NADP made a powerful case for repeal April 20 when evangelical leader Shane Claiborne and death row exoneree Curtis McCarty spoke to a large crowd at Creighton University’s Harper Center in Omaha.
Claiborne coordinates the Simple Way Ministry in Philadelphia and is a well-known author and speaker. He challenged the crowd with his talk, “The Myth of Redemptive Violence: Who Would Jesus Execute?”
McCarty followed him and held the crowd in a hushed silence as he recounted his years of drug abuse and dissipation. In a soft voice, McCarty recounted the pain he caused his family and his frequent rides in the back of police cruisers while growing up in Oklahoma. His journey down the wrong path put him in the cross-hairs of the local police.
Eventually, when they desperately needed a suspect in the murder of a drug-abuser friend of McCarty’s, the young man stood out as an easy mark. But as he knew, and as DNA evidence would prove after he sat on death row for two decades, Curtis McCarty was innocent of the charges.
As the audience in the Harper Center leaned in to catch every word, McCarty led them through life on death row and its ultimate hopelessness. He described seeing best friends executed and the need to join a gang in prison out of simple self-preservation. “I had completely come apart,” McCarty said of his frame of mind by 2001.
Exoneration finally came in 2007 after Joyce Gilchrist, a forensic pathologist who had worked on his case, came under investigation for presenting positive DNA and blood tests that were, in fact, inconclusive. McCarty was not the only victim of her misconduct; eventually an FBI investigation freed three wrongfully imprisoned men. McCarty was released after more than 21 years in prison, most of which were spent on death row.
A happy ending? Not exactly, or at least not immediately. The failed death penalty system doesn’t produce many of those. McCarty’s family and the world had moved on. Malevolent things happen to your psyche when you’re on death row. McCarty struggled with adapting to the “real” world. He grappled with depression and anger.
But then something positive happened to McCarty, and to the abolition movement. He decided to get involved, and since then he’s been all over the world telling the most powerful indictment of the death penalty he can think of: his own compelling story.
As McCarty concluded his presentation, he’d gone over his time limit - not an unusual occurrence. But nobody cared. You could almost hear a collective release of breath by the crowd as the story ended.
After the event, long lines of people waited to speak with Claiborne and have him sign their books. He had made a powerful Scriptural and faith-based case for abolition, and people were inspired by his message. But nothing can tell you of the evils of our death penalty system quite as well as the story of an innocent man who was captured by it and lived to tell the tale.