EDITOR’S NOTE: “Justice looks like …” is a special series in the Voices column. Readers will have the opportunity to consider justice from numerous viewpoints. The series is based on each writer’s understanding of Scripture and relationship with Jesus Christ. Writers present their own views independent of any institution, unless otherwise noted in their bios.
You are encouraged to listen to each writer without prejudgment. Then, engage in conversation with others around you about what justice looks like to you.
Justice looks like mercy for those who deserve a second chance. Justice also looks like a second chance, even for those who have caused great harm.
Three years ago, on July 17, 2018, the State of Texas executed Chris Young, despite the pleas of Mitesh Patel, who did not want the state to kill the man who murdered his father and sought desperately for state officials to listen to him.
Young was executed despite the cries of his teenage daughters, who needed their father in their lives. He was executed despite his quest to be a productive member of society within and beyond the prison walls.
He was sentenced to death in 2006 for the robbery and murder of convenience store owner, Hash Patel, in San Antonio two years prior. He was 21 years old at the time of the crime and, like so many on death row, suffered terrible trauma as a child.
He was born to a teenage mother who moved the family multiple times and brought violent men into their lives. His own father was murdered when he was 8 years old. Shortly thereafter, he turned to a street gang to fulfill his need for support and community.
By his own admission, Young had a lot of growing up to do when he arrived on death row. In the 12 years he spent there, he educated himself and became an artist. He parented his daughter, Crishelle, through letters and her visits to the Polunsky Unit in Livingston.
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Through his active correspondence, Young also mentored troubled young people, including extended family members, to help them avoid the mistakes he made in his life.
The person the State of Texas executed was not the same man who killed Hash Patel. He deserved a second chance.
Billy Joe Wardlow
Texas carried out another senseless execution last year, putting Billy Joe Wardlow to death on July 8, 2020. He was the first person executed in Texas during the pandemic and the 570th person put to death by this state since 1982. The State of Texas recently executed two more people.
Like Young, Wardlow was treated by our state as nothing more than his worst act, an act he committed when he was only 18. In 1993, in rural Morris County, Wardlow panicked and killed Carl Cole during an attempt to steal Cole’s truck. Wardlow and his girlfriend were desperate to run away to escape their abusive families.
The jury that sentenced Wardlow predicted he likely would be dangerous in the future, a determination required by Texas law to impose capital punishment. Nothing could be further from the truth.
During Wardlow’s 25 years of incarceration on death row, he matured, was deeply introspective and pursued his interest in a wide range of subjects. He was considered a kind and compassionate peacemaker who brought out the good in other men. And he truly was remorseful for taking Carl Cole’s life.
Wardlow’s jury did not have access to the information we have today about brain development, which shows our brains do not fully mature until we reach our early to mid-20s. Provided with this scientific knowledge, two of his jurors came to believe Wardlow should serve a life sentence instead.
The jurors joined state legislators, juvenile justice advocates, neuroscience experts and thousands of people nationwide who urged the courts and state officials to stop his execution, but to no avail.
Achieving true justice
The executions of Chris Young and Billy Wardlow did not make anyone safer or restore the families or communities they had hurt. Rather, ending their lives perpetuated a cycle of violence that left more victims in its wake.
Had Young and Wardlow been allowed to spend the rest of their natural lives in prison, they would have continued to have a positive impact on countless people. To me, they represent what justice could look like.
Instead of the retributive system of punishment we have today, true justice is restorative and redemptive. It is meted out fairly and proportionately. It recognizes an individual’s capacity for change.
It addresses harm without inflicting more trauma. It promotes healing for victims. It means holding people accountable for their actions without denying their humanity.
To achieve justice, we must acknowledge our shared worth. We must recognize all of us are more than our worst act.
Kristin Houlé Cuellar is the executive director of the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, a statewide advocacy organization based in Austin. For more information, visit www.tcadp.org.
Click here to read the full “Justice looks like…” series.