01 July 2004

On Losing a Sister to Murder

S.S. United States, 1963
In honor of my sister Ellen's 49th birthday (although she didn't survive to age 15 in life), here's an article I compiled for The Quaker Abolitionist, in part from two Quaker Life editorials:

On Losing a Sister to Murder (from The Quaker Abolitionist, Summer 1997)

Among well-known conservative Christians, Chuck Colson once was one of the few who publicly opposed the death penalty. I was disappointed when he recently abandoned this position. In an essay titled, "Capital Punishment: A Personal Statement," he explained his change by describing a visit to John Wayne Gacy on Illinois' death row, during which Gacy claimed to be a Christian but was totally unrepentant about his crimes. "What I realized in the days prior to Gacy's execution was that there was simply no other appropriate response than execution if justice was to be served. There are some other cases like this -- the Oklahoma bombing a case in point -- when no other response is appropriate, no other punishment sufficient for the savagery of the crime."

To his credit, Colson is still deeply skeptical about the way the death penalty is actually administered. But he wants it available in reserve for the most savage crimes when the guilt of the criminal is certain. I see a certain attraction in Colson's argument, but my spirit finally rebels against this weakening of our Quaker testimony against the death penalty. Friends vary in how seriously we weigh our more or less "official" teachings, including our 300-year-old opposition to capital punishment. But it seems important to me that, at least in Friends United Meeting, opposition to the death penalty is official policy.

I'm not sure why I feel so passionately about the death penalty, but it must have something to do with the fact that I've had to deal with the impact of murder on me and my family. In 1970, my sister Ellen was murdered by a man named Tyrone King. Ellen was shot at point-blank range in the stomach and head with a sawed-off shotgun, and I'm told she did not die immediately. Her final agony must have been inconceivable.

Ellen had escaped from a state institution where experts were trying to figure out why she so often ran away from home. From her hiding place somewhere in Chicago, she phoned on my birthday. It was the last time I heard from her. What happened in the next five days is not altogether clear. She was found dying of gunshot wounds on a canal bridge in Chicago. The first we heard about it was a phone call asking my father to come to the morgue to view a body. While he was gone, newspapers began calling to ask about a death we hadn't really even heard about. Later, as the truth began to sink in, I did my best to comfort my five-year-old sister and to stay out of our enraged parents' way. We were white, the perpetrator was black. In our racially polarized high school, I had been a vocal racial-justice idealist. Now I was, in my mother's eyes, partly to blame.

The grief remains deep. I miss the years of adult companionship I could have shared with Ellen as family crises came and went. But it is true to say that I still have a relationship with her. It's not just the phantom relationship that surfaces when she comes back to life in my dreams, with logical explanations of her absence. It is the genuine relationship which First Friends Meeting in Richmond, Ind., gave us when, twenty years after her death, they held a memorial meeting, Ellen's first and only funeral. At last I began to let her step into eternity and leave me behind, for now.

I also have a relationship of sorts with Tyrone King. He was sentenced to 25-50 years and has probably been released for that crime. In his 30s when arrested, he had spent much of his life to that point in prison already. I have held many imaginary conversations with Tyrone. Does he have any memories of what happened on that day on the bridge? Did he know that he was taking a life? Does life hold any meaning for him? My sister's? His own? Anyone's?

I try to imagine Tyrone as a small child. What spiritual work was God trying to do in his young soul, and what force lurked in his future, and perhaps ultimately extinguished that work? What might a merciful and just God provide now for Tyrone's redemption? Does the body of Christ play a role in that provision, especially since that body includes countless "families and witnesses" . . . and has, as its leader, history's preeminent Victim?

"Yes!" I want to say even in the face of so many religious advocates of capital punishment. But I sadly acknowledge that we Friends, and all our wonderful expressions of faith and practice, are rarely found in the neighborhoods of the Calumet Canal or the Cook County Jail, or even in the households of the young Tyrones whose futures have been extinguished.

Tyrone King was not created by God to murder my sister. How did the forces within and around him conspire to bend his life in that terrible direction? I don't think we ought to "blame everything on society" and forget about personal responsibility in considering the causes of crime. Clearly, Tyrone King needed to be brought to account personally for what he did. But society does carry some responsibility for limiting the possibilities and molding the outlook of its young people. It is mighty convenient for society simply to "erase" its mistakes rather than having to confront them and attempt to reduce them. When we kill the murderer, we say with all the finality we can muster that all the responsibility for this tragedy will be borne by the murderer.

Despite the initial attractiveness to many reasonable people of Chuck Colson's "special-case" argument, our laws and institutions cannot be arranged to cover only the "worst possible situations" . . . the horrible acts committed by a John Wayne Gacy or a Timothy McVeigh. If the death penalty is permitted by law in even the most limited way, sooner or later it will be used in a way that was unintended by the authors of the law.

The death penalty is incompatible with Christianity. But totally aside from that, I'm simply unwilling to grant the power to kill to government institutions which are subject to all the temptations we see in human systems, temptations such as the willingness to cut corners, and to the influences of power, money and social prejudice.

On Ellen's fiftieth birthday. And her sixtieth. On forgiveness.


Anonymous said...

I liked your article. I'm 18, and my sister was brutally murdered by her husband on my 13th birthday. Thank you so much for helping me bring a little peace to my heart.

Johan Maurer said...

Dear Anonymous,

You must be 29 now. Blessings.