“Who’s Sorry Now”

One minute after midnight, Wednesday morning, July 16, 2014. That’s tomorrow.

Tomorrow, if the State of Missouri has its way, John Middleton will be wrongfully executed in the face of a clear legal doubt. While his lawyers pursue last minute appeals–to the federal courts, perhaps the Supreme Court–Missouri has washed its hands of Middleton’s blood.

In a system that routinely fails to punish bad faith in prosecution–and again, rewards witnesses who please their prosecutors–this shouldn’t surprise anyone. What should surprise us is our apathy in the face of damning evidence: the justice we depend upon can just as quickly, and wrongfully, convict any one of us. But like a flock of sparrows, we wait until the scattered feathers settle–the cat is satisfied–and return as if we are not one less than we were yesterday.

Perhaps–I say this questioningly–apathy is only the bastard child of inexperience. It’s true that most of us have never been wrongly convicted, never known someone who is or has been wrongly convicted. I was the latter, once.

I know better now. It’s a mind-opening experience that filters every waking moment. The sunsets I can only send through photographs. The birdsongs I can only (try to) describe on paper. The world wide web of information–he loves to know what’s going on outside–that I can only filter through the clunky machinery of prison email and my letters. Above all, the years of life stripped away from a man whose dream is to sit on his own porch; and maybe to go for a walk if he feels like it–just to go, with nothing to bar the road and a horizon that goes on opening its doors.

In only one respect, my friend is lucky. His state does not have a death penalty. There’s still time, still a chance for someone to right so much wrong.

I’ve said in the past that I support the death penalty when fairly applied. I no longer believe that’s possible. Until we change, until our system of law and prosecution and witnessing and evidence changes, I can no longer support executions, whatever the crime. Life in prison, without parole, is long enough.

Yes, it’s too long for an innocent man. But maybe it’s long enough for the rest of us to nod our heads in belated justice, and say to a living human being, “we’re sorry. We made a mistake.”

Because frankly, just between you and me and the cemetary, that headstone doesn’t care who’s sorry now.

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