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Reflections on an execution

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At the end, there is the cruelty of it. The methodical, unblinking, unyielding torture that we sanction--for 16 years in William Quentin Jones' case--as our response to a single outburst of madness, violence and murder.

It's in the blank stares of the dozens of cops and corrections officials who form the cast for his execution at 2 o'clock in the morning, so that none of them need think about it or take responsibility for it.

It's in the careless way the governor can say, in a written statement, that he sees "no compelling reasons to invalidate" what juries and the courts have done, while offering no reason whatever as to why he is compelled to execute--except, of course, that 16 years of death-row incarceration could only be seen as torture if it wasn't to end in death.

It's in the cruel way, too, that we drag the victim's family out to say, "Yes, keep it up, year after year, we want him to die, we still want him to die, it's 2 o'clock, make him die." Because if they ever say, "Stop, we've had enough, we want it to be over, it should have been over at the trial with a life sentence," attention might have to be paid.

As everyone in authority looks away from the condemned, he grows up anyway. Jones was 18 when he committed murder. He was doped up, liquored up, he got a gun and he shot up a convenience store and killed a bystander who was only there to buy some cigarettes. Why? He doesn't know. He wasn't thinking then either.

He was dangerous then and if someone else in the store had killed him on the spot, we'd have said it was right and just. Or if, after the jury convicted him, we'd hung him the next morning at sunup, well, at least he'd have still been that same 18-year-old we'd seen in action (the store camera captured it all).

But the Quentin Jones we put to death last Friday morning was not the same young man at all. The state doesn't want you to know this. You can't talk to a death-row inmate at Central Prison except through a thick glass pane in a concrete wall. You can't. His family can't. When all his appeals have been exhausted and our appeals for mercy cast aside--and despite what you think you know about the appeals process, it isn't the convict's lawyers who move at a snail's pace, it's the state's, as well as the judges--the executioners want us to be in mind, as they are, of the same 18-year-old killer.

Jones, though, was 34 when he went to his death. The unthinking wild man was now, "the composer of thoughts that I think should be thought about, in a world we thinkers know is thoughtless." This from a poem Jones wrote, one of the many he shared with Cissy McKissick and Bernadette Page, two of our neighbors who do talk to death-row inmates and who listen hard through the glass and return, over and over, so they can know the man inside and he can know them. "The person he is now," Page says, "is entirely different than he was in 1987." He is born again, the two women attest, a man who embraced his remorse and lives it out in sorrow and in hope that he'll be forgiven by his god, Allah.

Those two women befriended Jones, and he became someone they admired. They say that he could laugh and live with purpose, not because he was denying the awful thing he had done, but because he was determined to make up for it in any way he could for as long as he lived. He did that, at Central Prison, by being Desmond Carter's best friend. Carter, whom McKissick visited for years, was executed last December. He asked her to stand by Jones after he was gone. She did, and led the prayer service for him the evening before he died.

Jones hoped that before his number came up the death penalty would be abolished or the governor would be merciful, or--he didn't want to die. To kill without reason, he believes, is unjust. But when the governor's writ came down, Jones was at peace with his fate, according to his brother, Hollis, and others who were there. After the governor said "No," Jones was let out from behind the glass for the first time in 16 years and allowed to embrace family and friends a final time. The torture was ending. In death.

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