Unconditional Forgiveness & Compassion

Unconditional Forgiveness & Compassion

I have been watching a documentary series about 8 people that were due to be executed in Arkansas (1 of the 31 States in America that has the death penalty) over a ten day period. All were on death row and all convicted of some heinous, sadistic and cruel murders. All had exhausted their appeals and most had spent some 20 years on death row, where the only avenue was clemency by the State’s Governor if recommended by the State’s Parole Board. Clemency would mean the Governor would commute the Death Sentence to one of Life without the possibility of parole.

The Death Sentence is applied only in extreme cases, or so we are lead to believe, once a Jury finds someone guilty, the Jury then go through submissions, another mini trial in essence, where arguments are made in favour of the Death Penalty and reasons that the Death Penalty should not be applied to this case. The Jury then make a second judgement on the case and recommend to the Judge what punishment should be applied, the Judge then ratifies and formally sentences the person. The person then has a series of appeals over a number of years, with the average length of time being 178 months, (about 15 years) in 2010.

It is worth noting that most Death Row Inmates are held in maximum security, often in isolation where their only contact are the Custodial Staff. When these conditions in Louisiana were challenged in the Supreme Court, it was also evidenced that such Inmates would be locked in a windowless cell, for a minimum of 23 hours a day, without access to education or occupational activities such as work programmes. Completely dependent on the behaviour of the Inmate and the staffing levels in the prison, a Death Row Inmate might have a max of one visit per month and access to legal representation, both of which is done through a toughened glass partition. The effects of this intense level of isolation over a sustained period of time cannot be under estimated and is not what a prisoner sentenced to Life without the possibility of parole will experience. Such Prisoners do have extensive access to education, occupation, exercise, general population, all behaviour related of course, ‘good’ behaviour being rewarded.

I don’t want to get into the whole debate of whether the Death Penalty is right or wrong, but I did note from the documentary what one religious Minister stated, which was when we convict a Burglar we do not then burgle their home; when someone is convicted of Arson we do not then burn down their home; when someone is convicted of Rape, we do not then rape a member of their family; so why is Murder the only crime where the state then murders the convicted individual? Again this is not my argument but one of the messages in the documentary.

The morality of the ‘State’ killing Murderers is one we have tussled with in the UK and in a previous life I have locked up some of the UK’s worst ‘Lifers’ in my time, so I genuinely see both sides of the debate equally. However, the eight Murderers in the documentary were not being killed in a 10 day period because they were at the end of the road as far as Arkansas legislative pathway is concerned. If this was the case then I think I would have accepted the rationale, despite my own thoughts on this matter. But no, believe it or not the reason these men were going to be executed all within a ten day period is because one of the key drugs’, which they use in execution by lethal injection, licence for use in execution was about to expire. The drug company concerned did not want the drug associated with executions, who could blame them really.

The drug in question is Midazolam, which in small doses is used in the UK in the treatment of extreme epilepsy, where seizures roll into each other. The key effect of Midazolam is that it can be very efficient to bring these devastating tonic-clonic seizures to an end, at least for a little while, allowing the individual to recover. This is the image the drug company wishes the drug to be known for, but why is it used in lethal injections? Lethal injections tend to have three main drugs:

  1. The first to sedate the person, reducing anxiety and level of consciousness;
  2. The second severely supresses the breathing, by which time the first drug is supposed to have rendered the person unconscious so that they don’t know what is happening;
  3. The third drug is some form of potassium, which acts on the electrical system of the heart in order to stop it beating, from which death follows;

This is what is supposed to happen, the problem is that the drugs, especially the first one, acts differently depending on a huge range of factors, Midazolam is the drug used. It has been linked to people still be conscious when the other drugs are administered, so people are said to have suffered during the process, one Doctor describing it as being the equivalent of having a plastic bag put over your head until you slowly suffocate and then finished off with a heart attack. The American Constitution has an Eighth Amendment which states, amongst other things, that people should not be subjected to “cruel and unusual punishments”. Campaigners against the death penalty have claimed the use of an ineffective Midazolam resulted in cruel punishment and this means the death penalty by lethal injection should be stopped.

Those in favour of the death penalty state that this sentence by lethal injection is by far more merciful than these murderers gave to their victims. I can understand where the relatives of victims are coming from, especially hearing about how some of these lives were so cruelly cut short, the ripples of which travel through the generations, trapping families in that moment of utter horror decades before. Some of the murders were so violent and sadistic, devoid of any compassion or morality, acts some would describe as ‘evil’, but this was not why the state decided to execute the 8 people, it was because the drug used was expiring. This I found particularly disturbing as the Governor and his representatives used the families’ desperate need for some form of justice as a reason to execute these eight people in 10 days.

The clear reason for the ‘rush’ to execute people was not about justice for the victims, which includes the families, but was purely about getting rid of a few murders before the drug licence expired. This I found highly disturbing as this was a case of the state deciding that, for administrative reasons, we’d better kill a few off. It was not about justice but about timescale, as they had in each case decades to have executed these prisoners, but instead they decide to use the need of the victims’ families for ‘justice’ as justification to do a job lot of killing over ten days.

But as I was gearing up for a rant about the shameful behaviour of the Arkansas State representatives something else was shown as part of this documentary. The wife of a murdered man was shown to offer forgiveness to the man that was on death row, forgiveness for taking her partner from her 17 years earlier. This included her now grown up daughter who last saw her Dad when she was five – it was humbling to watch as they showed no desire for vengeance. Even when the programme went into harrowing detail of how this murderer killed her husband and three other people, she offered unconditional forgiveness. She even went as far as appealing his death sentence to the Governor and the Parole Board, asking them not to kill him in her name or that of her Husband or Daughter. However, relatives of the other victims were just as vocal wanting their pound of flesh, “an eye for an eye” was the phrase used, and they were just as passionate about making him pay the ultimate price for his drug fuelled, gang affiliated, murderous rampage, which everyone accepted he had done.

I have seen this next element myself when working with Lifers, this person convicted of 4 brutal murders in total, had found ‘God’ and even become an ordained Minister during his many years on death row. He seemed genuinely repentant for what he had done, and was not asking to be freed but to have his sentence commuted to life without parole. He was challenged as to how he could prove he had changed his ways over the years since he entered a brutal prison system. His Lawyer then called as a witness the prison Director for 15 of his 17 years on death row.

The retired Director said he was aware of this inmate for quite unusual reasons, he went onto explain that most inmates come to the attention of the Custodial Director because of their behavioural problems, often those on death row are some of the worst, often assaulting staff, some occasions killing staff, as they have nothing to lose – you can’t execute someone twice. In the case of this inmate the Director noted that he had known him from the time he had been sentenced, not once was this inmate placed on report, not even for minor infractions, his behaviour had been exemplary and an example to others, a complete dichotomy to the offences he had committed. The Director was clear he had come to know and respect this man and struggled to see the obvious monster that had brutally terrorised and then murdered four people.


I have never experienced what happened next, I have worked with some really dangerous people in my past and never did I ever come across what I was about to hear. I know it is different in this country as we don’t execute people anymore but even so the level of compassion, of care, of complete forgiveness the viewer was about to see, well it stays with me and I believe it always will. The wife I mentioned earlier and her daughter did not just reach out to the murderer and bathe him in unconditional forgiveness, they did not just campaign tirelessly to have his death sentence commuted to life, they continued their efforts and reached out to his Daughter, who last saw her Father the day he was arrested.

The two daughters by chance were the same age, were also linked forever by the most devastating and cruel episodes in their childhoods, both victims of these acts of pure evil, both with the direction their lives could have taken changed forever. In the months leading up to the execution day the two Daughters had become friends and then the most amazing events took place in the days before the execution. The Murderers’ Daughter had not seen her Father since he was arrested, and he had not seen his Granddaughter, who was 3 or 4. The wife of his victim went out of her way to not only bring this Murderer his Daughter (paying for the flights and putting her up within her own home) but she also put pressure on the Prison Authorities to allow his Daughter and his Granddaughter to meet and spend time with him the day before his execution. The Authorities agreed to this because of the exceptional behaviour he had demonstrated over 17 years and he was allowed to hold his Daughter & Granddaughter, an act of extraordinary compassion by the Prison too.

I have never seen such incredible acts of compassion and humanity towards a person that deserved no such acts if you took at face value what he had done all those years ago. The Wife of his victim and her Daughter could take comfort from the fact that they had done what they decided was right regardless of religious motivation, and they were proud that they had not been eaten away by hate and the thirst for vengeance.

This was in stark contrast to the utter devastation through the generations of other families of murdered children, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons, husband or wives that had also been featured. It was like a disease had consumed them, changing them utterly and completely, obsessed by the desire to be made whole by the death of the Murderer but with the realisation that they were stranded in time at the point of knowing their loved one had been killed. This is what I was used to, families in a perpetual horror story that they never come to terms with as the ‘process’, the ‘system’ destroys them, compounding their grief into a living hell.

First they know their loved one is dead and this plunges them into a world of grief and a thousand questions. Then they are told it is murder and their grief becomes mixed with anger, hate and the need to know more, but also not wanting to know. Then comes the details, the harrowing horror of how their loved one was murdered, any hope of grieving is shattered as there is no end to this nightmare. Pre-trial, at Trial, at every appeal they hear the details over and over, as being murdered themselves a thousand times. But worst of all they rarely find out why and this never, ever goes away.

I have seen it myself, these families were definitely the ones serving a life sentence and they had morphed into individuals twisted and tortured by their grief, people that their departed loved ones would not recognise anyway now. What these families needed was to do what the wife and daughter did, to let go of anger, let go of the hate, the need for unbridled vengeance and find comfort in forgiveness, healing in being compassionate.

Before you shout at me, I do not think I could have acted the way she did and I don’t think I could ever forgive as she did, I am sure I would be lost in grief and the need for vengeance. What would you be like and how would you respond if a loved one was murdered?


With the greatest respect to all of you

Jon W @AbleNotDisabled

16th March 2018