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Would You Fight for the Life of a Man Who Shot You and Left You for Dead?

Capital punishment is supposed to bring closure to victims' families, but ignores the wishes of those who prefer forgiveness.

death penalty case in Texas received a lot of media attention in the past several weeks, as state prison authorities prepared to execute Mark Stroman, a man who shot and killed two people in a vengeful rampage after September 11 th. His victims, who he targeted because he thought they were Arab, were a Pakistani man named Waqar Hasan and an Indian man named Vasudev Patel. A third man survived. His name is Rais Bhuiyan. He is Muslim, from Bangladesh. He has told his story to news outlets across the country; how he was approached at the gas station where he worked, how Stroman, a tattooed white man, demanded, “where are you from?” as he brandished a gun. How he had not yet answered when he felt "the sensation of a million bees stinging my face, and then heard an explosion" as Stroman shot him.  Bhuiyan survived, somehow, and was left blinded in one eye.

To the surprise of many, Bhuiyan devoted himself in the past several months to fighting for Stroman’s life, pleading with Texas not to kill the man who brutally shot him and left him for dead. After discussing it with Hasan’s and Patel’s families, he started a petition on Stroman’s behalf asking the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole to spare his life, and posting it on  a website in which he preached forgiveness: "In order to live in a better and peaceful world, we need to break the cycle of hate and violence," he wrote. "…I forgave Mark Stroman many years ago. I believe he was ignorant and not capable of distinguishing between right and wrong. Otherwise he wouldn't have done what he did." Despite Bhuiyan’s efforts, Stroman  was executed by lethal injection on July 20 th.

Bhuiyan’s story is extraordinary in many ways, heavy with the symbolic weight of 9/11. His willingness to forgive and even fight for the life of a man who tried to murder him has moved many people, with good reason. But it’s worth remembering that victims of violent crime oppose the death penalty more often than we may realize, and, like Bhuiyan so far, they are often disregarded. As much as prosecutors and politicians love to insist that the toughest penalties are meted out on behalf of victims and their grieving family members, the reality is that deference to the mantle of “victim” often relies on a full-throated embrace of the harshest sentence for the people whose job it is for them to punish. Anything less is liable to be ignored.

Take another Texas case from a few months back. An Army veteran named Timothy Adams was put to death in the killing of his 19-month-old son during a standoff with police. Adams was suicidal at the time; he immediately turned himself in and expressed remorse for his crime. As Texas prepared to put him to death, his family members begged for clemency. "Our family lost one child,” his father  said. “We don’t deserve to lose another. After my grandson’s death, we lived through pain worse than anyone could imagine. Nothing good will come from executing my son Tim and causing us more anguish." Adams was  executed by lethal injection on February 23 rd.

That same month, in Ohio, a man named Johnnie Baston faced execution for the killing of a South Korean store clerk in Toledo. The man’s family members fought for clemency, but were ignored by the state parole board, which voted unanimously to put him to death. "While many members of Mr. Mah's family favor a commutation to life without parole, Mr. Baston's lack of accepting responsibility, criminal history, and the severity of the execution-style killing of Mr. Chong Mah outweigh their personal opinions regarding the death penalty and their wishes as to the sentence imposed in this case," the parole board  concluded.

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