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Lent Reflections 2013 – February 14

By Vicki Werneke

Exodus 5;10-23

This verse tells the continuing story of the oppression of the Israelites by Pharaoh when he ordered that the slave workers make their bricks without straw.  Such a decree made the task of brick making impossible.  It required the Israelites to be creative on where they could obtain this vital component.  How were they to accomplish that difficult task?  What would happen if they were not able to meet their quota of bricks?  Failure would mean it was their own fault rather than of the oppressors.  How would they keep from turning on each other?

The end game of the oppressor is to maintain power by continuing the oppression.  At some point though the illusion of control and power of the oppressor reaches a breaking point and results in dramatic change or chaos that transforms into an exodus.  A camel can only carry so much burden before the back fails; it can take just a piece of straw to bring down the whole illusion created by the oppressor.

An “exodus” is mass departure.  It could be physical movement of people, like when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt.  It can also mean a departure from oppressive ideas and institutions.   There are many examples of this in our modern times: acceptance of our gay, lesbian and transgendered brothers and sisters in all aspects of the human experience; recognition that women are just as capable as men to fight side by side in the military; the realization that the Second Amendment right to bear arms should not mean open ended right to any and all firearms.

One area though that I have particular knowledge about is the death penalty.  I am an attorney who represents death row inmates in their final appeals. I have been engaged in this very specialized area of law for almost 20  years.  In that time, I have experienced first hand how the system, i.e. the prosecution, the courts and the legislature, have continued to place more and more burdens on the person sentenced to death and those who represent them.  There have been limits put on when claims can be raised to such a degree that if a filing date is missed by even one day, it could mean a death row inmate’s case would never been reviewed by any court before he is executed.  There have been limits put on what facts a judge can consider when looking at whether a person received a fair trial, even if the facts showed the prosecutor lied at the trial.   There have been innocent people convicted and sentenced to death for crimes they did not commit.  I have had clients in that position.  I have witnessed an execution where there were serious questions about whether the man was guilty.   I tried to get the courts and the state to conduct DNA testing before his execution that could have shown whether he was the murderer.  But they all said it was too late.  The oppressive nature of the death penalty is very heavy and it does not make anyone  safer or  deter crime. It only makes more victims.

Now I am no fool.  Most of my clients are guilty of the crime for which they were convicted, for which they should be punished, most for the remainder of their lives. The State though should not be in the business of deciding who should live or die.  It’s arbitrary and administered unfairly and it’s very costly.  And as the taskmasters in the time of the Israelites, it does not solve the problem and in fact only makes it worse.

The last piece of straw may soon be on the back of the camel which will break the oppressive death penalty machine.  Many states are now repealing their death penalty statutes after the realization that the system is unfair and the cost too great.

My prayer this Lenten season is that there will come a time in the near future when I may have to find another area of the law to practice. 



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