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Debating death row

by REV. DR. DEBORAH BARRETT, Zen Center of Orange County, Daily Pilot, Nov 26, 2005

Orange County, CA (USA) -- Convicted killer and former gang member Stanley "Tookie" Williams is scheduled to die by lethal injection Dec. 13. Many are calling for clemency because of the direction Williams' life has taken since he was put behind bars.

He has become an anti-gang crusader and has helped craft treatises between gangs. He also maintains his innocence. His story raises this question: At what, if any, point does someone earn redemption and forgiveness for past sins?

It is a gruesome irony that our holiday season this year will coincide with the execution of the 1,000th person since the Supreme Court legalized the death penalty 30 years ago.

Claims of innocence, religious conversion and good works done while in prison are relevant in parole hearings, but I do not think they are crucial to the capital punishment controversy.

People tend to be convinced that either it is just for prisoners to be executed if they murder someone, or it is simply wrong based on religious and humanitarian principles. My support for Stanley Tookie Williams' petition for clemency is based on the latter.

In Zen, we view wrongdoing as stemming from ignorance of who we truly are. The Zen Buddhist precepts are not taken literally, but they call for careful awareness about not killing or doing harm. It is our nature to try to do our best, to fall short and cause suffering, to feel sorry for it and to recommit to doing better.

In Zen we steer clear of words like "redemption" and "sin." To atone -- to be "at one" -- is accomplished by responding fully to the needs of the present moment.

We cannot claim to have a humane and decent society while we put people to death, however horrible their crimes. Many nations have abolished capital punishment. In the U.S., 12 states, including my home state of Iowa, have abolished the death penalty. Williams is one of California's 648 death-row inmates. There have been 11 executions here since 1976 and one in 2005.

A life sentence without possibility of parole is one alternative that would be most likely to receive widespread support.

The reasons for support of capital punishment bear reexamination. In recent years the public has become aware that the death penalty system is not fail-safe. Since 1973, more than 120 people have been released from death row because of evidence proving their innocence.

It is also beyond doubt that race and poverty are factors that unjustly influence whether a defendant will receive the death penalty.

Those who are concerned about costs and the burden placed on social services should take note of studies showing that the cost of death penalty cases far exceeds the cost of life imprisonment. For example, the Los Angeles Times reported in March of 2005 that the California death penalty system costs taxpayers $114 million per year beyond the cost of keeping convicts in prison for life.

The majority of professional criminologists reject the notion that the death penalty acts as a deterrent to murder.

The Southern states account for 80% of the executions, yet states in the South have the highest murder rates.

Research indicates that whether a perpetrator thinks he can get away with his crime or whether he knows he is very likely to be caught is a more relevant deterrent than the severity of the consequences.

Governors are given a broad power to grant clemency. They should not sidestep their duty by claiming they can't interfere with the jury's verdict because it is the will of the people. It is their specific responsibility to give further review to the person and situation, and to choose whether to show mercy. For those who are concerned about reelection as well as conscience, the facts show that since 1993, 15 governors have granted clemency, mostly on humanitarian grounds, and all but one were reelected.

Our Zen Center has a prison project. We have found that some inmates are drawn to Zen meditation as a means of transformation as well as a way to live as fully as possible while incarcerated. We have several practitioners who are serving life and double-life sentences. These men can be a positive influence on other prisoners who will be returning to mainstream society.

Stanley Tookie Williams seems to be an outstanding example of someone who has been able to make a contribution to society despite his past crimes.

There is much to be gained by sparing the lives of those on death row.

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