By: Dr. Betty Levitov, English Professor and Dr. Danelle DeBoer, Sociology Professor
Although I’m not much given to “should” or “ought,” Curtis McCarty should be heard and seen in person. I was fortunate to be in the audience when he came to Doane College as a guest of the Sociology department as part of a regional conference. He visited sociology classes and my class, a first-year seminar designed to introduce students to the Liberal Arts. Amy Miller, President of the Board of Directors for NADP, introduced McCarty, at the beginning of class. He stood in the front of the classroom in his jeans and tennis shoes, short-sleeve tee shirt over a long-sleeve tee shirt, slim, fit, and from the neck down, he could pass for one of the students. Only the wrinkles at the sides of his eyes, a slight receding of his hairline, and softening around the jaw revealed a much older man.
He spoke in a soft voice, pausing between sentences, telling a story that is patently painful. And even though he must have told his story many times, he seemed to live in his experience as he unfolded the details of twenty-two years of incarceration on death row, sixteen underground, for a crime he didn’t commit.
My students sat still, mesmerized. For a continuous seventy-five minutes, he spoke in a quiet, hesitating way, only to pause to unscrew the cap of his bottled water and sip. None of the students moved; no one looked at the clock; no one even looked at their phone. They were hooked.
Why, I wondered? Was it because he said he was white and middle class, like most of the students? Was it because he admitted he’d gotten into drugs, dropped out of school, alienated himself from his family and was an admitted wise ass? Was it his candor? Or was their attention caught by the shock of his story—about a kid gone bad on drugs, and not a murderer—who got caught in a corrupt penal system where results of an investigation trumped justice?
When McCarty appeared for a large audience later that evening in the college auditorium, I saw many—actually most—of my students returning for more of the story. And when I requested response papers for extra credit, I got five times as many as for other public events on the campus. One student who said she was already against the death penalty before hearing McCarty wrote:
I really enjoyed the speech from Curtis McCarty about his horrible story. His speech was very interesting and intrigued me a lot. They way he talked was so soft, slow, and sad. It’s like you could hear the pain and sorrow in his voice as he spoke. It made me feel so bad for him. ….It is stories like Curtis McCarty’s that make me dislike the death penalty even more. To think about all the people who could have been falsely convicted, sentenced to death row, and killed before they had a chance to prove their innocence just isn’t fair…
Another student wrote:
I find it difficult to grasp the concept of our government officials knowingly sending innocent people to death row. Our entire justice system’s goal is to prevent crime and in this particular case, it did just the opposite.
I am totally shocked that our system is like this….Although this didn’t happen to me, I feel morally obligated to learn more about the death penalty and exactly what’s going on within our legal system.
Curtis McCarty told me he would not want to be the subject of a documentary film. That’s unfortunate because McCarty’s story needs telling, most effectively in person. But because he will eventually be unwilling or unable, a wide-screen or TV exhibition could substitute, reaching a mass audience.
McCarty survived because the Oklahoma investigative unit was indicted for tampering with the evidence in his murder case. His DNA did not match, and he was exonerated.
He was lucky. He was white and middle class and his family was reading newspapers at the right time.
My students were moved by McCarty’s story. Some even changed their minds about the death penalty.
I have a hard time understanding why Nebraska legislators continue to vote against repeal of the death penalty or a cost analysis of death row and lethal injection. And why governors refuse death row appeals for a stay of execution when evidence might be found to prove their innocence. Have they listened to Curtis McCarty? Have they heard?
Curtis McCarty is a powerful speaker. His power lies in his ability to thoughtfully challenge students to reconsider or reaffirm their position on the death penalty. I had several students tell me they were staunch advocates of the death penalty and after hearing Curtis speak, they re-evaluated their positions. These students now oppose the death penalty. As educators we work semesters, even years to initiate thoughtful consideration of social issues. However, in just one hour, Curtis made a tremendous impact on our students.
I am so very thankful that Curtis is brave enough to share his story. His keynote address educated our students about the inequities of the criminal justice system in a way that was personal and professional. He further challenged our students to a higher calling. He reminded us all that it is our duty, our responsibility, to take care of one another. In a world filled with injustice, it is the obligation of the advantaged to advocate for the marginalized and the oppressed. With a soft spoken voice, we heard him loud and clear.