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Four deaths on the way to inglorious milestone Birmingham News

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    al.com s Printer-Friendly Page Four deaths on the way to inglorious milestone Sunday, December 04, 2005 America marked its thousandth execution in the modern
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      Four deaths on the way to inglorious milestone

      Sunday, December 04, 2005

      America marked its thousandth execution in the "modern era of capital punishment" on Friday. But my thoughts were focused on just four of that number:

      David Duren killed a Huffman High School student during a 10-day robbery spree when he was 21. In theaftermath, he found Jesus. He forfeited last-minute appeals, sought the forgiveness of his victims and went to the electric chair believing he was bound for glory.

      Robert Lee Tarver Jr. was convicted of killing a Russell County store owner during a robbery. He maintained he was innocent to the end. He offered no last words, but stared hard at the store owner's son and daughter for several minutes before being executed.

      Pernell Ford killed two people in a burglary in Jacksonville. He was seriously mentally ill. He abandoned his appeals and was electrocuted, but not before reciting the 23rd Psalm and apologizing for the pain he had caused.

      John Peoples killed three people, a couple and their 10-year-old son. Before he was put to death by lethal injection, he prayed with a prison chaplain. But he denied his victims' loved ones the apology they were at least half-hoping to hear.

      Of course, none of these executions was recorded as some kind of historic moment.

      Not like Gary Gilmore, the Utah killer whose 1977 execution kicked off the modern era of capital punishment. And not like Kenneth Lee Boyd, whose execution on Friday in North Carolina marked the thousandth.

      Duren, Tarver, Ford and Peoples were just four deaths on the way to 1,000, four of the 34 Alabama inmates who have been executed since 1976.

      I use them as examples because I witnessed their executions. I also want to remember there are people behind these numbers.

      Of course, hitting a benchmark number is important. I hope it causes all of us to reflect on our use of the death penalty. It certainly offers those troubled by capital punishment an occasion to say why.

      The American Bar Association, which has pushed since 1997 for a moratorium on executions, used the 1,000 mark to criticize the quality of legal defense in capital cases, as well as all-too-apparent biases in the way death sentences are imposed.

      "Administration of the death penalty is neither fair nor consistent, and can fairly be described as a haphazard maze of unfair practices, a maze that tolerates injustice in case after case," wrote Michael S. Greco, president of the ABA.

      The Birmingham News editorial board reached the same conclusion this year after taking a close and unsettling look at the death penalty in Alabama. We found the dividing line between life and death in this state is too often an issue of status, race, wealth and luck - and that the chance of executing an innocent person is too great.

      Still, for many, the temptation may be to say, "So what?" That's because many of us consider those on Death Row throwaway people, an interchangeable collection of animals and monsters who have no redeeming value.

      In some cases, the perception may be true. But even in my limited experience, I've found that generalizations don't work for Death Row prisoners any more than they work for the rest of us.

      As shown by the cases above, the people on Death Row don't easily fit into one category. They don't all claim to be innocent; they don't all fight to avoid execution; their faith is not always "jailhouse religion."

      Even those who admit they are killers are still people.

      I had the opportunity to interview Duren before his execution, and he made a lasting impression. Not because he was perfect and certainly not because he was innocent. From him, I learned that even those who commit unspeakable crimes can seek God's grace and find it.

      To me - and, I'm convinced, to God - Duren was more than a number. Robin DeMonia is an editorial writer for The News. Her e-mail address is rdemonia@....


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