America is better than the death penalty


I first discovered Keith LaMar’s story on a visit to the Michigan State University Broad Art Museum, where a large sculpture of his is displayed. He dealt drugs as a teenager and was sent to prison after killing a man in 1989. Four years into his sentence, a violent riot broke out in the prison and left 10 people dead. Keith was charged with killing five of them. His punishment? Death.

Keith LaMar, the murderer-turned-artist, is set to be executed by the state of Ohio on Nov. 16, 2023 — 34 years after his initial incarceration.

Ohio has been near-certain of Keith’s guilt for a long time, yet he has remained on death row for nearly three decades. This is not abnormal. The appeals process, which Keith made great use of, is designed to eliminate any possible doubt before the state proceeds with a killing. This results in the average condemned inmate waiting 18 years before being either exonerated or executed. 

This waiting time is absurdly long — not to mention emotionally devastating and expensive for everyone involved — but it does reveal something deeply compassionate about America. We value life and refuse to dispose of it thoughtlessly. We’re terrified of getting a case wrong and sending an innocent person to their demise. Studies show that about 4.1% of current death row inmates are wrongfully convicted, and even this relatively small group of individuals shakes us to our core. America is a just country made up of just people. We’re better than the death penalty. 

It is clear that society is safer when murderers are kept off the streets. But giving them life without parole accomplishes this just as well as an execution, all without any of the evidential risk or moral burden. Assuming Keith is actually guilty, an assumption he contests but multiple appeals have confirmed, his actions during the Lucasville Prison Uprising were abhorrent, and the people of Ohio can all sleep soundly knowing that he is locked away. But will they sleep any sounder knowing he’s dead?

If one of Keith’s victims had been my father, brother or son, I know I would be tempted by retribution. You would likely be, too. That’s the human response. An eye for an eye is simple — the most intuitive form of justice. Mercy is much harder for us to wrap our heads around, but we must try. Keith LaMar should never walk free. But he shouldn’t die, either.

I want to discuss what has led me to my current stance on capital punishment. The first is a shallow matter of regionalism. Michigan was the first English-speaking polity in the world to eliminate the death penalty, and for this I feel a great sense of pride. Secondly, as a kid, I read the closing arguments for another death penalty case spoken by legendary defense attorney Clarence Darrow.

Pleading for the lives of his clients, who slaughtered their younger cousin in cold blood, Darrow said, “If the state in which I live is not kinder, more human, more considerate, more intelligent than the mad act of these two mad boys, I am sorry I have lived so long.”

To apply his wisdom here: Keith LaMar has taken lives. We don’t have to.

Keith has likely extinguished six souls over the course of his life. They will never breathe, love or cry again because of him. But Keith has a soul, too. That’s what struck me most about his sculpture at the art museum. Here is a man I so desperately want to reduce to nothing more than his crime, but he won’t let me. Yes, he is a criminal. But he’s also an artist, poet and musician.

Keith’s story shows us something about everyone currently sitting on death row. They might not express themselves as eloquently or as positively as he does, but they are all well-rounded human beings with the same right to life as their victims. There is no utility in killing them. It won’t bring their victims back. We can rationalize this state-sponsored murder with words like “justice” and “closure,” but the only motivation we can honestly claim is rage.

If we truly thought the death penalty would bring peace to the victims and their families, we wouldn’t be so ashamed of it. But we are. When Keith is injected with lethal chemicals in November, he and the executioner will be separated by a black curtain. The two will never see each other. This isn’t justice. Real justice is something you can be proud of, not something you must avert your eyes from.

The thought of some official state calendar containing the various execution dates of different inmates is sickening. Keith, a sad, albeit guilty man, is counting down the days until he’s killed. The state, in absolute control of his fate, is counting down the days until they get to kill him.

But when the autumn day comes that Keith takes his last breath, the responsibility belongs to all of us. Not just the jury and executioner. As citizens, we cannot willingly engage in taking a life and destroying a soul. We are Americans. We live in the land of second chances — redemption runs in our blood. Public safety demands Keith be incarcerated, but the American Dream calls on us to let him live. We choose how justice is done in our country, and we must choose better.

Jack Brady is an Opinion Columnist writing about American politics and culture. He can be reached at [email protected].

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