The Abolitionist Action Committee

AAC is an ad-hoc group of individuals committed to highly visible and effective public
education for alternatives to the death penalty through nonviolent direct action.
 

 

This article is from the (St. Paul/Minnesota) PioneerPlanet

Many folks want to bear witness to Timothy McVeigh's planned execution May 16. But not Steve Earle. The Nashville-based songwriter and alternative-country music icon has already seen one.

"At very best, it's terrifying. It's torture. It was for me. I don't think I'll ever recover from it. I have absolute waking nightmares about it," said Earle by phone from his Nashville home recently.

"I can't imagine any way anyone could heal from that process. There's a lie being told to victims' family members that watching, participating in the trial of and witnessing the execution of people that have harmed people that they love is gonna somehow give them closure.

"That's something that the federal government should be liable for. That should be actionable, in my opinion."

Jonathan Nobles was a death row inmate whom Earle corresponded with since the songwriter started working against the death penalty in the early '90s. Nobles was convicted of the 1986 murders of Mitzi Johnson Nalley, 21, and Kelly Farquhar, 24, in their north Austin, Texas, apartment.  Nobles was sentenced to die by lethal injection. On Oct. 7, 1998, Earle sat with a small gallery in a Texas prison. Nobles, 37, expressed his remorse to the onlookers and his love for one of his victims' boyfriend, Ron Ross, whom Nobles stabbed 19 times during the botched robbery and who was present for the execution.

With 2 IVs hooked up to each arm and 3 drugs -- two to collapse the lungs, the other to stop the heart -- at the ready, Nobles read a passage from Corinthians. Then he started singing "Silent Night."

"He had prearranged a signal with the warden that, when he started singing, to start the flow," says Earle. "And he got as far as the line "mother and child,' and at that point, all of the air blew out of his lungs at once. And I mean, it was really loud. It was like: "HUUUH!'

"His head pitched forward so violently that his glasses -- big, heavy, plastic, prison-issued glasses -- bounced off of his head, onto his chest and onto the floor. It was like somebody had dropped an invisible cinder block on his chest. And then he didn't move again."

Nobles was one of 152 inmates put to death under then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush's watch. And while other death-penalty abolitionists point to Bush's rise to president as one of the main reasons for America's current embracing of the death penalty, Earle says there's plenty of blame to go around.

"When it gets right down to it, I don't think this is about George W. Bush," he says. "I think it's about all of us. We are all responsible every time someone's executed. There is no "them.' That's where my objection to the death penalty comes from. I object to the damage it does to my spirit if I kill somebody. And if my government kills somebody in what's ostensibly a democracy, then I'm killing somebody, period.  "I'm much more worried about me going to hell than Timothy McVeigh being executed. It's really that simple. It's really about protecting me and my children. Look, I figure odds are that Timothy McVeigh is an ---hole. And I think he's a cold-blooded murderer. But he's also a human being. And I think that when we kill any human being, we perpetuate violence.

"We're saying that it's all right in some circumstances to take another life. And every time you make an exception, somebody refines it and comes along and makes another exception, and we start going backwards at a furious pace."

Earle has been speaking out against the death penalty since he was 9 years old, after his father wrote a letter to the governor of Texas, protesting a high-profile murder case in which the death penalty was obtained against a poor young boy by San Antonio's biggest prosecutor.

Earle has written 3 songs on the subject: "Billy Austin,'' his first anti-death-penalty statement, on 1990's "The Hard Way''; "Ellis Unit One," which empathizes with prison workers cast into the role of executioners and appears on the "Dead Man Walking" soundtrack; and, most recently, "Over Yonder (Jonathan's Song)."

Over the past 13 years, Earle has given his time and energy to groups such as the Abolitionist Action Committee, the Journey of Hope From Violence to Healing (in Texas and Tennessee) and Murder Victims' Families for Reconciliaton, an organization of murder victims' family members opposed to the death penalty.

"For 8 years, we had a president (Reagan) that, when the mentality around this was being formed, his favorite movie was "Rambo.' He watched it over and over and over," says Earle. "The winning formula for a film in this country is: You have a guy, he gets kicked around for 2/3 of the movie, and then at the end of the movie, he kills everybody. That's our idea of a hero, so it's not a big surprise that we come to this mentality after a while."

Throughout the interview, Earle's Texas accent rages on nonstop. He is emotional about the topic and articulate, to the point of occasionally losing his breath. He also admits that he's tired, that his foremost calling is as a musician but that he won't rest until the death penalty is abolished -- largely because he believes it goes against human nature.

"The way death penalty cases work is, they need the victims' families to get juries to convict people and sentence them to death. Talk to any prosecutor: If you don't have a victim's family member to sit on the stand and give that victim's impact-type of testimony, you're not gonna get a death penalty (conviction). People aren't that willing to kill.

"And the forgotten victims are victims' family members. Bud Welch is a friend of mine, and his daughter died in that (Oklahoma City) bombing, and he travels around and speaks at some of the same events I do.

"He opposed the death penalty before the Oklahoma City bombing, and he still does today. And it's largely faith-based for him. The way he came to believe that it's wrong is because he's Catholic. Period. He was just raised to think that way."

For the moment, at least, Welch and Earle appear to be in the minority when it comes to the death penalty and especially when it comes to discussing McVeigh. Which means that May 16 will come and go, but its legacy could last for years.

"Timothy McVeigh is going to be made into a martyr for some of the most extreme groups that exist in this country and some of the most dangerous. He's dying for what happened at Ruby Ridge and what happened at Waco, and he believes this," says Earle.

"Timothy McVeigh is a nut. Only nuts do what he did. And we're falling for it. We're falling right into it. Unless a miracle happens, we're going to kill him, and other people will die because we did it.

"There will be reprisals, and all of that blood will be on our hands, as well. Not the hands of the federal government, not the hands of George W. Bush, but my hands and your hands."

 

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