Stephen A. Cooper
Writer & Activist

Houses Made on Death Row

Houses Made on Death Row
Houses Made on Death Row

I have powerful memories and prized possessions from when I worked in Montgomery, Alabama, defending men sentenced to death. Prominent among these I count a pair of miniature houses that my former client, Joseph Smith, made for my wife and me when he learned we were moving to California.

Joseph made the houses from popsicle sticks soaked in coffee, stones from the prison yard, bits of plastic, and a few other items he managed to ingeniously—and skillfully—cobble together from one of the most bleak, severe, joyless environments you can imagine. (In an essay I published in 2016 called “Alabama’s Holman prison is ‘Hell on Earth,’” I described where Joseph is incarcerated as “a bastion of violence, fear, pain, and baleful human suffering.”)

Now I’m not arguing that because Joseph was able to carpenter together the beautiful, thoughtful houses he made for my wife and me—houses that even open up in the center providing a space to store things in—that his crimes that landed him on death row should be forgiven, or forgotten. Many infamous serial killers, mass murderers, even Hitler, made art. This essay does not give them or anyone who commits murder a “pass.” Rather it doubles down on an argument I’ve pressed before, in 2017, in a column called “A Life Without Parole Sentence—Not the Death Penalty—for Hitler.”

And, too, this composition expands on my first publication in The Times of Israel, “Growing Away from God by Executing Michael Smith,” to argue again that: All good, God-fearing, God-loving people, must reject capital punishment. Because despite the wars and violence raging all around us, it is God and God alone who has the authority to decide when a human life—even one being “lived” such as that is feasible— in a “hell on earth” prison—is due to be extinguished.

That said, profanely, as it concerns the April 9 execution of Brian Dorsey in Missouri, by law, it’s Governor Parsons—and not God—who has the power to decide if another human being, whom God created in His image, should die. (As I once observed in the Alabama Political Reporter concerning how “Clemency in Alabama is a Farce,” query if the same isn’t so in Missouri, and ask yourself as I once did: “Doesn’t the screwed up clemency process really alert us—in the same way that a gigantic flashing neon sign might—that the only real ‘ultimate authority’ who should be making decisions about which humans live or die, is God?”)

Support for Dorsey, diverse people imploring Governor Parsons to allow Dorsey to keep living—as has been reported in the media—is massive, and it comes from such unexpected corners as: a former judge on the Missouri Supreme Court (he even published an oped arguing for Dorsey’s clemency), several of the jurors that sentenced Dorsey to death but now regret their decision, correctional officers, even some Republican state representatives—all of whom are urging Parsons to stop Dorsey’s execution. All of these people in support of Dorsey receiving clemency are making their voices noisily heard despite the sobering, sad reality that Parsons has never granted a capital-clemency request as Governor; he denied 4 of them just last year.

The Kansas City Star reported that the “70 corrections employees who support Dorsey note that he has not had any conduct violations in prison and has served as the trusted barber at Potosi Correctional Center, where he cuts hair for both staff and prisoners.” The Huffington Post further reported that: “During Dorsey’s 16 years on death row, he has never had a single disciplinary infraction[.]”

Instructively, in his 1962 book “Judaism,” Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg wrote: “God is omnipotent and yet man is responsible.” Hertzberg continued: “Man is not responsible for himself alone. He is responsible for the well-being of all men. There must therefore be law in society and respect for government, unless society itself transgresses the moral law.”

Most significantly, Hertzberg concluded that: “The rights of individuals are absolute, for every man is created in the divine image. Each has his particular virtue and capacity for service.”

And this is the essence of this essay: God created Joseph Smith. And God created Michael Smith. And God created Brian Dorsey—just as God created you and me. God gave each of these men, and each of us, despite how far we’ve fallen—despite our sins—life, and with it, certain attributes, certain gifts; these “gifts” may be as subtle as having a nice smile, and as simple as being someone’s loved one, or, having the divine ability to make another human being happy.

Joseph Smith has an undeniable God-given gift for woodworking and craft-making. As his former attorney, I can say Joseph showed himself when I knew him to be a considerate person whose value as a human on earth, albeit the crimes he’s been convicted of, and albeit incarcerated where he is—and will remain—has holy significance. For Brian Dorsey, his God-given gift is cutting hair at his prison, and: being such an overwhelmingly good presence that he enjoys the unparalleled institutional, law-enforcement support he has, to receive clemency, and stay alive, albeit incarcerated—until God decides otherwise.

All human beings sin, and some do so so greatly that they will never be free again. This is for their own safety, frankly, as much as our society’s. And this is already a terrible reality that shouldn’t be compounded by, decades after their crimes, executing people such as Joseph and Michael Smith—or Brian Dorsey. Killing off God’s creation by way of man’s “justice” system can never take the place of God’s justice.

Again to quote Rabbi Hertzberg: “For two and one half years the schools of Hillel and Shammai debated the question whether it would have been better had man not been created. Finally they agreed it would have been better had man not been created.” Critically however for Governor Parsons—and all of us humans I submit, too—as Hertzberg wrote, “since man has been created, let him investigate his past deeds, and let him give due consideration to what he is about to do.”

For Governor Parsons that can mean only one thing—the only godly thing: Reduce Brian Dorsey’s sentence to life without parole. And for everyone else? To implore Parsons to do this.

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
Related Topics
Related Posts