(KUNM Airdate: 4/29/05)

This month, the series on peacemaking and nonviolent conflict resolution strategies spotlights the death penalty with death penalty opponent Steve Earle. In addition to being a musician, playwrite and author, Earle has been a consistent activist against the death penalty. He talks with Paul Ingles about why he feels the debate over capital punishment is a peace issue worth thinking about. Also, reporter Deborah Martinez recaps the debate during the just completed New Mexico Legislative Session when the state considered abolishing the death penalty.

During the program, Earle observes, "If the government kills someone, then I'm killing someone. And I simply object to the damage that that does to my spirit." Meanwhile, retired NM State Police officer Mike Bowen told legislators during the 2005 session: "We in the law enforcement community believe that the death penalty works, that it's a deterrent that's been proven to us." What does the continuance of the death penalty in 37 states say about state commitment to nonviolent conflict resolution? Does execution of a convicted murderer provide peace to victims' families? Listen to the discussion and think about it yourself.

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(transcription courtesy Rogi Riverstone)

Steve Earle
Musician / Activist

PAUL INGLES, HOST: How do you think that the discussion of the death penalty fits into a context of peace in our world?

STEVE EARLE: Death penalty abolition is the center of my activism work. I don't oppose the death penalty to try to save someone on death row. I'm opposed to the death penalty because of what it does to us. If this is a democracy - which it is, I think - if the government kills someone, then I'm killing someone. And I, simply, object to the damage that does to my spirit. I oppose it having witnessed an execution in the state of Texas. It was the execution of an inmate (Jonathan Nobles, convicted of double-murder) I'd known for several years. He was not innocent. And he was guilty of a heinous crime but he changed a lot during the time he was in prison. He didn't want to be free and at first he wasn't sure that he didn't want to be executed. But he became involved in Catholicism and through faith, his faith, he arrived at the idea that taking a life was the wrong thing to do. Period. For any reason.

INGLES: What else do you recall about that experience?

EARLE: It was a very strange experience, a very surreal experience. Human beings really want to live. And I watched a relatively healthy (considering he'd been in prison for thirteen years), big, strong, thirty-seven year old man put to death. It's lethal injection in Texas, which is supposed to be humane. But I didn't see someone just going to sleep.

Jon had a statement that he wanted to give, which was a bible quotation that he had memorized and he was really worried he'd forget it. And he didn't. He remembered every bit of it word for word. And he spoke to the victims' family members first. And he apologized and he cried doing that…. And then he did the bible verse and then he started singing "Silent Night." What I didn't know at the time was that was his pre-arranged signal to the warden. The warden's pre-arranged signal that he always used…was to take off his glasses. That was the signal to the executioner who was behind the window and we couldn't see him. In Texas, they don't use a machine. There's no plausible denial. Somebody just volunteers to be paid a little extra money to push drugs through a T-fitting, like an I-V.

And he started singing "Silent Night" and that's because the night before he'd talked with his mother, who he hadn't talked to the entire time he'd been in prison. And she said, "Jon, when you were little I always loved the way you used to sing 'Silent Night.'" And so he was singing "Silent Night" for his mother. And when he got to the lines "mother and child," it was like all the air blew out of his lungs at once. And it made a really loud noise because there was a microphone hanging above his head. He couldn't hear us but we could hear him.. It was like "HUUUHH!" It was one of the loudest sounds I'd ever heard. And his head pitched forward with enough force that his glasses, big, heavy, plastic prison-issue glasses, bounced off, landed on his chest and then fell on the floor.

And then he didn't move again. It seemed pretty violent to me.

INGLES: Clearly Steve Earle and others believe that executing criminals does not model nonviolent conflict resolution. Yet 37 states in the US still have the death penalty. Polls on the issue indicate a nation split and the figures depend on how the question is asked. Typically, if asked "Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of premeditated murder?" lately 65 to 70% say yes they favor the death penalty. The number of those in favor of that question has been downtrending in recent years from its high of 80% in 1994. When asked "Do you favor the death penalty or prefer to see it replaced with life imprisonment with no hope for parole and the prisoner working to raise money for the vicitims' families?" generally 55 to 60% favor the alternative strategy offered in the question.

A few other facts….of the 820 executions in the US since 1976 about two out of three were conducted in only five states: Texas, Virginia, Missouri, Florida and Oklahoma. Texas leads the other states in number of killings. In figures from late 2002, there were about 3,697 prisoners carrying death sentences in the 37 states that still have the death penalty. In some of those states, legislatures are debating the issue. One state that grappled with it recently was New Mexico - in its 2005 legislative session. In hearings , Representatives heard many of the arguments against the death penalty that we're hearing from Steve Earle today. But they also heard from death penalty supporters. Reporter Deborah Martinez gathered some of that testimony for us.

Interviewer Paul Ingles

DEBORAH MARTINEZ, REPORTER: Lawmakers heard from people like Mike Bowen, a retired state police officer, who spoke on behalf of law enforcement.

MIKE BOWEN: We in the law enforcement community believe that the death penalty works. And we believe that it is a deterrent. It has been proven to us. As Mr. Martinez mentioned, especially during the prison riot of 1980. And, on behalf of those men and women who work in what as been described as, "these rat holes" out there, and those of us who had the honor and the privilege of working with officers of the caliber of Gerald Klein, we ask you to kill this bill. Thank you.

DEBORAH MARTINEZ: Donna McNevin's father was shot dead at a KOA campground. She spoke out in favor of the current law, warning that repealing it would invite killers to New Mexico.

DONNA MCNEVIN: Will we be telling murderers from other states to come to our state, because they will not be held responsible for the actions that they have chosen to take? Are we saying it's OK to brutally murder? Are we telling them that New Mexico has just given them the green light to continue to murder, as there are no penalties of death? Will we then become like other countries that allow murder to occur, and we just turn the other cheek? Do we just allow our loved ones to be buried in shallow graves, to be heard from no longer? I hope that we will continue to send a strong message to the citizens of New Mexico, and the United States, that premeditated, willful murder will not be tolerated here. We need to make it loud and clear to murderers. If they willingly choose to take a life, they should be willing to lay down theirs.

JOAN SHIRLEY: My name is Joan Shirley. You probably know me more as one of the three moms of the boys killed in the east mountains in 1999. When I listen to these stories, on either side, it breaks my heart. Because I know that pain that they live with, day in and day out. And there never will be any type of closure. But I can tell you that there's a list. And it's that list that's in our minds. And, every time something happens, you check it off the list. It starts with, they find the person; that's checked off. Then, there's the bail hearing; that's checked off. Then, there's the arraignments; that's checked off. It goes down the list, until you get to the end. And I think that those who find that they have to have the death penalty, when it is a part of their being that finds they have to have that in order to have some kind of - it's never a closure, but it's just some kind of last check of the list . . .

INGLES: Steve Earle, as an activist for many years on this issue, I'm sure you've had to field all the traditional arguments in favor of the death penalty. Let me hear what you have to say, then, to the arguments of brutal killers, child killers, Timothy McVeigh. Is there anything about the severity of the crime that makes what you think is a favorable argument for this?

EARLE: No. Because, when you start talking about the severity of the crime, you start, as a human being, trying to figure out what crimes deserve the death sentence and which don't. You get into a very, very dangerous area. I think one of the most dangerous things about it is that it becomes retribution, by definition. It becomes revenge. If you decide that, "well, he did the more horrible thing than this person," then you are admitting. . . . People have no problem with the concept of retribution in this society lately. I submit that we were headed in a different direction, when I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, and that the death penalty died of natural causes in this country, simply because we were becoming, as a society, more human and more humane. We'd finally realized that the purpose of a penal system shouldn't be retribution, revenge. Punishment and revenge are two, different things. When you punish a child (and it's arguable when that's appropriate), you're doing it, basically, to correct their behavior. But, when you perform a violent act on another human being, for no other reason than to make yourself feel better about your own pain and anger, it perpetuates that type of violence. It becomes very contagious. My opinion is that, if the idea is closure, you just end up with blood on your hands. You'll end up thinking about that act of vengeance for the rest of your life. I think there's a lot in human experience that backs that up.

INGLES: Have you talked with victims families as you've explored this issue? What have you found about this "closure" business, or the satisfaction that they are supposed to get out of this procedure?

EARLE: I've met people. Of course, Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, which is a support group, it doesn't exist to oppose the death penalty; it exists as a support group for murder victims' family members. But, it was founded by people who didn't think that the death penalty is an answer to their pain and their anger. I've seen people that were still pretty much angry, and still couldn't be convinced, and witnessed executions, and swore that they felt better. But I haven't seen any healing for those people in the long term, running in to them. I do run into them. There's a handful that have become very militantly involved on the other side of the issue than I am. But I've seen more people who oppose the death penalty, who have lost members of their own families to violence. And those people are healing. That's something that I can testify to.