The day that Matt Puckett was executed by the state of Mississippi, I was caught in an emotional conundrum.
For several years, I had corresponded with Matt on death row and I felt I knew him, at least a bit. Protests were going on that day in Mississippi, and many believed Matt to be innocent. I tried to keep up with online news all day and realized the stress of an impending state-sponsored killing was making me ill.
At the same time, my college-age daughter Maria was home on spring break and this was her last day before she flew back to school. I wouldn't see her again for months, and I wanted to leave the drama of this execution in a separate part of my psyche so I could be fully present to Maria. In other words, I was compartmentalizing, never good for the gut.
To escape the computer and the clock, I suggested a trip to a nearby outdoor mall, where we could walk and shop on this sunny March day in 2012. As we headed into Gap, Maria found a sales rack and I desperately sought out the restroom, where I promptly got sick. So much for emotional multitasking.
The last day of Matt's life came back to me as I read "A Saint on Death Row, The Story of Dominique Green," by Thomas Cahill. Green was killed in 2004 in Texas, a place that has led the nation in executions over the years. Cahill, the best-selling author of "How the Irish Saved Civilization," met Green at the suggestion of his attorney, and his book is a compelling look at a man who came from an excruciatingly painful childhood yet journeyed to a place of integrity and faith.
Cahill's is not a new book. Published in 2009, it joins a genre of death row literature. By now, it seems just about everyone has heard the objections to the death penalty, starting with the sacredness of all life, our popes' opposition, the high number of wrongful convictions, the economic and racial unfairness, just to list a few.
And yet the killing continues. In my own state of Nebraska, after much study, our legislature abolished the death penalty, which hadn't been used in nearly 20 years and for which there are no available drugs. But a pro-execution governor pumped his own money into a petition drive to place the issue on the ballot, and the referendum reinstating executions won by a large margin.
Somehow, we misunderstand the moral imperative that justice is about restoration and not revenge.
This is where books like "A Saint on Death Row" make a difference. On the one hand, they tell a common tale: Most people in prison are the victims of abuse and neglect as children. Many are mentally ill. But instead of supplying us with mere statistics, these books introduce us to a real person.
In much the same way as getting to know Matt, who found Catholicism in prison, getting to know Dominique changes how we see those on death row. They become souls with aspirations and regrets and hopes and a desire for God, and we begin to see the issue on a human, gut level.
Was Matt innocent of the murder of which he was accused? I'll never know. The same with Green. Both were teenagers when convicted. Ultimately, guilt is not the point (although innocence must be).
Instead, our focus should be on our own complicity with the mechanics of death, and how we can help create a system in line with our pro-life values.
The writer writes for the Catholic News Service column "For the Journey."