The Weight of Mortality

The jury in the trial of Jodi Arias could not come to a consensus about whether or not to sentence her to death for the brutal, rage-filled murder of her one-time boyfriend, Travis Alexander. It was a sordid affair that ended in what jurors, in the verdict phase, determined was a calculated “especially cruel” ambush of Alexander. Arias stabbed Alexander repeatedly as he stood naked in the shower after the two had shared the bed. He died fighting for his life, incurring 27 stab wounds, until Arias ended the struggle by slashing his throat, nearly decapitating him, and then shooting him in the face.

The barbarity of this crime defies the imagination. Arias, herself, defies the imagination: sitting in the witness dock, she shows a prim, diminutive, soft-spoken woman who touched the edges of her glasses when clarifying a point and glancing dutifully at the jury. (She wore the glasses only while in court.)

Yet just beneath the surface lay a mercurial, devious, and delusional narcissist who, immediately following the verdict (guilty, first-degree murder) did several on-camera interviews fretting over her make-up, blaming the jury, blaming her defense lawyers, neglecting to lament and apologize for butchering her boyfriend.

Her defense argued the murder had been in self-defense, building the case that Alexander had physically and sexually abused her. The jury was hard-pressed to pity her. Before the trial she had lied repeatedly and during the trial admitted backing out of a suicide attempt by a razor blade, when she accidentally cut herself and said, “It really stung” (this, from a woman who took a butcher’s knife her boyfriend).

I recently watched a documentary about the death penalty by Werner Herzog, called Into the Abyss. He traced the story of a young man who, when he was 19, murdered three people in cold blood and had been given the death penalty. Herzog established at the onset of the film that he opposed capital punishment. While interviewing a clergyman, he interjected, “Jesus would oppose the death penalty, wouldn’t he?”

Upon reflection, I’m compelled to say, I’m not sure he would. I believe Jesus might say that the death penalty, as with death itself, is beside the point. He would say (I believe) what he has already said about death: Do n0t fear those who want to kill your body; they cannot touch your soul. Fear instead the one who can kill the soul. (Matt. 10:28).  It seems Jesus is saying that death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a person. It is the state of one’s soul one needs fret about.

The Herzog documentary brilliantly captured the transformative force an impending death imposes upon those in the crime’s extended community  – the victims’ families; the killer’s family; the officers who serve the last meal; the attendants who render the lethal injection; the priest who stands and prays with the criminal. The weeks leading up to the execution — which soon became days, then hours, then minutes — become a crucible of reckoning.

The Herzog film also showed how the focus and attendance brought to bear in carrying out the death sentence oddly ennobles the final days and moments of the life of the crime’s perpetrator. The confrontational nature of such anticipation changes people and moves souls, in one direction or another. If there ever were to be a case made for the value of the death penalty it would be the benefit of soul reckoning upon seeing the day of your death noted on a calendar. During this short season of dreaded anticipation, they are given the chance to measure the weight of mortality and allow it to do its work on the soul. For some, it may impose clarity; for others, it may push them farther into the abyss.

In this way, oddly, capital punishment could be seen as a kind of mercy — a chance to come to terms with the value of a life, the meaning of a soul and the nearness of a God who sees and knows all.

The young man in Herzog’s documentary died as scheduled. In his final moment of his mortal life he turned to the single surviving member of the family he killed and told her he forgave her for putting him to death.

Some souls aren’t saved.

As for Arias, another jury will be convened to undertake the task of determining if she will live or die. In this precious meantime, she would benefit from fretting less about her make-up and more about the weight of a human life and the reckoning of a soul.

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About Wendy Murray

Wendy Murray is a veteran and award-winning journalist. She served as associate editor and Senior Writer at Christianity Today magazine and has written extensively for other publications such as Books & Culture and The Christian Century. She has written 11 books.

  • David French

    This is a tremendous article. Thanks for writing.


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