In 2010 I picked John Grisham’s latest novel, “The Confession” (Doubleday), which features the story of a wrongfully convicted man facing the death penalty. When I chose the book, I knew that I would be challenged in my thinking (after all, I have Grisham to blame for several major life choices inspired by his books), but I could not be prepared for the impact it would have on my life.
As I read the last page, I knew I had to do more that I was doing to see the death penalty put to an end. While I have always been opposed to capital punishment on an ideological level, the story humanized the realities in a way that changed me. I put the book down, picked up my laptop and began to look for ways to make a difference. One thing I decided that night was that I would correspond with men on death row. That is how I met Matt.
One of the reasons I decided to correspond with Matt, a death row inmate in Mississippi, was because we born within a few weeks of each other. Being the same age allowed me to identify with him in a way that was startling. In the end, we became fast friends, sharing a passion for justice, a deep love of spirituality and faith, and the belief that the power of restorative justice and forgiveness was the only hopeful direction for us all. He introduced me to his family and many of his friends, allowing me to join the groups advocating to see his death sentence commuted, as well as those of other men and women on death row. Of all those amazing people, however, it was Matt’s mother, Mary, who impacted me the most. She has become so dear to our family that “friend” seems to weak a term. We love her deeply. We all worked hard together to see true justice done.
And yet, for all the hard work and advocacy we engaged in, at 6:18pm on March 20th, 2012, the state of Mississippi declared Matt to be dead, killed by the state-sanctioned injection of deadly chemicals into his body. As I watched the clock tick down the seconds, knowing that Matt’s life was ending, tears began to stream down my face. It was then that I began to imagine what Mary would be feeling in that moment. As a new parent myself, the thought of losing my son at, let alone in this horrific way, crushed me. And again, I knew that I had to do something, to do more, to play whatever part I could to see that the death penalty would be ended forever.
Before he was executed, Matt asked me to use my writing to help the cause- not just his cause, but the larger work of ending the death penalty. “Make them care” was his final request. He was always as deeply concerned for others as he was for himself, perhaps even more so. And so I began to spend the next few years learning everything I could about capital punishment, both in the United States and abroad. While I had initially been inspired to write because of my relational and emotional response to the death penalty, the research soon demonstrated that the death penalty is not merely morally and ethically wrong, but that it doesn’t work, damaging countless innocent lives, needlessly costing tax payers millions, and in no way deterring violence and crime.
And so I wrote “The Last Verdict” (www.jamiearpinricci.com/the-last-verdict). It is fitting that, because it was a novel that changed my life so significantly, that it would be a novel I would write to change the perspective of others. As important as they are, I did not feel that I could write another non-fiction title about these issues that would add anything, at least not yet. Others have done that already and far better than I could. It was my hope that this story would let readers see another facet to the realities of this issue, another perspective on why we need to question the continued use of the death penalty in America—anywhere.
Some people have asked me if my friendship with Matt and other men on death row biases me on this issue. Of course it does. How could it not? That bias, however, is no less real than the bias in support of the death penalty born out of ideological extremes and caricatures of the accused. And yet, when faced with the honest truths about capital punishment, I believe that working for its abolition is the only rational, logical and moral choice we have. Therefore, my personal connection to people involved is not problem, but an additional and valid support for the cause. It is not until people personally experience the systematic injustices so often related to these cases that they truly begin to see the death penalty for what it is.
I take great joy to live in a time where the abolition of the death penalty seems to be within our grasp as more states begin to reject it. Let’s make that a reality together.