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When questions about the death penalty hit home


A FRIEND at the Bigfork Eagle, a weekly newspaper in Montana, recently sent me a fax of a newspaper article from the Daily Inter Lake in Kalispell, Mont. The headline, in big letters, read: "Justice is Served," and the story told of the execution of murderer Duncan McKenzie Jr. on May 10.

Mr. McKenzie had been on death row for 20 years. His death by lethal injection was the first in Montana since 1943 and the 20th in the United States this year. Officials said he was cooperative; all he asked was to be able to listen to country music through headphones as he was being legally killed. Was justice served?

I may be the only person in Connecticut who cares about an execution in Montana, but I do, and for good reason. For 18 months, my life has been dominated by the status of the death penalty in Montana. That's because my life was seared by murder in that rolling state of "A River Runs Through It," so tranquil, so beautiful, but also, for me and my family, so deadly. And I had to let the authorities know if I wanted the death penalty for the murderer.

On Aug. 12, 1993, I received news that no one, certainly no mother, should ever get. My son John and his wife, Nancy, were murdered by a 9-mm gun in the hand of an intruder as they lay sleeping in their bed in their home in Bigfork, Mont.

It turned out that the killer was an 18-year-old, Shadow Clark, the son of the couple from whom my son and his wife had purchased their home a few months earlier. Shadow Clark confessed, but never gave a motive for this horrible crime.

This young man faced the death penalty, and I had to confront my soul.

Where did I stand now, when the death penalty would never again be an academic question for me? When you are in that pit, alone with your searing pain, that's when you can't play cat and mouse with honesty. I could easily say, "Put him away for life; he must be punished." But no matter how tempted I was to say "he deserves to die," could I say, "kill this killer"?

Very early in life, I was chilled by the thought of legal execution. It was the day my Uncle Tony's wife was physically restrained and taken to what they called the "insane asylum" in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., I asked my mother why Aunt Margie went crazy and she told me. Her brother and two friends had robbed a store and killed the owner. All three were put to death in the electric chair in 1928. My aunt never got over it; she ended up mad. From that day on, the notion of the death penalty appalled me.

Years later, when I was getting a master's degree and taking an ethics course, the death-penalty question came up. In brash, liberal fashion, I said I opposed the death penalty. The professor then asked me, "Suppose someone raped and murdered your daughter. What would you say then?" I was stunned. I hadn't expected this ever to be a personal matter. In honesty, I answered, "I think I'd say, kill the bastard."

In 1993 I remembered that question as I felt my heart cut out, visualizing Shadow Clark stealing up to the isolated house where my son and daughter-in-law were asleep in their bed, cutting the phone and electric wires, breaking in through a first-floor window and creeping up the stairs to their room. He shot John once in the head, killing him instantly. Nancy woke from the explosion, reached for her glasses and put them on. She must have seen what was coming, for she crouched in a fetal position, as the next bullet went through her upper back, out her chest, up through her chin and cheek, and out her eye, breaking her glasses. He "may have touched her," he said in a chilling confession after he killed her.

When I saw his confession, I wanted to mutilate him. How could anyone do this evil thing to another person? Did anyone who could steal the lives of two good people deserve to live? Where did I stand now on my generous, altruistic, liberal opposition to the death penalty?

Facing that question was one of the most intense moments of truth I ever had to struggle with. Now I was in a new place, facing the raw, real confrontation with my soul.

In Montana, I had to taste the death in that bedroom, with the bullet hole in the wall and the blood on the floor. I fell to my knees, praying to the Lord to exorcise the evil from that room. Strangely, in that moment, I didn't want more death.

I saw so clearly that we are wrong to put the emphasis on "penalty" when it should be on unnatural "death" and all the horror this word conveys. Unnatural death, at the hands of evil, is horrendous, hateful to the life-giving Lord. My faith taught me that. But it also taught me that even worse is murder when it is sanitized by calling it lawful.

Some politicians have tried to capitalize on the nation's frustration with crime by advocating capital punishment. Some have trivialized an issue we should agonize over -- precisely because it deals with the ultimate human question of the value of life. Some say the death penalty will reduce violent crime and punish people who kill others.

But never have I seen any statistics or studies validating the argument that the death penalty reduces crime or deters potential killers.

When I read of Duncan McKenzie's death, I kept wondering just how justice was served by this premeditated killing of a man 20 years after his crime? I was glad that my family and I had made it clear to the Montana authorities that we did not want Shadow Clark, facing the death penalty, to be killed. One year after the murders, he pleaded guilty, thus avoiding a trial. He was sentenced to 220 years in prison, with no parole until he reaches age 60.

The bottom line in my personal story may be that I opposed the death penalty for Shadow Clark for selfish reasons. I remember once reading of a rabbi who had lost his family in the Holocaust. He forgave Adolf Hitler because he did not want to bring Hitler to America with him.

It's hard to forgive. Not forgiving keeps us angry and anger makes us feel more powerful. But if we don't forgive, we stay emotionally handcuffed to the person who hurt us, as the rabbi understood. Now I am free enough to pray for Shadow Clark, hoping he will one day be able to respond to the touch of grace we are all given by God, and find redemption. His act of killing reinforced my commitment to affirming life -- and, forever, my opposition to the death penalty.

Antoinette Bosco is a columnist for the Catholic News Service.

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