Strapped to the execution gurney in Huntsville, Texas, Michael Hall told those assembled to watch him die that he was not the same man who had shot a 19-year-old woman to death 13 years earlier.
“The old is gone,” he said. “That person is dead.”
Stories of condemned inmates who find God and goodness while they await execution are nothing new. But in recent decades, they have become a lot more plausible. A century ago, the condemned counted their time on death row in months. Now they count it in years—and sometimes decades. Those executed in 2011, the year Hall was put to death, had spent an average of 16.5 years on death row.
As a historian of the modern American death penalty, I have argued that the extraordinary amount of time that now elapses between sentencing and execution has changed the public’s perception of capital punishment. It has also changed the condemned.
Death row transformations
The passage of time now allows those sentenced to death to do what their predecessors never could have done.
They publish books warning children about the dangers of gang membership. They earn theology certificates from divinity schools. They even fall in love and get married.
Those on both sides of the political spectrum have been moved by stories of a condemned person’s transformation.
In the 1990s, conservative Evangelical minister Pat Robertson led a campaign to save the life of Karla Faye Tucker, a Texas woman whose “genuine change of heart” seemed so authentic that it forced him to rethink his support of the death penalty.
In the 2000s, a decidedly more progressive set of advocates tried to stop the execution of Stanley “Tookie” Williams in California. Williams, a cofounder of the Crips street gang, had been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his antigang activism from death row. To execute him would be to execute a man who no longer existed, they argued.
But these well-publicized campaigns, and their less-visible counterparts, have failed. Tucker was executed in 1998, Williams in 2005.
Redeemed, but not saved
Just this past September, Pope Francis pleaded with the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles to spare the life of Kelly Gissendaner, a woman who planned her husband’s murder in 1998.
In her decade-and-a-half stay on death row, Gissendaner had earned a theological certificate and struck up a friendship with the internationally renowned German theologian Jürgen Moltmann. A photo of her graduation from her theology program shows her proudly showing Moltmann her final project for the class: a devotional called “Journey of Hope by Faith.”
Gissendaner’s redemption did not matter. Georgia executed her on September 30.
Her death was consistent with a peculiar trend in the history of the American death penalty: As the growing amount of time between sentencing and execution has made redemption claims more plausible, mercy has ironically become more difficult to find.
Skepticism about jailhouse conversions and a desire to do justice for murder victims and their family members are certainly part of the reason. But a less obvious and strikingly different explanation comes from our history.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, rehabilitation was a central objective of execution. In Colonial America, Puritans conceived of a death sentence as a mechanism for inducing penitence in the wayward.
Even in the 19th century, a few supporters of capital punishment took issue with the notion that the punishment of death was at odds with the goal of reforming the wicked. The sentence of death was far more likely to bring a wayward sheep back into the flock than was consignment to the penitentiaries that were sprouting up in the nation, conservative ministers like George Cheever thought.
When it’s made explicit, such logic may seem foreign to modern Americans living in a comparatively secular age. But popular culture from our recent history shows us that this way of thinking still holds unconscious sway over us.
In several cinematic takes on the death penalty at the end of the 20th century—from The Green Mile and Dead Man Walking to The Chamber—a death sentence, brought to its conclusion, helps guilty inmates find a goodness within themselves that was never before there. An execution date, these films suggested, prompts a degree of self-examination and personal transformation that incarceration cannot rival.
A holy penalty
These films suggest that a centuries-old strain of Christian thought remains with us, softening our collective capacity to see the death penalty as cruel. In a nation filled with believers in an afterlife, the redemption of a condemned person does not make the death penalty horrible; it makes it holy.
Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has suggested that Americans' religious character has made them more tolerant of capital punishment. Scalia, a Catholic defender of the death penalty, has noted that it is no surprise that the global movement against the death penalty took its firmest hold in “post-Christian Europe” rather than in the still-Christian United States. “For the believing Christian, death is no big deal,” he has argued, not an end to all existence, but merely to an earthly one.
In a more secular form, we might hear echoes of such thinking in a 2007 Supreme Court opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy. “It might be said,” Kennedy observed, “that capital punishment is imposed because it has the potential to make the offender recognize at last the gravity of his crime.”
Such a sensibility helps to explain why death penalty abolitionism is difficult in the United States.
In our collective imagination, capital punishment has sometimes seemed like a sanction that brings closure not only to the family members of victims, but also to the condemned themselves.
“If the State of Georgia offers no mercy, she has received already the mercy of Heaven,” the German theologian Moltmann said when the Georgia Board of Pardon and Paroles denied Kelly Gissendaner’s clemency last February.
In American culture, though, there has long been a symbiotic relationship between the harshness of the state and the mercy of heaven.