On a humid summer night in August 2007, I sat in one of my first seminary classes. After a brief welcome, our professor invited us to introduce ourselves to the nearest classmate. I went first.
“I’m Anna, from East Tennessee, first year divinity student, married, etc.”
Then it was his turn.
“I’m Fred. I was on death row, but my sentence was changed to a life sentence. I love these classes, and it’s good to meet you.”
Every Monday night of the first two semesters of my seminary education, I attended class at Riverbend Maximum Security prison on the outskirts of Nashville, Tennessee. Half of my classmates were students from Vanderbilt Divinity School, and the other half were students from the Riverbend prison population. Though we were referred to as “outside” or “inside” students, we were equals in the classroom. The class was part of a collaboration between Riverbend and Vanderbilt, begun in 2003, which continues today to bring inmates and divinity students together.
I came in with little understanding of the prison system and a lot of preconceived ideas about who lives within the walls of a maximum security institution. I pictured monstrous evil, but what I found inside was story after story of struggle, difficulty, and mistakes. I was forced to give up my simple definitions of good people versus bad people because those I met were simply people. I realized the capacity for good and evil are in each and every one of us, and I saw real-life stories of redemption. Though consequences are a reality, I saw humanity in the stories -- not just splashy headlines.
Just a few weeks into my time at Riverbend, an execution was set to occur. Tennessee’s death row is housed at Riverbend, and the execution was going to happen just beyond the classroom I visited every week. On September 12, 2007, I lay awake thinking of the man who would lose his life at the hands of the state, at the hands of all Tennesseans, at my hands. It was the first time in my life I had ever been kept awake by something larger than my own personal problems.
What I learned while at Riverbend was that we are all connected to the people and punishments at the jails and prisons around us, but I had no idea at the time just how connected I really was to that place. After nine years (2009-2018) with no executions in Tennessee, there have been five executions in the last year, and more are scheduled.
One of the names on the list is Nick Sutton. He has been housed on death row at Riverbend for years. He is the man who took the life of my great uncle. My grandmother’s only brother was killed 40 years ago, and for a year I weekly walked into the prison that housed his killer without even knowing it.
My great uncle was killed five years before I was born, so for me, he has only ever lived in stories. I knew and loved his parents and all of his sisters as beloved family members. His life was cut short, marking a great tragedy in my family’s story. Nick Sutton’s decision robbed me of the opportunity to know a member of my own family. And now he is set to die. His execution is scheduled for February 20, 2020.
While the pain of victims’ families is real and life-altering, I do not believe the death penalty is the answer to the violence that has already been committed. Our society needs rules and consequences to live peacefully, but capital punishment is not necessary for such a society to exist.
Many countries around the world have abolished the death penalty, citing human rights concerns. While our closest allies have abolished the death penalty, the United States stands with China, Iran, and Iraq (and other smaller countries), as countries who still practice the death penalty.
Twenty-nine states in the United States still give and carry out death sentences. Studies show that states with the death penalty have higher murder rates than states without the death penalty. The death penalty is not a deterrent for murder. Additionally, since 1973, 166 people have been exonerated while on death row. The criminal justice system makes mistakes, but there is no way to reverse an execution that has already occurred.
Also, cases that seek the death penalty cost two to three times more than cases seeking a life sentence due to the length of trials and appeals. The death penalty is also not utilized uniformly. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, over 75 percent of cases seeking the death penalty are for victims who are white, while nationally, only around 50 percent of murder victims are white. In a country where mistakes are made, bias is real, and costs are rising, the death penalty is far too dangerous a tool.
As a Christian, I believe all persons are created in the image of God, loved by God, and redeemable by God. The death penalty stands in direct opposition to my faith. Human life is sacred, and the death penalty cheapens the value of life. The United Methodist Church, of which I am a member, is clear in its stance against the death penalty. The United Methodist Social Principles state, “We believe the death penalty denies the power of Christ to redeem, restore, and transform all human beings.”
As long as humans have free will, bad things will happen, but taking the life of someone who committed a murder does not balance the scales. Repaying evil with evil does not create a safer world. Opposing the death penalty does not mean that we do not care for victims or seek justice. Our society can seek justice for victims, impose consequences for violence, and respect the sacredness of human life simultaneously.
The death penalty -- state-sponsored killing -- is its own form of evil, but it is largely hidden from view. Headlines, tweets, and posts peak around the time of an execution, but most of us never have to think much about it.
My great hope is that Tennesseans will speak up and speak out against the death penalty. There is an execution for Lee Hall scheduled on December 5, 2019. Then, Nick Sutton’s execution will follow closely on February 20, 2020. I will be writing the Governor and contacting my representatives (both state and national) to let them know how I feel. I invite others to do the same.
The time to act is now. The death penalty does not have to be a fact of life for Tennesseans or for any person. We have a voice, and we have a vote. My prayer is that hearts and minds will be changed about the death penalty and that public opinion will grow intolerant of this outdated evil.
I believe in the redemptive power of Jesus Christ. Jesus has changed my life, and I believe that every life can be transformed.
The Rev. Anna Lee is executive pastor at Cokesbury United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee.