Would You Fight for the Life of a Man Who Shot You and Left You for Dead?
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A 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 11th. 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 20th.
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 23rd.
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.
"The death of Johnnie Baston isn't going to do anything that's going to bring back our father, give us any closure or gratification," his son, Peter Mah argued to no avail. Baston was executed on March 10th.
The same thing happened in Alabama in January. Leroy White was executed over the wishes of his victim’s family members, who, as in the case of Timothy Adams, included family members of his own. White was sentenced to death for the killing of his wife, Ruby, with whom he had a young daughter, Latonya. In a signed affidavit, she described how despite years of anger at her father for taking her mother away, she was now very close to him and “have grown to love him just as much as any child would love their parent…I know that he did a terrible thing by taking my mother’s life, but I have forgiven him completely.”
I am deeply opposed to my father’s execution. He is the only thing that I have left that’s a part of me. Taking away my only remaining biological parent will hurt me more than I can say. Executing my father will do nothing to bring my mother back. I would do anything in my power to stop this execution from taking place.
Leroy White was executed on January 13th.
Some would argue that cases like White’s and Adams’s are different, that of course family members of murderers will argue to spare the life of a relative, even if they have taken one of their own. To do so sets up a strange hierarchy of victimization—who are the “good” victims?—but one that is all too real. The family members of death row prisoners are rarely included under the banner of “victim’s family,” but when the state has killed your loved one, what are you then?
As we were so aggressively reminded after the death of Osama bin Laden, the killing of killers is celebrated as a way to bring “closure” to people who have suffered terrible losses at their hands. There are many reasons to question this notion, but whether this is ever true can only depend on individual experiences. What is clear is that, when those in a position to carry out the death penalty stand upon the moral pedestal bestowed to them as a defender of victims’ rights, such “rights” have limits. As Jeff Gamso, a criminal defense attorney in Ohio who has worked on capital cases, wrote a few days before Stroman’s execution: “Texas, of course, like Ohio, like other states, like the feds, is deeply committed to ensuring the rights of crime victims. Their voices will be heard. Their needs will be met. They will be offered support and comfort and help. As long as they seek vengeance. The rights of victims don't extend to seeking mercy. At least, not so far.”