Academic journal article Southern Cultures

South to Death

Academic journal article Southern Cultures

South to Death

Article excerpt

Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. --Romans 12:19

Thou shalt not kill. --Exodus 20:13

Driving across the South, Virginia to Texas, periodically tapping the search function on the radio, one hears a continual message of God. The music is about God: country, gospel, Christian contemporary, blues. The talk is of God. God is witnessed to and proclaimed by the preachers and the musicians and the call-in talkers, with messages both soft and hard. The old roads of the South, not the Interstate Highways, those most homogeneous and homogenizing engines of American culture, are full of churches, churches that only occasionally have names like St. Cecilia's or Trinity Episcopal. The Southern Baptist affiliation boasts large numbers but is aggressively challenged by the independent evangelicals, the Pentecostals, the Holiness people. The radio preachers, Christians all who confess belief in repentance, redemption, and the salvific power of Jesus, speak as frequently of God's power to punish as of Christ's mission to forgive. In tones darker than those used to proclaim the Gospel, the good news of the New Testament, they invoke the exacting, death-demanding God of Leviticus as often as the forgiving, redeeming Jesus of Nazareth. There are no subtle signals in The Word as preached with high energy on the southern radio. The Bible is cited and quoted; there is life and death, redemption and damnation, punishment and retribution. With paradox and fire, God is to the South as capsicum is to cayenne.

That God is often a God of vengeance. Seventeen-year-old Lee Boyd Malvo (also known as John Lee Malvo) was arrested in Maryland in the fall of 2002, accused with John Allen Muhammad of being part of a two-man sniper team that terrorized the Washington, D.C., region for several weeks with random killings of strangers. Investigations linked him to a murder spree that left thirteen people dead and five wounded in Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and the District of Columbia. Despite the fact that Malvo was arrested and charged in Maryland, he was whisked from that state's criminal justice system, moved south across the Potomac River, and jailed and charged in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The move was explained by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, a publicly witnessing evangelical Christian. Virginia "has the best law, the best facts, and the best range of available penalties," he said, meaning that the underage defendant would not have been subject to the death penalty in Maryland. (1) Virginia's death-penalty statute, on the other hand, provides for the ultimate retribution to be extracted from someone under eighteen who murders. Much to the dismay and disgust of many, the Virginia jurors who convicted Malvo did not find that he should be executed. He was sentenced to life in prison for that murder. Prosecutors in other jurisdictions in the South quickly promised that they would seek the death penalty for other murders of which Malvo and Muhammad stand accused.

Malvo's arrest and indictment began what will be many years of trials, appeals, collateral proceedings, and habeas corpus postconviction attacks on his life sentence and, if other prosecutors get their way, the death penalty. If all these legal challenges fail, Malvo can then ask the governor(s) for a commutation of the death sentence(s). These multiple steps on the long, gloomy journey through the pathways of law and mercy that may ultimately end at the death chamber are reminiscent of the fifty-nine chapters of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying the story of the arduous trek of the Bundren family to bring their matriarch, Addie Bundren, from her death bed to burial.

Were it not for the southern states' enthusiasm for the death penalty, relatively few of the convicted would be executed in America. In 2002 there were seventy-one people put to death in the United States. Almost half were by the State of Texas, which killed thirty-three men by lethal injections. …

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