At the death penalty intersection, popular caricatures include both victim's families pressing up to the glass for a better view of the lethal injection process and those rogue Catholics who've worked their way beyond abortion in their pro-life positioning holding signs and chanting outside.
San Antonio's Charity Lee has certainly earned a right to permanent front-row seats inside the killing chamber. Her own father was murdered when she was only six. Then, as a young parent herself, her daughter (shown at right in a courtesy photo) was
raped sexually abused and murdered in 2007 by her son. Perhaps because of the nature of the intra-family assault, she has instead joined the anti-death penalty camp.
“Inevitably, at some point if you have a child, they're going to hit someone. Then you see these parents that are spanking their children and they're screaming at them 'You're not supposed to hit people!'” Lee told the Current
from Washington, D.C. “We say all the time, 'You're not supposed to kill, but if you kill somebody we're going to kill you.' There's no logic to it.”
Since her daughter Ella's death, Lee established the ELLA Foundation, quickly entered the speaking circuit both in the States and abroad. The mission of ELLA is to “prevent violence and to advocate for human rights through education, criminal justice reform, and victim advocacy.”
Today, Lee is preparing to protest on the 35th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision to reinstate the death penalty in the United States in an act of civil disobedience she expects to be arrested for on the Supreme's front steps tomorrow.
We interviewed her by phone earlier today.
From your vantage point, what are the roots of violence that we can address as a culture?
I really believe violence is a generational thing, and so in order to stop it we have to have more effective policy and law. But we also really need to focus on getting kids really early in the education system, and supporting families more, and not giving single moms that are working three jobs to make ends meet a hard time because their children might be running on the street. I don't believe all these kids and adults that end up committing crime are bad seeds, you know? They've lived a lifetime not being educated, they might not have job skills, especially in San Antonio, you have 13 and 14 year old girls popping out babies right and left. I really think if we're going to address the issue of violence, the first thing we need to do is address the issue of education, employability, sex ed, these basic fundamental issues that should start really, really early.
We're too judgmental, we're too punitive, we're too harsh.
I definitely agree a person should suffer for their crime, especially if it's a crime like what happened to Ella. But our efforts at eliminating these problems too date have not worked. We need to start looking at these problems through a different lens. Not lock them up and throw away the key, but what can we do to help each other.
Does fighting the death penalty mean forgiving the killers?
No. I have many differernt colleages in the field of death-penalty abolition that don't support the death penalty for many different reasons. Some think it can't be applied fairly and it's applied so arbitrarily. There are seriel killers out there who in exchange for their plea, in exchange for information about where the bodies are, a prosecutor will allow them to plea for life, but then a guy, like a friend of mine's son in Delaware: her son grew up physically and sexually abused his whole life, he obviously abused his girlfriend, and then he ended up shooting her between the eyes. Well, he was given the death penalty. Well he only killed one person, and there were a lot of mitigating circumstances. It was not fairly applied.
I know a lot of people who are opposed to [the death penalty] that still think these people are worthless pieces of trash. That's not the mentality that I have, but that they have. Some people think it costs too much. Others, I know a lot of people who would support the death penalty if it could be applied fairly and they knew for a fact that nobody innocent could be executed. And then you have people like me who are just morally opposed to it on the grounds that killing is wrong.
Have you forgiven your son?
Yes. Yes, I have. I mean
it's kind of hard. Our case is different because my son is incapable of remorse to date.
I mean my son is a predator, so it was never a question of forgiveness. Because that would be like forgiving a shark for biting me. He is wired to do what he does. I had to let go of a lot of rage and anger as time went on, but I never really saw it as a function of forgiveness. I have friends who tell me all the time that that's what forgiveness is: let go of your anger, let go of your range, you don't want revenge. But I never really saw it that way with my child. But I guess I have. I still only want what is best for him.
What role does civil disobedience play on death-penalty protest?
In contemporary America we have forgotten the fact that we were revolutionaries at one point and the First Amendment gives us the right to speak up for what we believe in.
We need to show people in America it's still OK to take a stand for what you believe in — and that if you truly passionately believe in something enough, you need to put yourself out there.
“Journey to Hope”
"How Now Butterfly?" is due out in November of this year. Meanwhile, she's also racking up hours (somewhere between 1,300 and 1,500 hours and counting) in crisis intervention working with the San Antonio Police Department Family Assistance Crisis Team (FACT) assisting the families of homicide victims. She is also setting up a monthly gathering of mothers of both victims and perpetrators of homicide. For more information, watch her Ella Foundation website