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Life or Death

A death-penalty opponent remembers the trial of her brother's murderer.

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At 1 a.m. on Aug. 12, 1995, three men walked into the Thrifty Liquor Store in Shreveport, La., where my older brother Russell worked as a stock clerk. One of the men asked about the price of beer. One bought a bag of chips. The third looked too young even to be in a liquor store. Then there were three gunshots, and Russell lay bleeding to death on the rug.

No one knows why Bobby Lee Hampton decided to launch the robbery that night with a murder. Maybe not even Bobby knows that. After cleaning out the cash drawers and the manager's office, he walked out the door and said to his accomplices, "Take care of the other two." If those men had followed Bobby's command, there would have been three dead bodies on the floor of Thrifty Liquor, no arrests and no trial. But they declined. Within a couple of weeks, all three had been arrested.

Nearly two years later, my surviving brother Cameron, my mother, a half-dozen family friends and I gathered in Shreveport for the trial. The first phase, in which guilt or innocence was to be determined, lasted a day and a half. After two hours of deliberation, the jury convicted Bobby Lee Hampton of first-degree murder.

His conviction triggered the penalty phase of the trial--a series of testimonies meant to help the jury choose between life imprisonment without benefit of parole or execution. The defense gave evidence of Bobby's family life--his fatherless state, his ill mother. A brother and a sister told humorous stories of Bobby as a child. Hugo Holland, the lead prosecutor, offered up Bobby's long history of felony crimes and violence. And one by one, he called my family to the stand to testify about our loss.

At the end of the day, the jury left the courtroom to begin deliberations. All of us--my family, Cameron's girlfriend JoAnn and the friends who had come from all over the South for the trial--wandered the courthouse lobby and Hugo's office in limbo. Should we go out to eat? Order dinner in? We'd been told a quick decision would still be at least a couple of hours in the making. Before anyone could agree to a plan, Bruce Dorris, another prosecutor on the case, his suit coat flapping, hustled through, saying, "Let's wrap this up. We have a verdict." He disappeared around a corner, heading for Hugo's office. JoAnn and I gaped at each other, and my stomach did a woozy somersault. "We'd better get your mom," she said to me, and I nodded. The jury had been out only 45 minutes.

I knew they were bringing back a death penalty. They had to be. Forty-five minutes is not enough time for 12 people to deliberate at all about anything of real importance. Every one of them had to have known when they left the jury box how they would vote. They must have taken a poll, I thought, discovered themselves to be in unanimous accord, and then spent the next 40 minutes or so, not deciding between a life sentence or death, but determining and recording mitigating and aggravating circumstances.

A few minutes later, there we sat: Hugo and Bruce at the prosecution table. Me, Mama, Cameron, JoAnn, my mother's friends, two of Bobby's sisters, one of his brothers, several folks from the prosecutor's office and Hugo's daddy, all in the spectators' pews. At the other table was the defense team and Bobby Lee Hampton, convicted murderer. For the last time, we had taken our places in the frigidly cold courtroom: the dapper clerk, the kind-faced blond bailiff who'd slipped us the skinny on where the jury was having dinner (so that we could avoid that restaurant), the plump, pleasant court reporter, the 12 jurors in their established seats.

When the clerk read aloud that Bobby Lee Hampton was to be executed, I felt a muffling sense of anticlimax, the way sounds reach your ears underwater, discernible but also removed. I sat there, unable to feel much. More than at any other point in the trial, this was the moment I was most completely a spectator. My fundamental opposition to the death penalty mingled with my awed respect for the jury's extreme decision and short-circuited any clear response. The emotion that flickered through the fissures in the jury's composure, my scrutiny of Bobby Hampton, my glancing sidelong at Cameron and Mama to gauge their responses, perhaps even the heavy, simple incomprehension that it was all over, stalled the engine of my own feelings.

I looked at Cameron's and Mama's grave, controlled faces. No gleam of satisfaction played across their features or lit their eyes, though I knew this sentence was what they most desired. I understood their dispassionate expressions as a combination of dignity, respect for the jury and Hampton's family, and deep fatigue. For all the vengeance that had driven their urge to see Hampton executed, in the moment of securing that destiny for him, no malice or triumph surfaced in either of them. They seemed to accept their due as mourners and as victims, and they received it quietly, as snow settles on a field and covers the gouges in the land. The decision could never be adequate, for them it could only be right. And though "right" is thin consolation for what can never be restored, maybe, in that moment, it allowed them to feel complete.

The young jury forewoman confirmed, through her tears, that execution was indeed the jury's decision. The defense requested an individual poll. Twelve times the clerk read that the decision called for the death of Bobby Lee Hampton and asked each juror by name, "Is this your verdict?" Some spoke up clear and strong, "Yes, it is." Others replied in weaker, more clouded voices.

As the rhythmic call and response of the verdict rolled out, I discovered that my dismay mingled with a tremendous satisfaction. This upset and confused me. There was no satisfaction in knowing that, in eight to 10 years, Bobby Hampton would be unceremoniously injected with drugs that would kill him. Even now this gives me no relief--if anything, it profoundly disturbs me. I was gratified by what the jury seemed to be saying: that what was done to Russell appalled them, appalled them enough to warrant the strongest response legally available. Twelve strangers--seven women and five men ranging in age from early 20s to mid-60s, mostly white, a couple black--with no particular agendas of their own, had listened for three days to a mass of information and made one of the most burdensome decisions a person can make: that another person should die. In fact, they had pondered ending Bobby Hampton's life more deeply and with much greater conscience than Bobby ever gave to ending Russell's. I was moved, unsettled and grateful.

The forewoman was now red-eyed and sobbing. The beautiful caramel-skinned woman with the large, pretty eyes quietly dabbed away tears. Even a couple of the men were crying. Then there was the man Hugo had dubbed "the Colonel." During jury selection the week before, the Colonel had answered the question, "What did you do in your 20 years in the military?" with, "Well, for 10 years, I killed people. And then for 10 years, I taught people to kill people." Hugo had been thrilled--dumbfounded that the defense let the man on the jury at all. When the Colonel was asked to confirm his verdict, you could practically hear the unspoken, "Yes, sir, and high time, too."

And how did Bobby take it? Chin high, disbelieving half-smile on his face, shaking his head back and forth in wonder as though at some obvious and ridiculous mistake, he turned to look over his shoulder at his stunned, grief-stricken sisters and brother, and mouthed a large and silent, "Be strong, be strong." I couldn't bring myself to look directly at Bobby's family. It seemed like an intrusion on their grief, for one thing, and I would have been mortified to have a stray glance of mine mistaken for a look of satisfaction, or worse, gloating. But in my peripheral vision, I could see their devastated shock. It occurs to me that they were just then feeling something similar to what I had felt almost two years before, when I heard the news of Russell's execution, already carried out.

Regret, misery, loss, devastation, death, brutality and tragedy, all extending further and further out, radiating from this hub of violent energy that has been Bobby Lee Hampton's life. And now, with the sentence of death upon him, the destruction and misery leave their indelible mark on his loved ones as well as the nameless strangers he has attacked over the years. I am pained for them. Whatever Bobby has done, to them he is still brother, son, family--and for them, this is a cruel conclusion.

Though really, Bobby was lost to them years ago, when he stopped being that grinning, prank-loving 8-year-old they testified about, that kid who helped out old folks in the neighborhood, loved to make his five brothers and sisters laugh, and always had some teasing prank to pull. They lost him when he was 13 and beat the daylights out of somebody with a lead pipe. He was convicted, sent to juvenile detention, lived there for seven years--jailed for his entire adolescence--and was released when he turned 21. They love the memory of that boy. I don't know what they let themselves know about the vicious, cold man that boy grew up to be, or how they reconcile the contradictions within him.

Aside from Bobby's attorneys and family (and Bobby himself), I imagine I was the only person in that courtroom who didn't want to see him executed. Not because of anything at all to do with him. A career criminal, with a long history of violence, he had been acquitted of murder once before, and is thought (by police and investigators in the D.A.'s office) to have killed as many as six people before murdering Russell. I can't honestly say I care what becomes of him, and I can summon precious little sympathy for any suffering or hardship he is poised to encounter. But since I am opposed, on virtually every level, to the death penalty, I have had to fight deep unease about my own complicity in the proceedings.

This unease had been building, and I had been wrestling with it, for many months. My misgivings--and guilt--intensified each time we approached what we thought would be the beginning of the trial. I knew that I needed, passionately desired, to testify with a victim-impact statement if there should be a penalty phase. In a criminal case, where the prosecution does not represent the victim or the victim's family, but acts on behalf of the state, the victim-impact statement is a family member's only chance to testify. It would be my only opportunity to speak for myself, and for Russell, in my own words. I needed to go in front of a jury, in front of Bobby Hampton, and within the frustratingly narrow confines of what is admissible in Louisiana for such testimony, say whatever I could about who Russell was, who he was to me and what had been lost.

Yet the whole purpose of the penalty phase is to provide the jury with testimony that enables them to determine the appropriateness of life or death for the murderer. The defense tries to humanize him and presents mitigating factors it hopes the jury will seize upon as reasons to issue a sentence of life imprisonment. The prosecution offers evidence of aggravating circumstances, such as the murderer's prior felony convictions and history of violence, but also tries to convey the impact of the loss on the victim's family, in an effort to embolden the jury to choose death.

To the degree that I spoke eloquently or movingly of my loss, or made vivid for the jury even a sliver of the brightness that was Russell, I would be helping them make a decision I find morally, politically, economically and spiritually insupportable. I was jammed into a miserable position. Either I kept silent in order to preserve the integrity of my beliefs, or I swallowed my discomfort and took the stand. If my bearing witness to my love for Russell brought another human being closer to death, then it felt like a terribly selfish thing to do. Even so, I could not surrender my chance to speak. My need to be a witness--to Russell's life, to his appalling absence from all these proceedings, to the lasting grief Bobby Lee Hampton had brought--that need drove me onto the stand, where I answered the few questions the judge permitted Hugo to ask.

I still struggle to reconcile my desire to testify with the regret I felt over the jury's ultimate decision, and the role my testimony played in helping them reach it. I resent that the death sentence necessarily keeps this whole ugliness alive for another decade. If Hampton were serving a life sentence with no eligibility for parole, he would get one appeal and that would be that--end of story. I could lay my head down every night, secure in knowing where Hampton would be laying his for the rest of his life, and I could hope he was having a miserable time of it to boot. But with this sentence, it won't be over until he's been killed by the state. Which means that someday, around the year 2005, I will get a phone call from Louisiana. I will be told that all the avenues for Hampton's reprieve have proved dead ends. I will be given a date. And then, roughly ten years after the murder, all the pain will be dredged to the surface. No other event I can imagine could conjure as potent an alchemy of dread, confusion and renewed anguish as having to face the execution of Russell's murderer.

For the time being, distance and sheer denial keep it safely in the realm of the abstract and theoretical. When I am 40-something, it will come barreling into my life with very specific velocity and mass to careen around and wreak whatever havoc it will. I can't, of course, anticipate the depth or extent of the disturbance. But already I am furious at having to encounter it. I would just as soon be free to focus on making repairs to my damaged faith, on searching out whatever peace can be made with what was done to Russell--to all of us. It's proving to be grueling and unglamorous labor, and the long shadow cast by Hampton's imminent execution only encumbers the effort. So beyond my opposition to executions in general, I selfishly resent the intrusion of this particular one on my future and the troubling weight it hangs on my present.

It occurred to me, sitting in the courtroom that last day, having heard the sentence and watched Bobby attempting to infuse his brother and sisters with fortitude, that in an odd way, he was at a new beginning. I could imagine him feeling sustained by a sense of purpose, which would be to overturn the decision that had just been made. I remember thinking, "He's got a lot of work to do." Mama, Cameron and JoAnn would all fly back to Cincinnati. I would fly home to New York. The family friends would go back to the various places from which they'd come, and Hugo and his team would plunge into the next trial. Bobby would, after a few days, be transported to the swampy isolation of Angola prison, keen, I would guess, not to put the trial behind him so much as to pick it apart for any possible flaw that might release him from his fate.

I had been warned, by families of other murder victims, not to expect too much from the trial, whatever its outcome. The message had been: Don't expect closure. All of us had laughed, perhaps ruefully, at the media's passionate embrace of this concept, of their mantra-like repetition of the word as the panacea for victims everywhere. Mostly, we wondered what the hell it could possibly mean. Maybe that's why we hear so little, overall, from the people murder leaves behind, at least compared to the glut of stories about the killers themselves. For the families, it's never really over. And that's a hard thing to be told, it's hard to take--especially if you want to believe that broken things can be fixed. (And isn't that most of us?)

Bobby Lee Hampton's trial and conviction, his sentence to death, did not bring closure. It brought, simply, an outcome. We finished our bit of business, we played our parts, all our anxious waiting for that phase to be over did come to an end. And still, Russell is dead. Nothing changes. EndBlock

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