A good friend told me something startling. She said that, barring some unforeseen event, a good friend of hers was going to be poisoned to death by the state of Texas.
Her friend’s name was David Lee Powell, and David was a convicted criminal who was sentenced to death for the vicious, evil murder of a police officer named Ralph Ablanedo.
I recognize that David Lee Powell’s crime was heinous. And yet I don’t believe he was a heinous man. I don’t believe the state had the right to kill him. I also doubt, very much, that any of this—the shooting of a police officer or the poisoning of a convicted murderer—would have registered as more than a passing blip on the radar screen of my mind if I hadn’t been personally affected, albeit in an extremely indirect manner, by this sorrowful series of events.
But because I was personally affected, because I was challenged by conversations I had with my friend—about David Powell and the death penalty, about the state’s right to kill American citizens, and about my own obliviousness to political issues that don’t directly affect me—I volunteered to write a series of posts for the Texas Observer’s website. Excerpts from some of them follow.
During the two weeks I wrote these posts, which took the form of a daily countdown to David’s death, I found myself profoundly confronted by the experience.
Twelve Days Left to Live
June 3, 2010
Here’s something that David Powell, the man who’s scheduled to be killed in Huntsville on June 15, has set me to thinking about.
What does it mean, as a matter of public policy, to give up on the idea of redemption?
Here’s a man who is 59, and has been in prison for 32 years. His whole life—even according, it seems, to his jailers and prosecutors—has been virtuous, productive, and gentle, with the enormous, glaring, terrible exception of the horrible crime he committed.
One of the things about the death penalty is that, because convicted killers (for a whole variety of reasons) aren’t typically white, middle-class honor students, with reputations for being kindly, wholesome people, it’s very easy for middle-class people like me to presume that folks on death row are people from “over there.” Folks from another, meaner America—that hard, irredeemable underbelly of the nation’s poverty and crime. You know, the kind of place you see on Cops.
Of course, there are so many things wrong with this presumption that it’s hard to know where to begin. But imagine if one of the sweet, golden kids of your local high school—who made good grades, and volunteered for local charities, and got into a great college—got hooked on meth and, in a blind fog of addiction, killed a cop who pulled him over for a traffic violation. For this is what David Powell did.
Do you have to kill him?
I mean, of course, you’ve got to send him to prison. That goes without saying. But is the only purpose of his existence, now, to wait around until the state kills him? Is that really our only option?
Even if that kid, like David Powell has during his 32 years of incarceration, turns his life around? If he never receives a single demerit? If he’s awarded a prison “humanitarian prize,” and is a model of leadership and nonviolence for his fellow prisoners?
My more basic question is this: Do people who commit terrible crimes have no use or purpose in our world, regardless of what they could do in the future?
If a person murders somebody, does it really mean that nothing that person could possibly offer the world will ever be as valuable as our right to kill him?
And if that’s the case, what’s the moral implication of having a criminal justice system that’s strictly punitive? A system that in no way believes in, fosters, or promotes redemption? Because, folks, that’s pretty much what we’ve got on our hands at the moment.
And aside from the moral implications of that system, what are its practical implications? Even for those of us who live cosseted, cushy, middle-class lives.
Because if the purpose of prison, for people who haven’t committed murder, is just to lock up criminals, treat them like animals, and then release them on the general, unsuspecting population, then I fail to see how that serves the public interest.
And if the purpose of prison, for folks who have committed murder, is to keep them around, as in David Powell’s case, for 32 years, just in order to kill them, then again, whose interest is this system serving?
For one thing, what is the incentive, for the prisoners, of being nonviolent, if their good behavior has no bearing on their eventual punishment?
And for another, what does it mean that we, the American taxpayers, are subsidizing a prison system that seems like the closest possible thing to a PhD program in criminality? Because it seems to me that if you’re not an ace criminal by the time you enter prison, you sure as hell will be by the time you leave it.
What does it mean, for a society, to judge a person’s life by the worst thing he’s ever done? And to essentially give up on the 1 percent of our nation’s population who are now behind bars?
To me, it just seems that our current policy is, inevitably, self-destructive; harmful to our national life; and driven by a perfectly natural desire to punish “the bad guys.”
And to me, a country that’s given up on the idea of promoting goodness, especially among people who’ve committed the most terrible acts, seems like a dangerous place to live in.
Eleven Days Left to Live
June 4, 2010
People believe or they don’t believe in the death penalty for a whole bunch of reasons, many of them based on their personal and religious values. But I think the very best argument against the death penalty might have nothing to do with morality. It might have to do with government incompetence.
I happen to be among the last of the New Deal liberals. I actually believe that government can be a positive force in people’s lives. I mean, Social Security and unemployment benefits and Medicare, though they are completely inadequate and frustrating and flawed, do provide pretty convincing proofs of the advantages of the government’s involvement in everyday life.
And I was also in favor of passing the recent health care reform bill, as completely inadequate and frustrating and flawed as it was.
But of all the arguments against health care reform, the one that I found most persuasive was that government bureaucracy screws up everything it touches, and do we really want politicians and bureaucrats making decisions about our surgeries and prescription drugs?
That really hit home with me, folks. I mean, just because I have a certain amount of faith in the potential of government doesn’t mean I actually trust our government.
Maybe that’s because I’m Texan, and I think there’s a libertarian streak in your average Texan that’s about a mile wide. But it’s also because, if the people who are gonna be running health care in any way resemble the folks working at the post office, the IRS, or the DMV, then we’re all in big, big trouble.
So I have some big concerns about the government’s judgment in deciding which of its citizens to kill. And these concerns are not unfounded, especially because, since 1973, 138 Americans who were convicted of murder and sentenced to death have been exonerated—found to have been innocent and wrongly convicted.
And it’s extremely likely that Texas executed an innocent man in 2004, as described in “Trial by Fire” in The New Yorker (Sept. 7, 2009). These mistakes give me pause, friends. Because if one of the arguments in favor of the death penalty is that human life is incredibly precious, then I’m not certain how you can proceed confidently with a system that’s imprisoning and killing innocent people.
David Powell has taken responsibility for his crime—the murder of police officer, husband, and father Ralph Ablanedo—but nobody really knows what happened on the night the crime occurred. Partly because Powell was stoned out of his mind on methamphetamine that night. But also because proven prosecutorial misconduct worked to obscure the truth. That misconduct, along with other legal issues, caused David Powell’s first two sentences to be overturned. That’s why he’s been awaiting execution for 32 years.
And no matter which side of the issue you’re on, any American taxpayer has to be frustrated at the enormous waste—of time, money, and life—involved in taking the same man to court three times for the same crime, partly because elected officials worked to prevent the truth from being discovered in the first place.
Nine Days Left to Live
June 6, 2010
I’ve been thinking about the family of Ralph Ablanedo—the man David murdered on May 18, 1978, who was a police officer, husband, and father of two small children.
And I’ve been trying to imagine what they must be thinking about and feeling today, knowing that David has nine days left to live. I mean, I know there’s no way for me to know or feel what they’ve gone through.
And I know that it would be unspeakably vulgar for me even to pretend to know.
But I’ve been thinking about them. And the lifetime that’s passed between the night of Ralph Ablanedo’s murder and now. Thirty-two years. That’s a whole generation; four different decades; six different presidents. Birthdays, christenings, weddings . . .
And since David Powell’s first two sentences were overturned, that means the Ablanedo family has lived through three different court trials against the man who murdered a man they love(d).
So, for more time than I’ve been alive, Ralph Ablanedo’s family has been grieving over his death. And David Powell has been in prison. And the state of Texas has been saying they’re going to kill him.
Nothing about any of that sounds like justice to me.
In fact, for everybody involved, it sounds like slow torture. Imagine having to get up and get dressed day after day, year after year, and go to some horrible courthouse in order to listen to total strangers argue over the murder of somebody you love(d).
And then having to see the man who murdered him sitting there. And his mother.
And then having to listen to it all being discussed on TV, and read about it in the newspapers, and maybe even on blogs like this one.
I wonder if the Ablanedo family just can’t wait to get past June 15, or if they’re looking forward to it, or if by this point, the whole thing just feels totally irrelevant to what they’ve lived through. I wonder if they feel like the past 32 years have all been leading up to June 15. And if they do, what do they want from that day? Closure? Revenge? Catharsis?
Again and again, I read quotes in the newspaper from people whose loved ones have been murdered, and who attend the executions of their killers. And so often, they express this tragic, tragic feeling of disappointment about what they’ve seen. Just the other day, for instance, in the Dallas Morning News, a family member was quoted as saying that his nephew’s killer’s death was too easy. “It was like laying down and going to sleep,” he said. “My nephew suffered.”
I can only imagine that—beyond losing a beloved family member, and all the unknowable torture and agony that entails—living through the execution of a loved one’s killer, and then being disappointed by it, would be one of the saddest things life could ever hand you