Is redemption greater than execution?

On Oct. 20 at 7 p.m., Georgia executed Mark McClain. Mark was sentenced to death in 1995 for murdering Kevin Brown, a pizza store manager, during the course of an armed robbery. Kevin died of a single gunshot wound. I started writing and visiting Mark in 1996 when I volunteered in a prison ministry in Atlanta. Because of this long friendship, I testified before the State Board of Pardons and Paroles in support of Mark’s petition for clemency. My appeal to the board and my position today is that justice for Brown’s murder would be served better by Mark’s life than by his death.

Like war and abortion, the death penalty remains a controversial ethical question in our society, including among persons of faith. Although the Christian tradition’s response to the death penalty has varied historically, there is an undisputed, consistent trend towards limiting killing. Most mainline Protestant churches now have official statements against the use of the death penalty. And the late Pope John Paul declared the death penalty to be “cruel and unnecessary.” Even the Southern Baptist Convention’s resolution in 2000 condoning execution prohibits its use in situations where there is evidence of bias and unfairness.

Within wider society, there has also been a slow but steady trend toward ending the death penalty based on fundamental human rights, concern for wrongful convictions and the existence of less costly alternatives to executions, such as life in prison. More than two-thirds of countries today have abolished the death penalty through actual law or practice. In fact, in 2008, 93 percent of worldwide executions were carried out by only five countries: China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the U.S.

Although the U.S. is still a leader in executions worldwide, we too have steadily been moving away from the death penalty. Supreme Court decisions in 2002 and 2005 declared its use unconstitutional in the case of the mentally disabled and minors. And as more people recognize the financial burden of capital punishment and evidence of false convictions emerges, there is a movement against the death penalty at the state level: Joining 12 other states, New Jersey and New York voted to abolish the death penalty in 2007, and just this year New Mexico repealed the death penalty.

Another compelling critique of the death penalty is the arbitrary way in which it is applied. This issue certainly applied to Mark’s case. His legal defense team from the Georgia Resource Center argued that Mark’s sentence failed the legal standard of being “proportional” to his crime, based on a state’s fair application of the death penalty. This argument was supported by a 2007 investigative series in the AJC. Based on data from an expert criminologist, the AJC concluded that out of the 1,315 death-penalty-eligible cases in Georgia since 1995, capital punishment had been sought and applied with the fairness of a “roulette wheel.” Out of the 55 cases of convicted murder during an armed robbery in Georgia in 1995, prosecutors sought the death penalty in only 16 cases, and Mark was the only defendant to receive a death sentence.

But beyond the legal issues, it was Mark’s life that, for me, has provided the most compelling argument against state killing. I asked the pardon board for Mark’s clemency because I believe that he had become a different person from the man who robbed that pizza store in 1994. One of the first things that struck me about Mark was that he never excused or denied his past wrongdoing. He always expressed deep remorse for allowing his life to be consumed by drugs and alcohol and for the subsequent indifference that led to Brown’s murder. Although Mark spoke about the pain he experienced with his mother’s death in 1986 and how his life took a turn for the worse afterward, he never used this as an excuse for his choices. Instead, he often expressed thankfulness for his arrest and conviction, which forced him to stop and face what his life had become.

From that willingness to express remorse and take responsibility, Mark began a sincere journey of redemption and faith. I know many people are skeptical of “jail house” conversions. But because I had the privilege of knowing Mark for 13 years, I can attest to the genuineness of Mark’s transformation. In one particular letter, Mark expressed his experience of God’s grace in his life: “Sometimes, people have to be going through some difficult times to turn to the Lord Jesus. That’s what happened with me. After hitting rock bottom and being disgusted with myself, I turned to the Lord Jesus with my ‘ALL.’”

One of the great fruits of Mark’s redemption is that he became a man who cared for others. He often spoke of his love for his family and how he prayed constantly for them. Although he was limited in his ability to show friendship through material expression, throughout the years I received birthday cards and other small gifts, such as a blanket Mark crocheted himself. But perhaps his most meaningful gestures of friendship were the faithful prayers and the constant concern expressed in his letters and phone calls. Because of his experience of redemption, Mark became capable of loving others again.

I know nothing erases the tragedy of Mark’s crime or the pain caused to Kevin Brown’s family and friends. But I believe the last 15 years of Mark’s life are an indisputable testimony to the potential within every person to change their lives when empowered by grace and by the company of supportive friends. That message is good news for all of us, whether we are on death row or not, since no single one of us can claim that our lives have not contained darkness, wrongdoing and hurtful actions. Mark had changed his life for the better, and I am convinced that his living did more to redeem his past than his death ever will. My hope is that one day our society will embrace a better measure of justice — a justice with life — rather than the justice of death.

Sarah Moses teaches in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Mississippi and is a member of The Community of Sant’Egidio, an ecumenical organization with a prison ministry.

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