I know that this is exhausting to think about, so soon after the last time we had to think about it. But it’s not something we can look away from.
Today, the United States government– our government, the government that we elect which is supposed to carry out our wishes– is executing another disabled person, the second in 48 hours.
We live in a representative democracy. What the people in this government do, they do for us and with our permission– or, at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. In a very real way, we, the American people, are executing the second disabled person in 48 hours. We’re going to kill him.
Lisa Montgomery committed a horrendous murder while she was severely ill with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, dissociative disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome and a traumatic brain injury. And while she was being executed, her lawyers report that she was so dissociated she didn’t really know what was happening. Yet the allegedly pro-life Supreme Court of the United States, who have punted away every abortion-related case that’s come their way, stayed up until one in the morning to overturn her stay of execution. The officials at Terre Haute prison did not allow her to have her spiritual advisor present to sing “Jesus Loves Me” to her as she wished; she died alone.
Anyone involved could have chosen to act differently. The Supreme Court could have declined to hear the case and let the lower court’s ruling stand. The people who worked at Terre Haute could have gone on strike. But they didn’t. They did their jobs. We, the American people, all worked together to kill a disabled person. That happened at 1:30 in the morning on Wednesday. And now, we’re doing it again.
Corey Johnson, a drug dealer from Richmond, Virginia, was scheduled to die for his role in a series of gang shootings. The execution was supposed to take place in the same death chamber they used for Lisa Montgomery about an hour ago as I write this, but there’s a bit of a delay. His lawyers are scrambling for a stay because Johnson has lung damage from Covid-19. They argue that a suffocating lethal injection would be excruciatingly painful under that circumstance. This is being appealed to the Supreme Court as we speak. There’s no reason to think the appeal will go better than the ones they handled on Tuesday and early Wednesday.
Johnson, like Montgomery, was raised in an abusive home. His mother, like Montgomery’s, was an addict. She physically abused him repeatedly, right up until she abandoned him when he was only thirteen; then he was shuffled between foster homes and institutions until he aged out of the system. His IQ was tested several times as a child and adult and he was found to be intellectually disabled, in the 69-74 range. But these tests weren’t discovered until after he was sentenced to death. Another test administered by a psychologist who was not an expert in intellectual disability gave him a slightly higher IQ score as an adult, above the threshold required for a diagnosis. He still reads and writes at a second grade level. His former school teacher said he suffered from hyperactivity and anxiety, and had to be escorted to and from the bathroom at the age of sixteen.
Yes, what he did was heinous. No one including Johnson denies this. He has expressed remorse for the slayings. But he’s not going to kill anyone ever again, whether he lives or dies. The United States government, on the other hand, is ready to kill a person so disabled he couldn’t find his way back from the bathroom at sixteen and call it justice.
Sister Helen Prejean has stated, “The death penalty is a poor person’s issue. In the end, it’s the poor who are selected to die in this country. You’ll never find a rich person on death row.” And she’s right. Rich people commit horrendous crimes, sometimes. Rich people murder. And when they do, they can afford lawyers who will talk their way out of a death sentence no matter what. Poor people, people like Lisa Montgomery and Corey Johnson, on the other hand, seem to be born under a death sentence. They’re traumatized and abused their whole lives; they learn violence and go out to be violent, and then the government repays their violence with one final, cold-blooded, clinical act of violence. Violence begets violence; it can never be a path to peace. This is America’s grave sin. We create a culture that grinds children into dust and produces abused, addled, confused, violent people with no way to get help even if they realize they need it, and then we sentence them to death for violence. We stay up until one in the morning fighting for the right to inject them with poison. We ignore any signs that we might be torturing them. We deny them the presence of a spiritual advisor to sing them a final lullaby.
This is our sin.
The United States is doing this in our name. You and I killed Lisa Montgomery, and we’re going to kill Corey Johnson.
If you and I don’t like that, we had better work to change it. It’s too late for Lisa and Corey.
It’s probably too late for Dustin Higgs, the last of the federal executions scheduled under President Trump. Barring another delay, he will be killed tomorrow.
But it may not be too late for the next victim.
Corey Johnson is in the Death House, in the same room where Lisa Montgomery spent her last day. Shortly, he’ll be escorted to the death chamber the way he had to be escorted to the bathroom, and he’ll die a painful death.
We can become a country where this doesn’t happen.
For now, we have chosen not to.
Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross.
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