One of the hardest things any of us must do is to listen to a point of view we disagree with — really listen to, and hear, the person who serves as an example of an idea that we oppose. It’s called having an open mind, and most of us aren’t very good at it.
I will try to do it in this blog post, by describing a remarkable story that contradicts a new project I’ll be announcing in more detail soon. I am working to tell stories about crime victims whose voices are not heard and interests are not served by a justice system geared to harsh punishment. I intend to examine the stories and research that show how our anger toward violent crime gets funneled through victims and survivors toward the perpetrators, creating excessive prison terms and use of the death penalty — and how that is not what all victims say they need or ultimately discover they need. In short, we only like the “good victims” who endorse our most punitive policies and practices.
The reality is that most victims and survivors of murder victims are “good” in that sense, at least initially. And, just as it’s wrong to silence victims who do not care about or seek the harshest punishment for those who hurt them (because they need and deserve other forms of help), it would be wrong to tell “good” victims their thoughts and feelings aren’t real. Especially when they are as thoughtful and eloquent as Stephen Lich.
On its website (and I’m guessing in the upcoming May issue), Texas Monthly published a long essay in Lich’s words about why he wanted to witness the recent execution of his father’s killer. It’s in a form that we magazine folks call “as-told-to,” meaning a writer interviews the subject and weaves his words into a well-told story (in this case, the interviewer and word-weaver is the talented Michael Hall). Lich, originally an opponent of the death penalty, describes in powerful terms his decision to support efforts to execute Ramiro Hernandez Llanas, who raped Lich’s mother and killed his father in 1997.
I asked myself, If I were to meet Hernandez face-to-face, what would I say or do? And I thought, I would say “fuck you.” Fuck you for hurting my family; fuck you for making it so hard for people to relate; fuck you for depriving my children of their grandfather; fuck you for depriving me of the guidance I’ve needed as I’ve grown up. Fuck you for everything. Then I realized that there was no bigger insult to Hernandez, no bigger way for the world to say “fuck you” to him, than by condemning him to death.
The words, while disturbing — especially to those of us who seek alternative responses to crime — are undeniably real. In other parts of the essay, he turns the volume down to explain the factors that would have made him oppose the death penalty in this case, and describes what he does and doesn’t hope to get from the experience. In the ensuing controversy since the story was published two days ago, Lich gamely went on to defend his motives on the magazine’s Facebook page, where he wrote:
My reason for telling the story wasn’t sadism, not at all. I simply wanted to tell people what I experienced and how I reacted. In all the discussion of capital punishment, I’ve never read anything that explains what this experience is like for the victims’ family. If the story makes you feel more opposed to execution, that’s fine — but I hope that, at least, it gives you a more complete understanding.
From his description of his emotions throughout the more than 16 years between murder and execution, and of the execution itself, Lich shares his pain, doubts, sadness, and anger in a brutally honest way. It doesn’t diminish what I hope to do, in showing the lesser-seen flip side of this, to say that Lich has made an important contribution to our collective understanding of victims by cooperating with Texas Monthly in this story. All victims deserve to be heard — including those who don’t stick to the script we want for them.