One year ago today at 1:00 a.m., the state executed my friend, Steve Henley. Steve had spent 23 years on Tennessee’s death row for the murder of Fred and Edna Stafford, an elderly couple who lived near Steve’s grandmother. Steve was convicted and sentenced to death based on the testimony of a co-defendant who made a deal and served only 5 years for his part in the crime.
Given all that Steve had been through over the years, he faced his death with dignity and truly was at peace in those hours and minutes before his execution. I remain grateful for that gift. Some people believe that Steve deserved to be executed for the crimes for which he was convicted. And certainly, the murders were horrid and the suffering of the Stafford family cannot be overstated. I hope that family can find some peace.
And yet, today as I reflect on my experience of last year, I am reminded of those hidden costs of the death penalty that are not often considered. Now, by costs, in this instance, I don’t mean literal dollars, though study after study demonstrates that the financial costs of the death penalty system are exorbitant and far more expensive than a system which only utilizes life without parole. But, in this case, I am talking about the human costs that no one wants to talk about, the costs that no one wants to see.
I think of Steve’s family today–elderly parents, two sisters, two children, four grandchildren, nieces and nephews. None of these people did anything wrong, and yet they suffered and still suffer the devastating pain that anyone suffers who loses a loved one to homicide. And not only did they suffer the pain of Steve’s death, but they suffered for 23 years as they prepared for his death. One year later, the wounds are still gaping as they deal with the lasting effects of Steve’s execution.
Then, there are those working in the Dept. of Corrections who we ask to carry out these executions while most of us are asleep. Now, having been there to witness an execution and seeing it with my own eyes, I have no doubt of the mental, emotional, and spiritual trauma that these individuals suffer as a consequence. You cannot witness such a thing, nevermind carry it out, without significant consequences. Former Warden at the Florida State Prison, Ron McAndrew, travels the country sharing his experience of carrying out executions in Florida and of the damage it did to him. He talks about his journey from solid supporter of the death penalty to someone who now advocates for alternatives to execution in order to help with his own healing.
Regardless of how you feel about the death penalty, the fact is that Steve Henley is a free man today. For him, it is over. And yet, it is not over for the rest of us, is it?
It is not over for the Stafford family as no number of executions can ever repair the harm done to them when their loved ones were murdered. It is not over for the Henley family who suffer the mental, emotional, and physical consequences of the ordeal through which they traveled and the grief that they now bear. It is not over for the correctional officers, the Warden, the Commissioner, who are asked to carry out these executions on our behalf, strapping an individual down to a gurney, a person who they may have known for years, and kill him or her. And, it is not over for us. It is not over for us who continue to put our faith in violence to solve our problems or right our wrongs. Because no matter how we try, the violent act of an execution just does not fill the void. Violence doesn’t have that power. Such a void is one that only the love of God and our community can ever begin to fill.
And so regardless of what we think or feel about Steve Henley today, let us all remember those living with the grim realities of the death penalty whose continued suffering is all too real and all too costly.
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