When people gathered inside the Fayette County Courthouse recently to pay final respects to a state senator, his role in ending the death penalty in West Virginia in 1965 was a recurring theme.
Speaker after speaker commended state Sen. Robert K. Holliday for stopping a barbaric practice and elevating West Virginia to the realm of people who do not want blood on their hands.
In the very short time since Holliday’s memorial, many people have seen what can happen when officials decide that they will take vengeance into their hands.
Clayton Lockett writhed, moaned, and tried to sit up during an agonizing 43 minutes of what was supposed to be his execution in Oklahoma.
If anyone thinks, “But what about what Lockett did to his victim? Doesn’t he deserve the same?” here is an unchallenged fact: Murderers behave abominably. They cause pain and grief. I do not argue that.
That is not the issue we as a society must address. We must decide if we want to become killers, too.
Some people also think the death penalty prevents murders. Think again.
More than 30 years ago, I got my start as a reporter at The Fayette Tribune, one of three newspapers the Holliday family owned at the time. When I first started covering murder cases, I realized immediately that most started because of a little bit of beer and a handy gun.
Other drugs fuel many murders terrorizing Charleston right now, but in those days, you just needed a six pack and a crossed word. I was also struck by the fact that a few of the murderers I was familiar with even bought their beer at the exact same convenience store. Most of the murders I covered were not premeditated. Some good old boy had too much alcohol and then realized that, by God, I’ve got my gun with me! Bang, bang, and we are all in court. He was not thinking long and hard about the consequences of what he did.
Of course, the finality of an execution leaves no room for mistakes. Remember our state employed a man who lied about the evidence he saw in our state run forensic lab. He cost people years of their lives when his testimony put them in prison. But in the years when our tax dollars paid for his salary, we can be thankful no one was executed based on his false testimony. Later, he moved to Texas, a death penalty state.
As West Virginians, we too often feel we are at the bottom of every list of the good in life. We can be proud we do not put people to death. We are in the ranks of those 18 great states who have risen above barbarism.
Of the many people who paid tribute to Sen. Holliday, most of them praised him for his foresight in helping to close the chapter on the death penalty. As Fayette County Circuit Court Judge John Hatcher pointed out, Holliday faced huge opposition. Hatcher, who was also a legislator, said he knows of no politician today who would move forward on such major legislation in the face of such opposition.
But Holliday did the right thing. If anyone doubts, think about someone writhing like Lockett because state officials demanded that he die the way he did. I am sick to think of what his victim went through in her last hours of life, too. Do we want to kill someone in exchange for her death, or do we want to show we are above such brutality?
Lockett’s end was so torturous because the companies that previously supplied these lethal chemicals decided they wanted nothing more to do with the death business, even if they made money from it. Doesn’t that tell us something?
And if anyone wants to recite from the Bible about the death penalty, I hope that reader realizes he is quoting from the Old Testament. If you believe in Jesus, you understand that Jesus came to fulfill the Old Testament prophesies, to offer a new way to live and to serve as one last sacrifice. Jesus’ words and life story are recorded in the New Testament of the Bible.
Jesus, who was a famous victim of the death penalty, said from the cross, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Susan Williams is a retired Gazette reporter.