Columns » Autumn Tolbert

Erasing humanity



During law school, when I clerked for my local public defender's office, I was often tasked with getting lunch for defendants during trials. This served two purposes: It kept the defendant near the attorneys during the break instead of down at the jail, and it helped build rapport in what was often a tough relationship. Without fail, the men facing death always requested a burger and fries from McDonald's. A wise attorney in the office pointed out, after some of us questioned why when just about any local restaurant was an option, that McDonald's burgers and fries taste like no other burgers and fries in the world. It is a taste that these men were likely never to enjoy again. It was the taste of freedom.

I know from experience and statistics that, chances are, these men I helped feed had childhoods that looked nothing like mine, but somewhere along the way, a parent or a teacher or a foster family surely treated them to a Happy Meal full of that delicious combination of sodium and carbs we spend our adult lives trying to avoid. Whether it was indeed the taste of freedom they were after during those lunches or an attempt to recapture a memory from their youth before everything went terribly wrong, it demonstrates, to me at least, the humanity we try to erase from those men in order to make them easier to kill. It shows we are all connected sometimes by just the smallest things, like the desire for a burger and fries.

Only one of the men who requested McDonald's from me during my time as a law clerk is on death row in Arkansas, and he is not one of the men scheduled to be executed in the upcoming days. I have no connection to the cases of the inmates that are to die. I do not know them. The crimes they have been convicted of are terrible. Those of us who advocate for life do so with a heavy heart for the victims and their anger. If these men did those things to my family members, I'd probably like to kill them with my own hands. But that is not where we are. We are in the middle of Holy Week and quickly approaching Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Yet, on Monday, the state of Arkansas seeks to walk these living and breathing men into a small cinder block room, strap them to a gurney and draw back the curtains so that witnesses can watch them die.

After law school, I went on to become a public defender and volunteered to try every case I could. I am now certified to sit as co-counsel on death penalty cases in Arkansas. I hope I never obtain the highest certification of lead counsel, as it requires more capital trial experience. More death. More dead victims, a potential death sentence for my client, and all of the sadness that comes along with it all. More sights and sounds to add to the ones I can never get out of my head no matter how many beers I drink at happy hour (my old vice) or how many days I camp in the woods with my husband and daughters (my new vice): autopsy photos of a murdered 4-year-old, the guttural cry from a mother as she comes face to face with the man accused of shooting her child, the break in a mother's voice as she tries to keep it together enough to say the right words while pleading with 12 strangers to spare her son's life, and, finally, the long sigh from the Cummins prison guard standing in the execution chamber as he points out there are not many other jobs around.

Governor Hutchinson has surely received letter after letter and phone call after phone call from Arkansans asking him to follow in the footsteps of Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller who, due to his faith, commuted the death sentences of 15 men to life in prison. Whether it is because of his own faith, or his desire to prevent these 11 days of executions from overshadowing all of the good things about our state, or the reality that the men and women who work in the prison will live with this for the rest of their lives, or if the governor, even when contemplating those among us who are considered the worst of the worst, understands we are all connected, I hope he stops the executions. I hope he stops them for humanity. I hope he stops them for Arkansas.

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