The Year that Was

I am sitting in my office on Tuesday afternoon, December 23, and all the staff has left for the holiday. I am going through the piles of paper on my desk to be sure I haven’t missed anything too monumental before I head home for Christmas.

And, I decided that I need to reflect for just a few minutes on the year that was. This year has been a bit of a roller coaster ride, but what’s new for the work of abolition? TCASK’s biggest achievement of 2008 has to be Paul House’s release on July 2nd. Watching that van drive through the rows of barbed wire at DeBerry Special Needs facility and into the parking lot with Paul House sitting in the back seat, eating a candy bar and drinking a Pepsi, unshackled and wearing free world clothes–that is a sight that I won’t soon forget.

After so many people worked for so long to secure his freedom, after an anonymous donor posted the bail money, to stand there in that parking lot and watch Paul ride off with Joyce toward home….home. Words cannot really describe it.

Christmas 2008 will be Paul’s first Christmas with his family in 22 years. I give thanks to God and to all of you who helped get him home. What a gift!

I also want to reflect for a moment on my friend, Steve Henley, who is scheduled to be executed on February 4, 2009. I began visiting Steve almost 10 years ago through the Visitor on Death Row Program, long before I became the Executive Director of TCASK. I haven’t written much about Steve since his date was set because I still can’t believe this is really happening. I was with Steve’s daughter yesterday for just a short time when she came by the office, and as tears rolled down her face when talking about her Dad, I had to look away for a minute. It was just too much raw pain for me to take.

Here at Christmas time, I think about lots of people. I think about Carolyn Muncey, the woman for whose murder Paul House has spent the last 22 years on death row. I think about Carolyn’s family and what they have been through and all the Christmas’s with her they have missed. I think about the brokenness of a system that would rather maintain a conviction at all costs than admit a mistake and seek the truth in how Carolyn Muncey died and who is responsible.

I think about Fred and Edna Stafford, the elderly couple who Steve Henley is convicted of killing. I think of their families at Christmas time and the empty places at the table where Fred and Edna would be sitting for Christmas dinner. I think about how senseless violence is.

And yet all the pain that these families have suffered somehow cannot justify the pain that the Henley family now suffers as they await Steve’s execution. His family has committed no crime. To see Steve’s grandkids grieve as they struggle to understand how their own state could kill their “Gramps.” To see Steve’s elderly parents–two hardworking and kind citizens of Tennessee–with tears rolling down their faces as they ask questions about what is happening with their son’s case, my heart breaks open a little wider every day.

My prayer this Christmas is that we, as a people, find other ways to deal with the violence and grief around us, ways that do not inflict more of the same onto other families. As people of various faiths celebrate the light which comes into the world during this season, may we let that light lead us, coming out of the shadows and embodying a better way of living together. This is my prayer for all of us.

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