He killed his grandmother. And he did so brutally, dumping her in the water before she was even dead, if the coroner is correct that her cause of death was drowning. He killed two others — all evil acts. And then once in prison, he managed to kill a fellow inmate. So, I get why the governor of Tennessee refused to grant Nick Sutton clemency when the time came for his execution and final appeals.
But no one was asking for the man to be released. Instead, people, including prison staff and the sister of the inmate he killed, were advocating for his life. In the 34 years since he had been on death row, he had done what you would hope would happen in prison. He changed. He started caring about others. To judge from his last words, he became a man of faith. He even saved the lives of prison staff when inmates got violent. One former corrections officer whose life Sutton saved said in the plea to the governor that if Sutton were released from prison tomorrow (which was never under consideration, he was just making a point), he would welcome Sutton in his home and as a neighbor.
His crimes were evil. They were also committed by a teenager whose mother abandoned him and whose father abused him and went on to commit suicide. Reports indicated that his father introduced his son, as a child, to drugs, leading to Sutton’s drug addiction. One recent headline in the news cited the abused boys we send to death row. It’s usually not a happy upbringing that leads a man to such a place.
It’s all so miserable. And even more so, of course, for the families of those he killed all those years ago. On social media, I saw a lot of burn-in-hell, this-should-have-happened-years-ago kind of comments. I couldn’t help but think about mercy. Justice is crucial. But so is mercy. To have the civic and moral imagination to care that a person who has done heinous things may be a person whose life has value, the kind of value he didn’t see in others, seems important. Maybe it matters especially these days, when we are exposed to information about people all over the world and also to grievous stories about people in our lives, but our responses can be so transactional and judgmental.
Nick Sutton’s execution happened in Tennessee, around the fifth anniversary of those mostly Coptic Christian Egyptian men who were beheaded on the shores of Libya by ISIS militants. The witness of their families to forgiveness is remarkable. Of course, they have the consolation of knowing what noble deaths their loved ones died — such courage and conviction! These death-row situations are more like senseless violence. But there is a shared brutality (and the video of the Coptic martyrs’ deaths are on the Internet). And yet these families — they are praying for the conversion of the terrorists. They are praying for their peace. We do see this closer to home, too — we saw such remarkable forgiveness after the Charleston church shooting in 2015, for instance. But in America, when it comes to the death penalty, we have anger and argument. But there’s something about this spirit of mercy that we could afford to latch onto.
There’s something about the ritual these executions have become in America that has got to be dehumanizing to more than the prisoner who is executed. Twenty-four hours before the public starts paying much attention to the case, as the appeals for clemency are at their last stage, the news breaks of the governor’s response. It happened this time just as the Democratic debate in Las Vegas was ending, and the governor did not intervene to stop the execution. As the next day falls, a last-meal request makes the news. Later in the day, media show up at the prison as witnesses. Nowadays, there are social-media links for the livestream of the press conference after the execution.
Sutton was the 1,156th person executed in the United States since 1976. You hear protests about racial disparities and other injustices. But what about the very concept of the state executing people in these times? It was probably good that Nick Sutton was a converted, peaceful element in prison. Needless to say, not everyone is. He wasn’t always. But these state executions are a poison among poisons in our law and culture. They insist that more violence and death are a good. We pretend that this punishment will be a civilizing influence. But it’s probably not on the next Nick Sutton born of similar circumstances. I think of friends who throw their heart into increasing literacy in the inner city, who help people who so many of those who argue about laws sometimes don’t even know. We need to do more to support this kind of work, works of mercy, the preventive work.
And I do think that good Christian pro-life people need to examine the witness of not having mercy for a Nick Sutton. People respond to love. Mercy is for the guilty. We can’t be callous in these circumstances, or our arguments about the life of the most innocent might not be heard. I understand why the governor did what he did, but the death penalty should prompt more of a cultural examination of conscience. It could bring a lot of people of good will — those “pro-life” and “social justice” groups that seem strangely divided — together.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.