Compassion in Unusual Places

The sanctity of life – the sanctity of choice 

What do you do when helping someone means advocating for his death? 

I am a Board-Certified Clinical Psychologist and have been in practice since 1993.  I entered the field, as most do, to be of assistance and support to people in dealing with the difficult, the unimaginable, and the often painful circumstances of life.  The goal has always been simple: to help.  The manner may differ, but the central goal is the same: to help. I have encountered many challenging situations in my work: times when I felt unbelievably sad upon hearing someone’s story; when I felt righteous indignation at injustices encountered; when I worried for someone’s safety; when I laughed and rejoiced in someone’s experience.  In each of these situations the path to helping was clear of moral dilemma.  But what about when helping results in execution – the state enforcing the legally imposed punishment of the death penalty?   While some decisions involve the potential for moral and/or emotional distress, there is usually a way of understanding “helping” as giving voice to an individual’s right to choose.  What do you do when helping someone means advocating for his death as punishment?

Several years ago while I worked for a state Department of Corrections (DOC), an inmate on death row was executed.  The state had not conducted an execution for decades.  I was the Supervising Psychologist for the DOC facility, and as such it was my role to facilitate mental health treatment for this inmate.  I was also the liaison to DOC custody staff regarding policies, treatment, and the impact of the process of an execution on staff, the involved inmate and other inmates in the facility.  The DOC staff were split in their views of the situation.  Some staff were adamantly opposed to the death penalty, a portion were relatively neutral and the largest number of staff were strong proponents of the death penalty – some to the point of relishing the execution.

He had confessed and been convicted of heinous crimes, including the rapes and murders of seven young women between the ages of 14 and 22 years old.  Innocence was not a question.  He readily admitted his responsibility for these crimes.  The legal process was long and involved, including several different trials and penalty hearings, all with the same result: he was sentenced to death. Now all mandatory appeals associated with the death penalty were exhausted. Having already spent twenty years on death row, he did not want to pursue further appeals.   He made the “choice” to not file a voluntary appeal and instead to proceed with the death penalty process.

It is a curious thing, but when the required appeals (the checks and balances of the legal system) were completed and this man said, “I want to proceed with the imposition of my sentence”, all the rules changed.  This individual, who had been competent to assist in his defense and his appeals to fight his sentence for over twenty years, was suddenly seen as “incompetent” to choose to accept his sentence.  Opponents of the death penalty viewed execution as “state-assisted suicide” and believed the inmate had “death row syndrome”, and therefore was not competent to make the decision to move forward with his sentence.  Those who agreed with the death penalty believed he was fully competent and supported the completion of his sentence through lethal injection.  And then there was me.

I had always been against the death penalty.  From a moral perspective, I believed in the sanctity of life, that we do not have the right to take the life of another human being.  I shared in others’ horror and outrage at horrific crimes, but felt justice belonged to the legal system (through incarceration) and to God.    I did not believe in retribution or revenge, although I supported consequences and accountability.  I argued against the death penalty in high school debates, college round-table discussions and in theoretical conversations with my peers, family and friends.

When faced with this situation as a psychologist, I found myself splitting a very fine hair.  I did not support the death penalty, but I did support the ability of an individual to make a conscious choice.  And I supported the right of an individual to be seen accurately, and to have his voice heard, even when his voice was raised in favor of his own death.

Multiple competency evaluations were completed for the prosecutor’s office, for the public defenders office and another at the request of the convicted, who wanted to have his own “expert witness.”  Oddly, there was now an alliance between the convicted and the prosecutor, as both argued the case of mental competency in the affirmative.  On the other side, the public defenders, the family of the convicted and interested other parties argued that this man was not competent as a result of his many years of confinement on death row and moving forward with implementing his sentence was “state-assisted suicide”.

I spoke with all of these individuals during this process. I talked to the psychiatric evaluators, the prosecutors and public defenders, the staff working in the correctional facility, the members of the religious orders, the friends and family members.  I spoke with the convicted man on a daily basis and listened as he poured forth his frustration at trying to prove he was sane enough to die.  His reasoning was based in faith, developed over years of incarceration.  He wanted to spare the victims’ families further pain.  He said he didn’t want to die.  Since he had lost all reasonable appeals for conversion to a life sentence, and knew that some day he would be executed, he did not want to continue to “drag the families” through the re-creations of his crimes that accompanied each court hearing.  He spoke eloquently and at length about his religious convictions and his awareness of the unimaginable pain he caused so many people.  And there’s no denying that he loved the attention.  He liked having a platform for his anti-death penalty views and he hoped to be a force for change.  He hoped that with his death, the state would change the law and abolish the death penalty.   He had a system of belief, and was also narcissistic, in the actual psychological sense.  In fact, that was one of the arguments made against his being competent – that he was motivated by narcissism, rendering him unable to make a sound decision.   With this case, even the definition of “competent” was challenged, moving away from “able to understand and participate in his defense” toward “making a reasonable decision”.  Which naturally led to the question: who determines what is a reasonable decision?  Does the individual have the right to choose, even when their choice leads to the final choice of death?

The conflict for me was multi-dimensional.  There had been too much death already – how would one more death help anyone?  For those who sought “justice” and retribution – would their hearts feel any less empty with his death?  Those precious lives were already gone, squandered through the sick and twisted desires of the condemned. But what if it were my child, my sister, my friend who was the victim? What he had done was horrific.  Would I feel the same way, still see his death as senseless?  Would my heart and mind burn for him to suffer…and would I consider death to be a greater suffering than life inside an 8 x 9 foot cell?    The argument regarding competency provoked a similar internal conflict.  If you’re willing to die at the hands of the state, are you wishing for death?  Does a wish for death indicate an inability to reason – as if the only “right” answer is to always choose life?  Is it possible to be entirely sane and competent, and choose death?  And in particular, if this death is chosen as a means of notoriety, what of those “noble deaths”, the saints and martyrs who died for their beliefs?  Underneath all of those questions was the idea of judgment.  What right do I have to sit in judgment of others?  Who am I to evaluate the “value” of their beliefs – to determine what’s real, what’s valid?

I had a job to do.  I met with him, the staff, the lawyers, the priests and the family.  Talked with my colleagues about their internal struggles, supported those who hated having any involvement in an execution, and tried to answer those who asked how I could see him every day and not look forward to his death.  The planning, the listening, the discussions consumed my days.  At home, my friends offered to listen to me, but I had no words.  Simple descriptions of events took so long, and I couldn’t seem to answer my own questions.  Whose life did I value the most?  Feeling alternately hypocritical and callous, I continued to do my job to support those involved.

The protests and legal challenges mounted, as so many in the greater community spoke out against the death penalty.  As those voices rose, so did the voices of the victim’s families, the outraged defenders of justice, and the voice of the condemned.  He spoke about his right to choose, with a clear mind and compelling argument.   I believed in his competency, and competency was the path to his imminent death by execution.   The fallacy behind the argument for not being competent was the idea that he should appeal.  Not an appeal based on new facts, or a different interpretation, but an appeal made simply as a means of prolonging his life. Choose life at the expense of the truth, at the expense of those who had already suffered so much?  Choose death, adding to the toll of losses that never should have been, through a decision against all I believed?  Listening to each side of the situation, sharing perspectives radically opposed, I struggled to find my own center, my own way.

I found opportunities to reach out to others, assisting with activities in my community, at my church and with my family.  When friends wanted to know “how are you”, I kept it brief, and focused on the concrete, shying away from further tumultuous explanation.  There were moments of total clarity, when I knew exactly who I was, with no second, third or fourth-guessing of my motives and my morals.   Moments when I felt at ease in the present.  And many other moments when I questioned every step of the process.  The law had been made, the sentence given and the wheels of the legal machine were turning.  I was not even a cog – I was part of the rocky road underneath the machine.  My voice would not change the outcome, whether I whispered, shouted or was silent.   I wondered if I had an obligation to take a stand, and that brought me full circle to questioning what stand I would take, should take, in these circumstances.

Some days I tried to balance the relative weights of choice vs. life.  Other days I tried to not think at all and just do my job.  Every day there was someone to support, someone to listen to, and someone to assist in exploring feelings…to help.  Because above all else, that was my job.  To help others in whatever way I could, regardless of my own thoughts or feelings.

So how did I find my way?  I walked the line between every explanation, understanding each one, in wholehearted agreement with none. I valued both the sanctity of life and the sanctity of choice.  I went to what I knew, what was available to me.  I lived and valued each moment of my experience.  The moment became my truth, learning to tread water in ambiguity and ambivalence.  I appreciated each opportunity to do what my training, and my heart, allowed me to do.  I didn’t have my own answer, but I had a job, and a calling, and that’s what I did.

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  1. Brian Thompson says:

    This is a very compassionate article so thank you for sharing it. What an incredible experience this must have been for you from a spiritual standpoint as well as a school of psychology standpoint. I have some questions that I would love to know your answers to:

    At what point did you start to questions your morals (life vs choice)?
    Was your moral belief in the sanctity of life always present, or did your experience give birth to it?
    If you were struggling everyday during your experience, then how did you mentally prepare yourself each day?
    Did this experience affect your own happiness, temporary joy, both, or neither?
    It’s been 8 months since your wrote this reflection, but how many years ago was your experience? Do you reflect on this often?
    How are you doing now? Has your belief in the sanctity of life changed at all? Has your position on life over choice changed?

    1. drkhallett says:

      Hi Brian,

      Thanks for your thoughtful questions! The experience occurred between 2003-2005 and I have reflected upon it often. I found myself supporting the individual’s right to choose to be part of my belief in the sanctity of life. While I do not support the death penalty overall (I don’t feel we have the right to take someone’s life in this way; I don’t believe it’s a deterrent; it costs a ridiculous amount of money to go through the appeals process; it often doesn’t bring the kind of closure that family and loved ones are looking for) I can also understand the ways in which and loss prompt individuals to want “justice”.

      The way I managed my struggle was to support all of the various players in any way that I could. If you imagine a circle of beliefs, ranging from 100% against the death penalty to 100% for the death penalty, I interacted with people at every single place on that circle, as well as interacting with all of the professionals and families/loved ones in all places on that circle. I knew that I wasn’t in control of the outcome, but I could be a force for compassion and humanity regardless of other people’s position.

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