If you’d asked me about my stance on the death penalty before this week, I would’ve said I didn’t know. Depending on my mood, I might’ve made up an opinion on the spot, but the truth is, I hadn't ever given the issue much consideration.
But, on Tuesday night, on the eve of Ray Jasper’s execution, I found myself captivated by the death-row inmate’s story — and eerily honest seven-page follow-up letter to Gawker. For a bit of background, Jasper was convicted in January 2000 of capital murder. His girlfriend at the time testified to hearing about his plan prior to the night the crime was committed, which solidified the fact that this was a planned, cold-blooded murder for personal gain. Jasper — with accomplices — went to his recording engineer's studio with the intent to not only steal the equipment but also murder his only witness.
But, despite all of that, and the disgust I feel about his crime, his final letter moved me. He writes, “I think 'empathy' is one of the most powerful words in this world that is expressed in all cultures…. Empathy breeds proper judgment. Sympathy breeds sorrow. Contempt breeds arrogance.”
Chills. Throughout the letter, his words speak to vulnerability, intelligence, and a strong sense of hope and reconciliation, but it's this focus on empathy that connected me to him, immediately and with a visceral reaction. And yet, something was missing. Where was the statement where he "felt" for the victim or victim's family — a man he had supposedly once called a friend?
After finishing the letter, I fell into a rabbit hole of reading more about Jasper's case. And, as I made my way through the details of the case, the words “murder of a recording studio owner” forged a different kind of personal connection for me — and sent an uncomfortable chill down my spine. The multiple descriptions of the victim’s humble career closely resembled the way my boyfriend would refer to his own recording studio, and I would never think to describe his profession as violent.
The victim and his family felt like an afterthought in Jasper's letter, and that felt wrong — but even still, I felt like I was experiencing something bigger here. After reading his letter, I felt elated and energetic, but also disillusioned and shaken. I wanted to do more research, I wanted to talk about it or sign a petition, but about what? And, why had I become so emotional all of a sudden (beyond the obvious fact that a man was about to lose his life)?
As my disillusionment melted into anger, I was left feeling exhausted by the uncomfortable passion that had bubbled up in my chest. I couldn't deny the emotions, the facts, the strongly argued points about the American justice system, racism and overall oppression — but, coming from a death-row inmate? How could I so soundly agree on what's "wrong" with a man who was about to die because of his own obvious wrongdoing? And then came a forcible reminder of Bryan Stevenson's TED talk on race in America’s justice system, as well as numerous James Baldwin essays. I was taken back to the first time I had seen and heard these things, and the picture started to come into sharper focus for me. In his talk about the problem with mass incarceration, Stevenson makes an incredibly moving case. "Our system isn't just being shaped in these ways that seem to be distorting around race, they're also distorted by poverty," he says. "We have a system of justice in this country that treats you much better if you're rich and guilty than if you're poor and innocent. Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes. And yet, we seem to be very comfortable. The politics of fear and anger have made us believe that these are problems that are not our problems."
That certainly seems applicable in the case of Jasper. So, beyond the initial (and dizzying) reminder that we’re still systematically killing people as a punishment for crime, I began to realize the other similar themes weaving through all three narratives. And, suddenly, I felt sick to think that we still haven’t course-corrected the discussion on race in the penal system. Throughout Jasper’s letter, the essays, and the aforementioned TED talk, each man cited education, guidance, love, and faith as basic prerequisites for black youths to feel like successful, productive members of society with bright futures. Jasper makes it clear that he didn't have these foundational essentials, and now that his tragic, violent story has played out, the state of Texas has seen fit to execute him.
Part of me thought, "Hell, you’re a criminal. You killed someone in cold blood. Why do you feel you deserve any help or redemption?" But, the logical part of me knows that this man wasn't born a criminal. And, that his crime didn't devalue the important message he was sending. Plus, the statistics can’t be ignored. By age 23, 50% of America’s black males will have spent time in jail. And, although there have been more executions of white people since 1976 (approximately, 56%), the current death row population is approximately 57% black, Latino, or "other." Sobering numbers, for sure, and ones that could have easily touched my own life, if I hadn't been as fortunate as I am.
As a biracial woman who grew up with an absentee father, I’m grateful for my working mother who did everything she could to provide me with a cultural and academic education. As someone who's known what having "less than" feels like, I understand the very real dangers facing children who grow up with a lack of basic care and understanding. As Baldwin's words swirl about my head, I remember with a heavy heart that without encouragement, clawing your way out of a system of oppression seems impossible for many black youths. In an essay to American teachers, Baldwin writes, "Every street boy — and I was a street boy, so I know — looking at the society which has produced him, looking at the standards of that society which are not honored by anybody, looking at your churches and the government and the politicians, understands that this structure is operated for someone else’s benefit — not for his. And there’s no reason in it for him. If he is really cunning, really ruthless, really strong — and many of us are — he becomes a kind of criminal. He becomes a kind of criminal because that’s the only way he can live."
In Jasper’s letter, his honest observation speaks volumes about the identity crisis going on in the black community. He says, “You take the identity crisis, mix it with capitalism, where money comes before empathy, and you'll have a lot of young blacks trying to get money by any means because they're trying to get out of poverty or stay out of poverty.” And, no matter your stance on crime and punishment, there’s no denying the truth in that statement. But, with all of that said, the racial micro-aggressions I encounter daily just aren’t enough for me to deeply empathize with Jasper. At least, not fully. I understand the gravity of his crime — and that taking another person's life is entirely indefensible. And, I understand that the difficulties of "being broke" doesn't justify robbing or stabbing anyone, ever. I couldn't imagine doing something so drastic, no matter the situation.
I can, however, understand the fallacy of taking a man's life from him, even while I grapple with the devastating impact of Jasper's crime. For me, that most resonates in remembering Stevenson's talk. He recounts the story of a lecture he gave on the death penalty in Germany, and how a disturbed woman responded most honestly by saying, “There's no way, with our history, we could ever engage in the systematic killing of human beings. It would be unconscionable for us to, in an intentional and deliberate way, set about executing people.”
With this powerful parallel and the lingering doubt it brings, just a day after Ray Jasper’s execution, the question becomes much bigger, for me. It's not whether any person deserves to live or die because of the crimes they have committed, or the color of their skin. It's that, regardless of someone’s innocence, what right do we have to take another person's life? It's hardly a new conversation, but clearly, it's one that needs to continue, passionately and vocally, until we see some meaningful change.