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April, 2022

Honoring Life This Springtime

In nature, springtime is ripe with possibility. Trees bud, buttercups bloom, temperatures warm, and life comes alive.

This spring, In sharp contrast to the season, states like Texas and Tennessee schedule death. They “schedule” death, as if an execution is simply another appointment on a calendar like getting a haircut or going to a PTA meeting.

Texas has scheduled the execution of Melissa Lucio for April 27, only 20 days from this posting. Ms. Lucio faces execution for a crime that almost certainly never happened. In 2008, she was sentenced to death for the murder of her 2-year-old daughter Mariah, who died tragically two days after accidentally falling down a flight of stairs. Ms. Lucio was taken into custody and blamed for her child’s death. According to the Innocence Project:

Detectives jumped to judgment and just two hours after Mariah died, took Ms. Lucio in for questioning. During the interrogation, officers berated and intimidated Ms. Lucio, who was pregnant and in shock from the loss of her child, for five hours. Research has shown that survivors of sexual abuse and violence, like Ms. Lucio, are more vulnerable to falsely confessing under such coercive conditions. And experts who have reviewed Ms. Lucio’s case, including reviewed her interrogation records, have concluded that Ms. Lucio “was relentlessly pressured and extensively manipulated” during the interrogation. At 3 a.m., Ms. Lucio said, “I guess I did it,” at 3 a.m. to get the officers to end the interrogation. Her statement was then misconstrued as a confession.

Melissa Lucio has maintained her innocence for 14 years. During her interrogation, she stated more than 80 times that she did not hurt her child, until coerced by police officers.

Before Texas plans to execute Ms. Lucio, Tennessee is planning to execute Oscar Smith, the oldest inmate on Tennessee’s death row at 72 years old, on April 21. Mr. Smith has been on death row since 1990.

Predictably, there are unanswered questions about the evidence used against him and the fairness of the process. On Monday, the Tennessean reported that Mr. Smith’s attorneys have petitioned the court to consider new evidence, demonstrating an unknown person’s DNA is on the murder weapon found at the crime scene where Mr. Smith’s wife, Judy Robird Smith, and her two sons from another marriage, Chad and Jason Burnett were murdered in 1989.

Tennessee has five executions scheduled in 2022, including Mr. Smith’s, more than any other state. Texas is next with four.

In these cases, the same realities become all too clear. Many of the condemned suffered violent abuse and trauma as children at the hands of those who were supposed to protect them. Many have intellectual disability or have developed severe mental illness. And all too often, they were not provided adequate defense during their trials.

In many of the Tennessee cases of those now facing execution and of those already executed, jurors have attested that they did not have an accurate understanding of the sentences the men would receive if not given a death sentence, or they wrongly believed that Tennessee would never carry out the executions. Tennessee did not execute anyone from 1960 to 2000. Jurors also raise the concern that they were not given the option of alternative sentences that juries in Tennessee now have, like life without the possibility of parole, which had yet to become law. In other words, many of those currently scheduled for execution in Tennessee would not receive a death sentence if tried today.

Of course, we can all agree that these are terrible crimes and that surviving family members have suffered immense pain and trauma because of the murder of their loved ones. The hurt is beyond description. But trapping these families in a legal process for decades that only compounds their pain and does not adequately address their financial, emotional, and spiritual need is certainly not the answer. We can do better.

In this month, when people of many faiths celebrate their holiest days, as nature gives way to new life, and as possibility is born, let us seek to honor life, to join together to stop these executions, and to work for a world where the death penalty is no more

Ask Governor Lee to stop the execution of Oscar Smith.

Ask Governor Abbott to stop the execution of Melissa Lucio.

Read the Tennessean story.

Image from Innocence Project