Little argument, and little religion, after botched execution

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This is the headline on a Washington Post follow-up on the recent big story in my home state:

In Okla., little argument over the final outcome for inmate who died after botched execution

Little argument and little religion, based on this rather shallow Post story.

At GetReligion, we often refer to “holy ghosts.” In fact, as our editor tmatt explained at the very beginning (well, not that beginning), that’s why we’re here:

Day after day, millions of Americans who frequent pews see ghosts when they pick up their newspapers or turn on television news.

They read stories that are important to their lives, yet they seem to catch fleeting glimpses of other characters or other plots between the lines. There seem to be other ideas or influences hiding there.

One minute they are there. The next they are gone. There are ghosts in there, hiding in the ink and the pixels. Something is missing in the basic facts or perhaps most of the key facts are there, yet some are twisted. Perhaps there are sins of omission, rather than commission.

A lot of these ghosts are, well, holy ghosts. They are facts and stories and faces linked to the power of religious faith. Now you see them. Now you don’t. In fact, a whole lot of the time you don’t get to see them. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

The first ghosts appear way up high in this Post story:

McALESTER, Okla. — Geneva Miller was a bit annoyed as she dug into an egg salad sandwich at the Heavenly Delights bakery, where wooden signs line the walls bearing affirmations of food and family.

She can’t believe that her state, with its strong support for capital punishment, is being pilloried across the nation because of one botched execution.

“We’re just crazy about how everybody thinks Oklahoma is bad for supporting the death penalty,” Miller said. “We just don’t understand how they could think otherwise — that it wouldn’t be right.”

Um, Heavenly Delights? Affirmations of food and family? Is there a chance that religious faith might be a factor here? If so, the Post chooses to ignore it.

Let’s read on:

New details continued to spill out this week about the fumbled execution of inmate Clayton Lockett, 38, who died of an apparent heart attack Tuesday after authorities halted a lethal injection that caused him to convulse and a vein to burst.

The case prompted state officials to order a review of the way executions are carried out and has revived a national debate over
whether the death penalty is inhumane. But for Miller and many other Oklahomans, Lockett — who shot and ordered the live burial of 19-year-old Stephanie Neiman — got exactly what he deserved.

“It’s like the Lord said: ‘You reap what you sow,’?” said F.D. Sexton, who had just finished eating at a diner in Checotah, which bills itself as the Steer Wrestling Capital of the World. “And she died a terrible death.”

Finally, we have a direct religious reference, even if Paul, not Jesus, was the one who actually said that exact phrase (although the broad principle certainly shows up throughout the Bible, including in Christ’s own words).

But if you think that quote might lead into a more substantive exploration of how religious faith plays into Oklahomans’ overwhelming support for the death penalty, you’ll be disappointed.

In my previous post on the Oklahoma execution, I offered free advice for reporters wanting to cover the missing religious elements. Sadly, the Post apparently missed my memo.

Read on, and the story ends with a final unexplored ghost:

Back in McAlester, at the Harbor Mountain Coffee Shop, Travis Boatner scrubbed the shop’s white walls and swept the floor behind the counter. He said that people have been talking about the execution but that there was little argument.

“There’s really not much of a debate,” he said. “This is the part of the country where people pretty much argue an eye for an eye.”

This Post story definitely could use some ghostbusting.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.


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