Crime, Forgiveness and Retributive Justice: A God's Politics Interview with Naseem Rakha

By Joshua Witchger 10-09-2011

naseem_portraitAn eye for an eye, a life for a life. This is one way -- based, some argue, in scripture and biblical ethics -- that proponents of capital punishment justify the death penalty.

Since capital punishment was reinstated 34 years ago in the United States, 1,271 men and women have been executed by the state.

Many proponents claim that the "ultimate punishment" is morally justifiable when a someone commits a heinous crime. Some even celebrate such supposed "justice," believing that it provides comfort or "closure" to victims' families, and at least a semblance of safety for the rest of us. Some think that by executing the guilty, goodness has triumphed over evil.

Naseem Rakha, author of the 2009 novel The Crying Tree sees justice differently. Rakha, an award-winning journalist whose work has been featured on National Public Radio and elsewhere, has covered two death penalty cases in Oregon -- the only two in that state's history -- and has spent considerable time exploring the deeper story behind capital punishment, retributive justice and forgiveness.

"What I learned from talking to these victims is that there is a place, not called closure, not called moving on, but there is a place of empowerment," Rakha said in a recent interview with God's Politics. "Crime strips people of power, and there's nothing that the justice system or really even churches can give to you to replace that power. It is an act of wanting to sit down and meet with the person who strips that power from you that has transformed people's lives and gotten them to a point where they can forgive the act, because they see the perpetrator no longer as a monster, but as a human that has made a terrible mistake."

In the transcript and audio recording linked below, Rakha tells stories from death row and the kind profound healing she has witnessed first hand between victims and perpetrators, and speaks at length about the power of forgiveness in action.

Listen to the audio HERE.


Joshua Witchger: You've been a journalist for many years, paying special attention to death penalty cases, particularly in Oregon. While this beat may encompass and array of emotions -- discomfort, fear, confusion, among many others -- I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about what part of covering these cases appeals to you? And what keeps you wanting to cover them, or what keeps you interested in these cases?

Naseem Rakha: The first thing you need to understand is that I covered two executions in Oregon. We've only had two executions in Oregon, in over 70 years. I covered the two we had, one was in 1996, one was in 1997, and I went into those stories like I go into all of my stories, which is that I go into more like a storyteller than a journalist. With the goal of really trying to create a panorama for listeners, I was in broadcast radio, a panorama for listeners to dive into and rally understand the implications of the subject, in this case: what does it mean, and what does it take, and who is affected, and how are they affected, when the state decides to kill someone? What I've found in both of the situations that I covered as a journalist, when we covered those executions, was that I felt that I did a poor job in creating that panorama. Simply because the information that we had available to us as journalists was very, very paltry. It was very, very superficial.

We were shown the props of what it takes to kill someone, what a gurney looks like, what the room looks like, what a man looks like that is already stretched out on a gurney that already has IVs inserted into his veins. We weren't given the interviews that would have been pertinent, like the interviews with the victims families, or with the families of the man who is about to be condemned to die. We weren't able top talk with the convicted man himself, and of course all the interviews we were given by the department of corrections were all very controlled and contrived. Only specific information was given to us, and none of it was meant to demonstrate or show any of the real drama, emotional drama, that goes on when preparing and then actually killing someone.

That was a story that I of course, as a story teller, felt that I wanted to tell, that I needed to tell, that was important to tell, because emotion is the point where listeners engage or readers engage. They can start making some associations into their own lives, they can start having empathy with a situation, and that's where I wanted to understand capital punishment, at a very emotional and gut level and express it.

After covering the executions I just began my own education in the topic of capital punishment. I spoke with people who were on death row, or who were working on death row, and spoke with people who'd been exonerated from death row, or found to be innocent after living on death row for years. I spoke with Sister Helen Prejean who wrote Dead Man Walking, and spoke with as many people as I could to get their perspective.

And it was when I stated speaking with victims of crime -- in particular victims of crime that have somehow walked through their hate and remorse and victimhood and come to a place of forgiveness, that was extraordinary in my mind -- that that is what really compelled me to write "The Crying Tree," because what I learned from talking to these victims is that there is a place, not called closure, not called moving on, but there is a place of empowerment. Crime strips people of power, and there's nothing that the justice system or really even churches can give to you to replace that power. It is an act of wanting to sit down and meet with the person who strips that power from you -- that has transformed people's lives. And gotten them to a point where they can forgive the act because they see the perpetrator no longer as a monster, but as a human that has made a terrible mistake. That is transformative and that's what compelled me to write The Crying Tree. I wanted to write about that transformative act and what is it like for people who are waiting for an execution to occur, and how does it tear apart people.

JW: In that gathering of information, hearing from the victims and the families, and then writing this whole novel about the execution process is all about, what is your story, I guess the larger picture, saying about the future of reconciliation and forgiveness? Could you talk a little about that?

NR: Well, I think that what my story is saying, is that extraordinary acts are done by everyday people. That those extraordinary acts are the acts of looking at oneself wholly, and accepting ourselves for our flaws. Once we can accept ourselves with our flaws, then that begins a passage of being able to accept others for their flaws. All of my characters in The Crying Tree are flawed characters. They're people who make grave mistakes, just like you and I and every other human being does. I wanted to create characters that whether or not you could agree with what they did, you could empathize with them, because you saw them for the full scope of who they are. I think reconciliation starts with us understanding that full scope of who we are individually, and then trying to make those everyday steps beyond it.

I also think that the book is expressing that there is a polemic with regards to justice. And that polemic is largely about vengeance; it's largely about locking people up, throwing away the keys, not thinking about them, not funding what's going on in prison, putting more and more people in prisons, and not considering the consequences of doing that. That polemic is destroying the potential, not only the people who are behind bars, but their families and it is destroying victims as well, because it doesn't give victims the opportunity to connect with what happened to them in a way that can really heal them.

I think that's what The Crying Tree is about. It's about looking at justice in a different way.

JW: I've heard a little about your relationship with Gary Haugen, the prisoner on death row that read your book, and I'm wondering if you could talk a little about that, and about what you find illuminating in this?

NR: I've had many prisoners contact me, and I've met with many that have read The Crying Tree, and all of them have said the same thing, "we need to get everyone to read The Crying Tree, especially the people in prisons,' because what happens to people who have read The Crying Tree, who have harmed others, is them grappling with this concept of what is forgiveness? And, can I ever be forgiven for what I've done? And what would that gift mean to me? If someone can forgive me can I forgive myself? And can I forgive the layers of people behind me that have helped me to get into these situations -- whether it was a drug addicted parent, or the abusive people in their lives. I've had very many deep and profound conversations with inmates that have read the crying tree.

Gary Haugen was the last one I spoke to recently who has read The Crying Tree. Gary has been on death row for eight or nine years, and he's been in prison for 30, he was put on death row because he had killed an inmate. And he wants to die. Like the other two people we've executed in Oregon, he has stopped his appeals, and just wants to move forward with to the execution. He wrote me and said, "I've read The Crying Tree." He told how it emotionally moved him, he told me about how he was weeping with remorse for what he had done in his life, and he asked if I'd come and talk with him.

I met with him for a couple hours a few weeks ago and we had a very long talk. We talked about his past, we talked about his future -- which he sees as very short -- and I mostly just listened. Following our meeting I wrote him a lengthy letter explaining to him my position about his volunteering for execution, and why I opposed his decision. And why I hoped he'd rethink it.

What does it mean? I think that every single person in the United States should walk behind bars, give themselves and volunteer and go into a prison and see the men and women we keep behind bars. First of all it will be mystifying, an area of the world that people don't think about and that people stereotype. And second of all, it will turn those monsters that we lock up in our minds, that big uncontrollable, unwieldy people, it will turn them into human beings.

The day I first walked into a prison, I wasn't even a journalist yet. My life was transformed. My life was transformed by the knowledge that I now own information that I'm obligated to share. That information is that there are human beings behind those bars, and we're not doing it right, what we're doing inside of those bars.

JW: One thing I keep coming back to when I hear of these recent death penalty cases is something that Pope John Paul II said in his opposition to the death penalty, that when we take away a life, we may also be taking away the chance of redemption. I find that a powerful word when we as individuals, and communities, and societies, try to deal with the death penalty, getting out of the eye-for-eye mindset and moving more toward a position of forgiveness and redemption. I find that narrative very powerful.

NR: And it is. I tell you a story of a woman who her parents were murdered. She had been waiting and waiting, and living like many victims do who live in death penalty states, and whose perpetrators have been given the death penalty, they wait for years for that final act of justice to occur. They believe what they're told by the district attorneys, and media, and neighbors, and others, that that's when justice occurs -- when that person dies. When that person suffers the same consequences that he pushed on others.

They believe that, and they wait sometimes decades for this act of justice to occur. This woman had waited and finally the day came. She was there and she witnessed the execution of this man. And that was it, that was going to be the closure, that was supposed to provide her the closure that she had been waiting for, but she didn't feel any satisfaction. She didn't feel any better. The person died so rapidly, so quietly, she still felt depressed, and alone, and unhealed.

Then she met a friend of mine named Abigail. Abigail's actually one of the motivators for my book The Crying Tree. On the day I met her she had just come back from a ten hour trip where she had driven from San Quentin to visiting with, what she called "a friend or hers from death row." I inquired, "who is this friend," and she said, "He's the man who stabbed my daughter to death 20 years ago."

Abigail's a woman who lived through the pain and anguish and was waiting for this man's death, living for his man's death. Realizing her hate was killing her, she forgave him and eventually met him and then befriended him. This other woman -- who now had just witnessed this execution of the man who murdered her parents -- meets Abigail, and here's Abigail's story, and here's this man who killed her daughter is now her friend, and that they learn things from another. This relationship that they're in, that neither of them wanted to be in, has provided the sense of sustenance and growth for both of them.

And this woman just broke down crying, because she realized "I can never have that. I can never have that. That sense of redemption is lost because we killed the man who killed my parents. I can never have that conversation of 'why did you do this?' 'what did they say?' 'how do they fight back?' what was the look in their eyes?' 'did they mention my name?' 'how did it feel?'"

Those are questions that when you ask the perpetrators of the crime and you're sitting right across from them and you're looking them in the eyes, and they have to tell that story, that's a hard moment. It's walking though flames for both of them. And they're transformed.

I've seen it. I've seen victims say "I got my life back with that conversation." Nothing has given me my life back until that moment, and I can forgive this person. He's weeping, he's sobbing, he's begging "do you really want me to go on? Do you really want to hear this?" "Yes, you tell me what you did."

And there's transformation, there's redemption, there's forgiveness, there's the ability to walk straighter for both parties. And you kill a person, you kill a perpetrator, you kill a convicted man, that opportunity for that walk is gone.

JW: I have a quote written here, it was from an article you had written back in May 2010, from a piece called "Healing in a Hard Place," and I found this especially moving. You write: "Healing, it seems, has no boundaries, no landmass one can point to and call home. Instead it is an ephemeral thing found, sometimes, in the most unlikely of places and from the most unlikely of people. In our haste to punish offenders and protect ourselves from crime, we should not forget that justice, at its heart, is about restoring balance and wholeness."

I see that in this conversation we're having about execution and taking out that ability for redemption... it was that in one of these stories...

NR: Are you asking what is the question, I didn't quite understand

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