One of the hardest funerals I have ever performed was the result of an instant moment of death. A tired father was driving on a long Wyoming road to see his daughter. Mike fell asleep at the wheel. He veered across the highway and hit an on-coming car. That was an instant the family wished they could take back. That was a forever moment when a life was taken away. The imposition of the death penalty is a forever moment—a life is extinguished never to return. A life is snuffed out for all time. Mike’s death was an accident, but the death penalty is no accident. It is planned and paid for by the tax dollars of all the good people of Wyoming. Execution is not just a statistic, but a mark on our institutions and our souls. According to an interstate study, the average amount that costs for each execution and its legal ramifications is $1,000,000. In sum, execution costs for each prisoner $1,000,000 more than life without parole. On a cold night in January, many of us gathered to witness the last execution that our state-imposed. What happened almost thirty years ago was one somber moment of extinguishing a life. At the Wyoming State Penitentiary, some of the guards wept. Some prisoners were traumatized. And some in the public were horrified as we clung to our candles in the dark. That night we knew that life is fragile. Some vowed it should never happen again. The brutal murder of Matthew Shepard forced the issue on our Wyoming’s door-step. It was brought to the forefront of Albany County where the rage of the Phelps family, shouting “F*gs go to hell,” was met by the work of angels. No one argued about the brutality of Matthew’s murder. But, one person argued against taking another life in retribution. On behalf of her son, Judy Shepard pled with the district attorney, not for mercy, but for our common humanity. Violence against another life harms the violators. As Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Brutal justice cannot undo a brutal crime. The death penalty says nothing about guilt or innocence, but it does make a profound statement about what we value. Are we willing to play God, to put retribution above Life? And, it is we, the public, who choose to snuff out a life forever. The moral question is great. But, so also is the reality. Executions take their toll on the executioners. On that January night, guards wept as they witnessed the death at their hands. But, the other part of reality for us in these tough economic times is that execution costs far more than the other viable way. We, in Wyoming, have already imposed life without parole. So, our tax dollars can pay for, not just repeated court battles and expensive lethal procedures but other work like education and health care. We cannot lose sight of what makes us human. It is not seeking righteousness through taking life, but through seeking means to give life back, as Judy Shepard did, to give life back in spite of the agonizing grief. Rev. Dr. Sally Palmer is a former teacher in religion at UW, a practicing contemplative, a retired pastor, and a leader in the Wyoming Interfaith Network.
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