By Mark Osler
Last week, I had the opportunity to speak at the Kairos Conference on the death penalty at Emory University. It was organized by People of Faith Against the Death Penalty and Sister Helen Prejean, and featured a fascinating array of voices. However, things didn’t go quite as expected, in a way that was wonderful, instructive, and encouraging to groups like Friends of Justice.
Frankly, I expected to go down there, give my lectures, and talk to like-minded folks about the death penalty. All that happened, but that wasn’t all. Sometimes a conference like that goes off in a direction you don’t expect.
The moral core of the conference was seized, gently, by the surviving victims of murder victims, whose stories were more compelling, complex, and convincing than any of the arguments the rest of us might have made.
Bud Welch talked about his daughter, Julie, who died in the Oklahoma City bombing. He did describe going to meet Tim McVeigh’s father, and his evolving feelings about the death penalty, but mostly he talked about his daughter. With each layer of detail, she became more real and complex and missed, and the entire discussion more important and troubling.
Marrieta Jaeger-Lane, in turn, told the story of her daughter, Susie, who was abducted and killed at age 7 during a family camping trip. The anguish of a mother was hard to hear. But it turned to something else, somehow– before the killer was captured, Marrieta came to forgive him and pray for him. It was confounding. She might as well have described how she learned to fly or become invisible for many of us. It was the best kind of challenge.
Most of the other speakers (including me) offered arguments of one type or another, rather than narratives, and none of us came close to the power of Bud or Marrieta’s witness.
What to make of this?
First, the fact that narrative trumps argument helps to explain a paradox within the world of capital punishment. Here is the riddle: Right now more people than ever support the death penalty—some polls show that as many as 83% of Americans believe capital punishment is justified for at least some types of crimes. At the same time, juries (comprised of those same Americans) are imposing the death penalty in individual cases much more sparingly—there are about 60% fewer findings for death now compared to the 1990’s.
How does that happen? How do Americans simultaneously increase their support the death penalty as a policy, and refuse to impose it as jurors?
The answer is (at least in part) the power of narrative. Defense attorneys have gotten better at presenting mitigating evidence at the sentencing phase of trial, in which they tell the whole story of the defendant and make him fully human. In other words, we tend to believe in harsh sanctions until we hear the story of the person those sanctions will be imposed upon. Narrative trumps argument.
This makes all the more important the role of Friends of Justice, which focuses on bringing forth and developing the full narrative of iconic criminal justice cases and the people involved. From the capital context, we know that this works in creating change.
Bumper stickers don’t change minds. Talking heads on MSNBC or Fox News aren’t changing anyone’s opinion no matter how loudly they yell. Rather, it is the people like Marrieta Jaeger-Lane and Bud Welch and Alan Bean, the storytellers, who hold out that hope of genuine reflection and a different way.
Mark Osler is a former federal prosecutor who currently teaches law at the University of St. Thomas. Professor Osler is the author of Jesus on Death Row.