis.

It’s been almost a year since the Governor had signed his death warrant and sent him back to Florida State Prison where they carry out executions, He was originally scheduled to be executed on January 21, 2005 but at the very last minute the U.S. Supreme Court granted a stay of execution to consider the question of whether the method in which lethal injection administered in Florida is unconstitutionally cruel and unusual.

As I understand it, they actually had him strapped to the gurney with the needle in his arm before he was granted that stay. I watched a local television station covering the anticipated execution “live” from outside the prison on my own television. They talked with is daughters and I was surprised that they were all grown. As they stood outside the prison on that cold winter day they had to ask the television crew if their father had gotten a stay as it was already after 6:00pm – the designated time executions are carried out – and they didn’t know.

Nobody spoke of his children huddled outside the prison waiting to hear whether their father was dead. The families of the condemned are the forgotten victims in all of this and seldom is their voice ever heard. What crime did they commit? What did they ever do to deserve that torment they are deliberately put through?

Today they lost their father. Is society now somehow safer than it would have been if Dennis were simply allowed to live out the rest of his life in a maximum-security prison? What good was actually accomplished by putting Dennis to death?

Today, we as a society choose to deliberately kill a man. Although convicted of murder, that is not who he was… that is a simple tragic event, an isolated act, and not the sum of his total life. Dennis was more than that, Dennis was a simple country boy not unlike many of us, and proud of it. He was equally proud to serve his country honorably when called to duty; sacrificing so much of himself in a war most of us still can’t make sense of. He came home a troubled young man but still committed himself to being a responsible husband and father. He was a Christian and believed in the power or forgiveness even when other refused to show mercy and compassion towards him.

Tonight the cellblock is much quieter than it usually is as many others around me that also actually know Dennis silently mourn the loss of a friend. In my own silence, I pray for his children who once again had to gather outside the prison and wait for what must have seemed like an eternity to learn whether their father lived or died. Tonight the lost their father and that’s something none of us should forget. When we pray for the victims, let’s remember all the victims.