Stephen A. Cooper
Writer & Activist

Growing Away from God by Executing Michael Smith

I don’t often invoke God when arguing for death penalty abolition—like Sister Helen Prejean—even if I did recently join forces with a Jewish cantor to argue that “Jews must speak out against Alabama’s planned nitrogen gas executions.” But when it comes to Oklahoma—as Oklahoma has executed more prisoners per capita than any other state in modern times—and that state’s impending execution of Michael Smith, on April 4, it’s God I want to discuss.

Because I’m firmly convinced God doesn’t want His people to participate in lethal vengeance no matter the heinous crimes a person like Smith has committed; a just and merciful God doesn’t embrace state-sanctioned killing, a racist practice inextricably linked to the history of slavery in this country, to kill other human beings whom religious people believe he made in His image.

Reporting on Oklahoma’s Parole Board’s denial of Smith’s request for clemency—and to continue living incarcerated as he has for decades—the Associated Press noted: “Smith’s attorney, Mark Henricksen, argued that Smith is intellectually disabled, a condition worsened by years of heavy drug use, and that his life should be spared”; and moreover, “Henrickson said Smith’s trial attorneys also failed to present evidence of his intellectual disability to jurors.”

Henricksen’s complaints of unfairness on Smith’s behalf ring especially true examining the 2016 opinion by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit denying Smith relief from execution. Indeed, the court’s decision provides a vexing view of how, via complex legal procedures, machinations, and utter fictions, another intellectually disabled poor Black man—who grew up abused and neglected, forgotten and marginalized by society and the system—will be subject to our “justice” system’s severest sanction. (This will highlight once again capital punishment’s racist and classist immorality every bit as much as the nation’s last execution, in March, when Willie Pye was executed in Georgia primarily because of his infamously racist trial lawyer’s incompetence.)

The appeals court rejected Smith’s appeal despite observing Smith “submitted affidavits from family members recounting details of Mr. Smith’s childhood: that his father and other family members imposed harsh physical discipline or abuse; that his father was an alcoholic and abusive toward his mother until his parents separated when Mr. Smith was approximately two years old; that Mr. Smith was introduced to drugs and gangs at a young age by his brothers, that Mr. Smith was born with a swollen area on his head, was delivered by forceps, and suffered other head injuries as a child; and that Mr. Smith was sexually abused by an older woman when he was seven or eight years old.”

Smith “also attached a protective order his mother had obtained against his father, in which she stated that Mr. Smith’s father was ‘very violent’ and had threatened ‘to kill and to fight’ her.” Still the appeals court denied Smith relief finding he suffered “no prejudice” even though his appellate counsel contends: “the jury never heard about the sexual and physical abuse Mr. Smith suffered as a child, the head injuries Mr. Smith experienced, or the extent of the violence perpetrated by his father against his mother.”

Reverend Don Heath, Chair of Oklahoma’s Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP), said: “Michael Smith has a painful story: 10-year-old boy with borderline intellectual disability, loses his father [and] gets strung out habitually on PCP, and joins a gang, with tragic results when he is 19.” Sagely and soberly, Heath continued: “We all stand in need of mercy and Smith has gotten precious little.”

There was a time in this country when, after the Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty in 1976, Americans could rely on legendary Supreme Court Justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan to carefully register, in writing, their dissent to each and every execution in this country.

That time has long past and we are now living through a nasty, bloodthirsty era where our Supreme Court Justices are quick to greenlight executions—often in the wee hours of the night on execution days—and often without giving any reasons in writing or otherwise for doing so.

But though our nation’s death penalty jurisprudence is shameful and contorted in confounding moral contradictions, we don’t need jurists to tell us as how to be good people.

In a chapter that he wrote about Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sassov, Auschwitz survivor, professor, activist, writer, death penalty abolitionist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel, recounts in his book “Somewhere A Master (Hasidic Portraits and Legends)” a compelling, highly instructive anecdote.

Wiesel tells us that Sassov asked: “Do you wish to know whether whatever you are doing is right? Ask yourself if it brings you closer to man. If it does not, then you are heading in the wrong direction—you are growing away from God. For even the love of God must be measured in human terms. One must love God and man and never act against man or without man[.]”

Furthermore, in the same text, in a chapter about The School of Worke applicable to Michael Smith’s execution—and to all executions—Wiesel writes: “Again, it must be stressed, this derives naturally from the basic concept of Judaism: for man, God is one—and for God every human being is one, irreplaceable, never interchangeable. God and God alone may say ‘I’—but we are all made in His image. We are all part of His ‘I.’ Thus all men, including those who oppose Him and contradict one another, meet in God.”

You don’t need a court— especially a court that won’t adopt its own palpably needed code of ethics—to tell you that with Oklahoma’s execution of Michael Smith, as with each execution, our nation and our people are growing farther and farther away from God. And like Justices Marshall and Brennan, and despite not having their platform, we all, as good people, we must all voice our objection—our demand for an end to the death penalty’s dehumanizing depravity.

About the Author
Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California. Follow him on "X"/Twitter @SteveCooperEsq
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