One night in the summer of my 14th year, I stayed up late at a friend's house and watched a movie that managed to confront and shape some of what I now think about life, death, and the often times strange intermingling of the two. In Cold Blood, a shadowy black and white film made in 1964, starred Robert Blake and Scott Wilson.
It was based on Truman Capote's book of the same title, and in 134 minutes it told, in chilling and documentary-like fashion, the true story of two men who went on a crime-spree in Kansas in the late 1950's or early 1960's —a spree which ended in their taking the lives of an entire family. I've never been able to forget four things about director Richard Brooks' movie.
- The slain family's last name: “Clutter”.
- The killing scenes in the house.
- A scene minutes before his execution in which Blake is staring out a window and the reflection of the rain drops running down the outside of the window looked like the tears that should have been streaming down his own cheeks.
- The execution hanging of Robert Blake at the end of the movie.
Tonight at 12:01 a.m. Williams was strapped to a gurney at California's San Quentin Prison, and at 12:16 a.m. he was put to death for the murders of four people he was convicted of killing in 1979.
Over the past weeks, as William's execution has moved nearer, and as California's Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger made it clear that he wouldn't stand in the way of the State of California's right (by the vote of the people) to follow through with the execution, I've found myself vacillating back and forth on the issues involved.
“People who murder people deserve to be killed,” I say to myself in moments of reflection on what it must feel like to be a relative of one of the victims. People left behind with scarred memories and raped dreams.
“People are made in the image of God, and only God has the right to enforce justice to the point of taking a life in some kind of unholy exchange for the life taken” I answer when asking myself if I could administer the injection, if I could throw the switch, if I could fire the bullet.
By the news accounts, tonight's execution of Stanley Tookie Williams was textbook smooth; hospital clean —nearly “antiseptic” one television reporter put it. How odd it seems to compare the seemingly peaceful way Williams died and the violent ways in which his four victims died.
But tonight as I get ready to close the chapter on this day of my life, I'm questioning if the victim's families now feel any closer to God right now than they did at 12:01 a.m.? I'm wondering if Tookie feels any closer to God than he did at 12:01 a.m.?
I'm wondering if the words “I am innocent,” the three little words Tookie continued to speak until he drifted toward death, spoke only of his resolve that he hadn't committed the crimes he'd been convicted of, or if they also spoke to an inner healing he'd found, and longed to somehow pass onto the families of the victims ... the ones who watched ... the ones who waited ... the ones who for so many years had known such seemingly irreparable ways?
Tonight I feel a lot like I felt when I watched that movie so many years ago: scared, a bit distant from God but longing to be closer, unsettlingly uncertain about issues of good and evil, and tired. But in my heart I also think I believe that the killing of Stanley Tookie Williams was as wrong as the deaths of the four people he'd been convicted of murdering.
As I go off to bed, the names of dead are running through my head, and I picture them as people gently created by God, as people intimately known by God, and as people passionately loved by God. Albert Owens , Yen-I Yang, his wife Tsai-Shai Yang, and their daughter, Yee-Chen Lin.
And as I'm thinking of these people I have an unshakeable picture in my mind that if I was in heaven right now and had the opportunity to see God looking out a window, I wouldn't have to rely on the mere reflections of rain or gimmicky camera angles to see tears running down God’s cheeks. Godspeed.