In last week’s Nashville Scene, the cover story focused on the case of Steve Henley, a Tennessee death row inmate executed in February 2009. As most of you who regularly read this blog already know, I visited Steve for the past 10 years, and over those years, he became like a brother to me. When I first began visiting him, I was a young minister working in a local church and was not serving TCASK in my current position. As his execution approached, I struggled in dealing with Steve’s execution as both his spiritual advisor and as the Executive Director of TCASK. Playing both roles was very difficult, and I continue to deal with my own personal grief and the grief of his family in the aftermath of the execution.
When I saw the article in the Scene, the title unnerved me, “Manburner.” I was eating lunch with a friend with whom I was sharing about my experience of the execution when she said, “Hey, did you see the Scene?” My emotions were already heightened so the title really hit me in the gut.
As I read the story, I appreciated that the writer, Brantley Hargrove, introduced readers to Steve Henley the man, hardworking farmer, and father, who was was doing his best to maintain his grandpa’s farm and provide for his kids. At his best, that is who Steve was. As I continued reading, the circumstances and theories about the tragic and horrible murders of the Staffords were detailed, all of which I had read before in the trial transcripts. The circumstantial evidence presented was damning.
But there were things left out of the story, things like the fact that Steve talked to a guy about a truck driving job only 10 minutes after the crime, that the Henley family is still unclear as to what the “feud” between these families was about, that Steve was not even involved personally in the car accident with the Staffords which was used as part of the motive for what happened, though the vehicle he shared with Buck Anderson was.
I also appreciated that Brantley laid out the facts about the sloppy investigation of the crime–like a relatively shiny shell casing from Steve’s rifle discovered in the ashes of the Staffords’ home only after the rifle was discovered (the rifle that Flatt told officials where to find). If one reads the trial transcripts about the investigation, the number of problems is unsettling .
But, I admit that the Scene article was also very hard for me to read because attempting to reconcile the person who killed those elderly people as possibly being the same person that I knew and loved for 10 years is not easy. At the same time, I recognize that I wasn’t there and did not know Steve Henley or Terry Flatt in 1985 when their lives were spiraling out of control. And, that all of us, whether we want to admit it or not, are capable of some pretty awful things given our circumstances and state of mind–this is not an excuse but a reality. And at the end of the day, as Sister Helen Prejean states, “There is more to every person than the worst thing he or she has ever done.” Thanks be to God.
And still, for me, the death penalty really isn’t about the people who commit these awful crimes. Once we as a society get to the point of an execution, the people we execute are already in prison, being held accountable for their actions. So the act of execution then really becomes about us as a people, and how we choose to act. Do we behave in the same manner that the convicted chose to or do we respond differently? For me, as a Christian, I have to ask, “Do I choose to allow the one who murdered dictate my actions or do I choose to look to the example of Jesus Christ and allow him to dictate my actions?”
So while Steve’s guilt or innocence does not change my feelings one way or the other concerning the death penalty, I struggle with truly understanding the person I knew and loved in Steve. All along I was very clear with him that his guilt or innocence changed nothing concerning how I felt about him or whether we would remain friends. I wanted him to reach a place where he could acknowledge his part in what had happened, if he, in fact, killed the Staffords or participated in the murder with Flatt. But for 23 years and until the end, Steve was adamant about his innocence, and he needed for me to believe him when so few others did.
So I am left with the memories of my friend, remaining questions about what really happened, and the reality of a system that sanctioned and pursued his death. None of us will ever know what happened that evening in July 1985. What I do know is that two men were arrested for these brutal murders. One implicated himself, made a deal, and served only 5 years. The other was executed. The question remains, “Is this the kind of justice we want?”
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