I wrote this the morning after Kelly’s execution, as I had many different thoughts on what had transpired. I initially decided not to publish it, but after some editing and letting some time pass, I’ve decided to post it up. If you were not aware of the case or the circumstances around it, Wikipedia provides a concise summary of the relevant details.
I stayed up late last night, but not to play games or watch a movie. I had several tabs of my web browser open, tuned to Twitter updates from media outlets in Atlanta covering the last appeals and eventual execution of KG. I also had Facebook open, knowing that this was a popular cause to support among my clergy peers. During the previous vigil in March, a number of posts declaring support and offering prayers showed up in my feed. Curiously, I didn’t see one at all last night, and have only seen one thus far today. I started to post, but as usual, I find my thoughts to windy and twisting to condense into a *.sm (Social Media) format.
The first thing I need to say is that, theologically, as a Lutheran, I support the death penalty. For the state to carry out its God given duty of keeping good order, it must have the right to give and take life temporally. Most Americans, living our insular lives in an incredibly well ordered society (comparatively speaking) have never experienced the risks of a place where good order is just a dream, and so we take that for granted and believe no authority is needed to procure it – from our experience, it is status quo. So, while I support the death penalty, I understand how many people can, without irony on their part, declare it uncivilized.
That said, I have also experienced our courts first hand in this country, in more than one state and more than one setting. The idea that our courts regularly and uniformly crank out justice or that they are relatively mistake free in their judgements is ludicrous.
So what about this case in particular? In my opinion, there was simply too many question marks in KG’s case, to many things that made her a statistical outlier to the normal death penalty case, for me to be comfortable with her execution. The first and most compelling of these to me is that the man who carried out the murder is still alive. If the reason is that the guilty plea and subsequent testimony of her ex-boyfriend was at its heart a financial deal to save the state time and money, then what has transpired can hardly be called justice. It was, at best, “business” which is a mode of operation that by definition is foreign to the court system. If confession and contrition are indeed the reason for his receiving life in prison rather than the death penalty, I am unclear on how the same privilege was not afforded to KG, whose life changes have been universally testified to as being heartfelt and sincere. And so I found myself sincerely disappointed that the last, desperate round of appeals found no fertile ground, and genuine sadness that the execution was carried out.
However, there are a few rough edges to how the narrative that has played out that, simply put, fascinate me to no end.
The first, and perhaps shortest, is that the state should have had the honor and courage to commute the sentence after the debacle that transpired last March. The very fact that the state hires shadowy apothecaries for the drug is not conducive to their case for that absolute authority over life and death. Even more damning is that the state orders a prescription of the lethal drug for the defendant, has that order filled on behalf the defendant by an unregulated apothecary, and then forces the defendant to ingest the lethal drug that, on the surface, she supposedly prescribed for herself. Firing squads and guillotines are among the lists of methods that would be far less heinous and more honorable to impose on a criminal. A clean and above board death is necessary to prove the worthiness of the authority of the state to carry out executions. Anything as absurd and convoluted as that lends credence to the thought that the state itself thinks it does not deserve that authority.
The second is that it was erroneously reported at first that not one person had shown up in support of KG’s execution last night. It was only after the supporter by tweeting photos of the crowd around her that forced the onsite reporter to amend his assertion. There were two areas set up for demonstrators, both in support of and against the execution. The “against” side drew a significant crowd, and the lone supporter was mistakenly directed in to the same crowd. The fact that the police assumed that everyone there was there to protest the execution (and also dressed in full riot gear) should be a good indication of how this was perceived internally by the state. The testimony of the lone supporter? Not a single clergy person present mentioned the victim or the victim’s family in their prayers that night. The reporter on site verified this assertion as well. The credibility of the church and the sincerity of our compassion took a blow that night, and we were terribly oblivious to it.
The third is that KG’s repeated and desperate pleas for clemency stand at stark odds with the faith she reportedly carried and shared. To the point that, combined with the above evidence, I have to wonder anew at the depth of that faith and the credibility of the testimony that it was sincere. KG knew what she did, felt grief and sorrow for it, knew that she was rightly convicted, and faced the legal consequences of it. I can’t help but contrast her reaction with that of all those who have gone before her. What a witness it would have been to use this time, this spotlight, to promote that faith, to give hope of the promise to others with a testimony that life awaited her beyond this life, and that she would be able to make amends with her husband in person after the execution! What a witness to declare that her guilt or innocence in the courts was inconsequential to the declaration of forgiveness and washing that she had received in her Baptism from her Savior! How did she overlook this opportunity! And if she did, how is it that not one of her mentors and advisors at Emory or among the clergy supporting her suggested this, or spoke it themselves on her behalf?! No, instead of the narrative being about faith and salvation, the spotlight was used instead to promote a political agenda against the death penalty.
Which leads me to my final thought in all this. KG had the amazing and rare opportunity to become a modern martyr for her faith. I don’t recall any of the early martyrs drawing attention to the injustice of the state or attempting to reform it. I do recall them standing with courage, facing their unjust death with the witness that it was, far from being a show of power on the part of the state, a show of just how powerless the temporal kingdom really is next to the power of God to forgive, to heal, and to save. But it’s hard to critique her in that spotlight – what a strange and difficult place for her to be in! And to know the encouragement she received would not have lead her in that direction. Indeed, all her encouragement and support led her to where she was that night, desperately waiting to hear good news from what I have already admitted is a less than perfect temporal authority. And so even as I mourn the passing of KG, I also mourn that the church, because of its focus on political change, seems no longer capable of providing a focus on the Gospel. I don’t blame Kelly for not taking up the mantle of martyr. I blame the church for having forgotten where good news comes from, and for forgetting that crucial revelation in the time when it was needed most.