Monday, October 5, 2015

The Spoken Postulation of His Unheard Presence

In a post at Fault Lines this morning (probably yesterday morning by the time anyone reads this), I wrote about some of the arbitrariness and and hypocrisy of the death penalty as practiced in the US of A.  

To know how the death penalty works in practice is to know that, whatever hopes one might have for it, the death penalty doesn't actually work.  It does, however, have effects.  Let's call them penumbras.  (Lawyers will know that there's some irony to the choice of term; nonlawyers should consider themselves lucky.)

I began that post with a story about Tim Hoffner's jury.  You can go over to Fault Lines and read the tl;dr or stay here for the  shorter version.   

The jury sat through days of testimony of a horrific crime, an Edgar Allen Poe sort of crime.  They found Hoffner guilty.  Then they said that he should die.  The judge, the late Bill Skow, thanked the jurors for their service.  
What you did, he told them, was difficult but necessary.  And we, the citizens of Lucas County, and the officials of the county, are enormously grateful.  For what you did, he added, if any of you need therapy as a result, the county will pay.
I don't know if anyone took the judge up on the offer.  And, frankly, the county wasn't about to pay much.  But it's worth taking a minute to think about the offer - and the need for it.

Sitting on a capital jury, sentencing someone to die, it's traumatic.  Like being (and yes, I know the analogy isn't fair) in a combat zone.  A vital job for which there's a fair chance you'll suffer a lifetime of psychological problems.  And, of course, juries are drafted, not filled with volunteers or professionals.

What I told you about the Hoffner jury was from the outside.  It's what the judge offered and the messages implicit in it.  Sometimes we get a peek inside.
She still cries when she thinks about the 12 people she never met. At night she imagines the horrors she only heard about.
The life she led before this summer still feels out of reach, and she fears that others will find out who she is and what she did for 16 weeks.
She was one of the jurors who listened, deliberated, voted guilty, and then said no, not death.  Not for James Holmes who shot up that movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.  She'd kept silent, but last week she spoke with Jordan Steffen of the Denver Post.

The headline is that the press has been misled and misleading in saying that there was only one juror for life.  In fact, she said, there were three.  But the headline isn't the point.  Here's the point.
In the interview at an empty diner in eastern Arapahoe County, the juror eyed the wait staff. She politely asked to move to a table in the corner of the room, out of earshot of others.
It was the first of two relocations she would make in the restaurant.
The toll of the trial is evident. At times she fights back tears. Afraid someone will recognize what she's talking about, she stops in the middle of words when a server checks on her meal.
She does not doubt her verdict.
The juror still believes in the death penalty, but she is adamant that death was not an appropriate sentence for Holmes. She said she decided to end her silence because she could no longer bear to watch the weight of public scrutiny — what she described as a "witch hunt" — fall solely on the shoulders of her fellow juror.
"I don't think any one of us three would ever tell you that he deserved life or that we felt life was appropriate. It's just that the other option wasn't an option," she said. "It was one or the other. You didn't get anything in the middle."
Oh, but how important that we put her through it.

Kelly Gissendaner faced death for the murder of her husband.  A murder she did not commit.  The murder was committed by Gregory Owen.  He was, at the time, her lover.  And she got him to do the deed.  He's serving life and will be eligible for parole in 2022.  She was executed last week by the good people of Georgia.

Rhonda Cook, a reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was one of the media witnesses. 
The singing is what I will always remember about the execution of Kelly Renee Gissendaner.
Her voice was joyful and light as she sang the first verse of “Amazing Grace.” By the second verse, though, the 47-year-old dying woman struggled to sing as the lethal injection drug took hold.
It's a prison, so the witnesses are regimented.
We are led though an underground tunnel and up a flight of stairs where we are given notepads and two pencils. We then wait in a nearby employee break room.
We wait for hours and the mood shifts from boredom to high-alert and then back to boredom. The long stretches of silence are broken by talk of sports, people we cover and, of course, Gissendaner.
An obviously bored prison guard assigned to baby sit us pops her chewing gum as she studies the screen on her cell phone.
The hum from the condenser keeping soft drinks in a vending machine cold is almost deafening.
When I was waiting, in an office across from the death house at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, waiting for them to finish killing my client, there was a clock in the room. Stuck.  The time, permanently it seemed, 11:24.  The second hand would advance toward the twelve, toward it becoming 11:25.  Click, click, tick, tock, one second at a time.  And then it would fall back. 

It's what you fixate on.  Chewing gum. The condenser.  Pencils.  Two of them.
Gissendaner is strapped to the gurney when we enter the chamber. She lifts her head to watch the witnesses taking their seats on the three church pews. Hers arms are strapped to boards that extend out and down from each side. The IVs have been inserted. A sheet covers most of her body.
With everyone seated, Gissendaner directs her final statement to one of her lawyers, Susan Casey.
“I love you, Susan,” Gissendaner said.“You let my kids know I went out singing “Amazing Grace.”
Casey nods and then sobs. A chaplain prays. And then she sings.
“Amazing grace,
how sweet the sound,
that saved a wretch like me.”
A few more lines and then Gissendaner closed her eyes for the last time.
Jeff Hullinger of 11 Alive watched the killing, too.
We were the last in to a small building that looks like a concession stand at a high school football game. We entered seeing three church style pews with lots of men. Then right in front of us is Kelley Gissendanner- -on the gurney, arms outstretched with needles and tubes. She makes eye contact as we enter the room. She begins to sob, I avert my eyes trying to compose myself. She is somewhat agitated or nervous.
The chamber door closes behind with a clang. No one is to exit. We are told, “There is medical attention (a doctor) if you need it.”
Wait.  Why would you need a doctor?  Has a witness ever hard a heart attack from the stress?  And they really won't let him out?  So they get a twofer?  Gissendaner and a member of the press?  Cool. Or horrifying.  Hullinger doesn't pursue the thought, doesn't question.  Anyhow, the door closed with that "clang" so it's really too late to find out.
The warden appears as a sort of host. A prayer is said; Gissendanner is crying, sobbing, wailing. Gissendaner singing a panicked “Amazing Grace” is a searing thought tonight. The hymn will not sound the same to me again.
“I’m sorry” she says to her husband, an “amazing man who didn’t deserve it”. . . She wants to take it back, She wanted her Children to know she went out signing Amazing grace.
The faces of those viewing were empty, forlorn, mostly male, and mostly turned away. A woman sobs & sings. Compassion is only present in thought.
Forget what they did to Kelly Gissendaner.  Look what they did to Jeff Hullinger.
Listening to prayer in the middle of this execution – in this awful place – felt necessary but unheard by a deity.
. . .
And when it was over, I wanted to sprint to the prison van amidst the razor wire. I wanted someone to take me somewhere to collect myself and pray.
Feel better now?
* * *
1968, I'm pretty sure it was.  Central Park in New York.  Concerts in the Park, sponsored by, if memory serves and it may not, Schaefer Beer.  Judy Collins.  Time for her encore during a raging Thunderstorm.  She alone on the stage.  A capella.  Her voice soaring above the thunderclaps. If you were there, you remember it.  This is as close as I can find.

"The Creation of the Inaudible," by Pattiann Rogers

Maybe no one can distinguish which voice  
Is god’s voice sounding in a summer dusk  
Because he calls with the same rising frequency,  
The same rasp and rattling rustle the cicadas use  
As they cling to the high leaves in the glowing  
Dust of the oaks.

His exclamations might blend so precisely with the final  
Crises of the swallows settling before dark
That no one will ever be able to say with certainty,  
”That last long cry winging over the rooftop
Came from god.“

Breathy and low, the vibrations of his nightly
Incantations could easily be masked by the scarcely  
Audible hush of the lakeline dealing with the rocky shore,  
And when a thousand dry sheaths of rushes and thistles  
Stiffen and shiver in an autumn wind, anyone can imagine  
How quickly and irretrievably his whisper might be lost.

Someone faraway must be saying right now:  
The only unique sound of his being
Is the spoken postulation of his unheard presence.

For even if he found the perfect chant this morning 
And even if he played the perfect strings  to accompany it,   
Still, no one could  be expected  to know, 
Because the blind click beetle flipping in midair, 
And the slider turtle easing through the black iris bog,   
And two savannah pines shedding dawn in staccato pieces   
Of falling sun are already engaged in performing   
The very same arrangement themselves.

Thanks to Paula Wallace and The Rev. Dr. Thomas C.H. Scott for the poem.

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