My home state of Missouri is one of the most aggressive in carrying out the death penalty. So far this year, Missouri has executed two men, Walter Storey, forty-seven, on February 11 and, most recently, Cecil Clayton, seventy-four, on March 17. Since 1989, Missouri has executed eighty-two people.
From conviction through appeal to last night on earth, Storey was twenty-four years on death row, Clayton eighteen. Storey was convicted three times in retrials for killing his next-door neighbor, a thirty-six-year-old special education teacher. He was searching for beer money. Clayton shot a sheriff’s deputy. Severe temper outbursts had plagued him for years, ever since a sawmill accident cost him a fifth of his brain. Doctors had to remove that much to save his life, along with a sizable splinter that penetrated his skull in the accident.
I am opposed to the death penalty, though I don’t recall ever writing about it before now. Probably my hesitation is due to the degree of my opposition to it. I’m not the sort to go out holding a sign or marching for much of anything. I guess I oppose capital punishment only about six days out of a week.
That seventh day is when I hear about an unusually ugly murder, committed by a heartless, merciless murderer. In some trials the lethality and viciousness of the killer, and the blood of the victim, simply begs for blood-vengeance. Then I am all pro-death penalty. I want to see that guy turned into a crispy critter, none of that la-la land pentobarbital-induced sleepy-time bye-bye. A hemlock concoction is too good for the killer. Cruel and unusual, I’m thinking, is exactly the sort of execution called for, and the crueler and the more unusual it is, the better.
That’s just in the abstract, of course, only one day a week. Twenty-three years ago, it didn’t feel so abstract. I was sitting in a Kansas City, Kansas courtroom with my mother as the killer of her brother, my uncle Harry, was arraigned. A sixteen-year-old boy, on a dare with a borrowed gun, randomly selected my uncle, seventy-one, as his victim. He took uncle Harry’s sixteen dollars, and then with one shot to the head, executed him behind a gas station. That kid spawned an instinct rising in me with such strength I was shocked. I wanted him dead, right now, then and there, in that courtroom.
Harry was a self-effacing guy, the sort of fellow who would forget his own birthday party, as he had only a couple months before. My mother had planned it, but, well . . . Harry was wise to stay away from her for a while. At the time of his death they had not seen each other in four months. The diner where he’d hangout closed for his funeral and the entire staff attended the service. His was an undeserved death and left a hole in many lives.
I don’t ever remember such personal outrage as I felt watching that smirking kid in court. My feelings were primeval, primitive, and raw. That’s why I oppose the death penalty, not because killers don’t deserve it, but because in some way its application is intended to assuage all those visceral sensations, yet rarely does.
Clayton was missing a chunk of his frontal lobe, the part that governs behavior and judgment. By all accounts he went from being a loyal husband and father, a lay minister in his church, to a binge drinking alcoholic who abandoned his family to become the oldest inmate on Missouri’s death row. Storey was an angry man, going through a nasty divorce. He was out of cash and out of beer when he decided to rob his victim, and instead killed her by nearly decapitating her with a knife.
I understand why family members of both victims expressed satisfaction with the executions. I understand the outrage.
The word “closure” gets tossed around; as if that’s all we seek from another death. I do not think it serves us well to exult in anyone’s death, ever. To do so approaches “sinful wrath.” To avoid sinful wrath—blood feuds and the like—the king’s justice, dispassionately applied, is said to prevail. But when is capital punishment ever genuinely dispassionate? How does it bring “closure”?
There are good arguments for the death penalty, almost always and properly raised in connection with retributive justice, an exercise seeking to restore the seam torn in the community fabric. Yet even at our best, the justice administered is only approximate, tentative. A retributive justice demanding the ultimate penalty is always and only the product of an approximate justice, and therefore always defective.
Outside the courtroom that day in Kansas City, Kansas, I met a parish priest who knew the boy. He was there with the boy’s mother, and introduced her to me. The kid ran with a gansta crowd at the same high school from which Harry, my mother, the other sisters all graduated years before. I don’t recall anything she said but her tears, I remember them. And the priest, I remember, said the oddest thing. “He never had a chance.” Who the hell was he talking about? My uncle, I wanted to know? The boy? “Both,” he said, after a pause.
Russell E. Saltzman is a former Lutheran pastor transitioning to the Roman Catholic Church. His latest book is Speaking of the Dead. He can be reached at email@example.com, and his previous First Things contributions are here.