David Cook: Bury Jesse Mathews by keeping him alive

David Cook: Bury Jesse Mathews by keeping him alive

October 28th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

His name has appeared in at least 92 news reports and headlines in this newspaper alone since 2001.

He doesn't deserve the 93rd. No more attention. No more press. No more, so I won't even write his full name. Just call him Duane.

But his story -- evil, tragic, still unfolding -- needs to be told once more.

Eleven years ago, Duane killed a Chattanooga cop. At the end of his trial -- two years after the murder -- he was sentenced to die. Execution in Nashville was scheduled for May 2010.

Today, Duane is still alive. Eleven years after shooting a policeman. Nine years after his trial. Two years after his scheduled execution.

And because he's so good at manipulating the appeals process that Tennessee death row prisoners receive, he may remain alive for years to come. Making headlines. Sucking the victim's family and friends back into the black hole. Perverting, prolonging justice.

The same thing could happen if Jesse Mathews is sentenced to die.

In the spring of 2011, Mathews was arrested in the shooting death of Chattanooga police Sgt. Tim Chapin. (So far, Mathews has appeared in more than 70 Times Free Press reports and headlines).

His trial is scheduled to begin in early 2013 and end several weeks later. A guilty verdict is predicted. If he's sentenced to death, his execution would not occur until 2020. Or 2030. Or even 2040.

There are 85 prisoners (46 white, 36 black, 1 Hispanic, 1 Native American, 1 Asian; 84 men, 1 woman) on Tennessee's death row, and more than 60 have been awaiting execution for more than 10 years. Some have been on death row for 20 years. For 30.

One man since 1978.

Between the end of his trial and possible scheduled execution, Mathews will begin the complicated and lengthy post-conviction appeals process (Duane plays it like a charlatan, claiming incompetence, hiring new lawyers, firing old ones.) Each time, headlines, attention, wounds relived.

But if Mathews is convicted and offered life without parole -- and assuming he accepts -- his complicated and twisted timeline becomes immediately different.

He goes to jail for the rest of his life. For life. Without parole.

And you never hear from him again. Ever.

This is not to say the ground he ripped up in the Chapin family will ever be the same. His violence will live on and on.

But it won't be relived -- the wound made fresh again -- each time there is a new trial, appeals hearing or headline.

The American death penalty system is more fragile than ever. Seventeen states have abolished or suspended its practice, rejecting its exorbitant budget demands (Tennessee could save millions by abolishing the system) and its widespread imperfections and inequalities.

Since 1973, more than 130 people have been exonerated -- released because of their innocence -- from death row. The death penalty's constitutionality has been questioned, because the penalty is not applied evenly or fairly (why have the other Chattanoogans guilty of murder not been sentenced to death?).

But even if Mathews was scheduled for execution tomorrow -- and I say this softly, respectfully and humbly -- I think it's wrong to kill him.

It is an act of hypocrisy and eye-for-an-eye violence when the state executes its own citizens. Killing, to punish killing.

The rage directed at Mathews reveals our great respect for the life that has been stolen. If found guilty, then Mathews, without question, deserves to die.

But we still should not kill him.

Because Mathews is not a monster. Accused of monstrous acts, but not a monster. Even the worst among us -- guilty of crimes that belong in the seventh circle of hell -- remain endowed as human beings. If only in the slimmest and thinnest of ways, Mathews remains a part of the human family.

And human beings -- from Mathews and Duane to you and me -- still possess some worth, endowed with value, that our actions can't erase.

There is more to Mathews -- to all of us -- than his worst crime and his most evil act.

Mathews doesn't understand that.

But we should.