In Holy Week, many churches focus on the Last Supper on Maundy Thursday, the crucifixion on Good Friday, and the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday. Lost in this procession is one of the events of Holy Week that is most relevant to our modern age: the trial of Jesus and the role of the zealous prosecutor, Caiaphas, who pushed for his death.
At a juncture where our nation is re-evaluating our criminal law system, Jesus's trial lays out surprisingly modern themes. Judas was, after all, a paid informant who helped a task force find their target. There was a violent arrest, as Peter cut off the ear of Malchus the slave in a confusing tumult. At trial, the witnesses conflicted with one another, and the prosecutor sent a servant out to find more; that is likely why a servant was asking Peter if he knew Jesus just outside where the trial was going on. Even the execution method echoes some of the conflicts in the Supreme Court now -- the three-drug lethal injection protocol used in many states serves the same three functions (anesthetic, binding agent, killing agent) that the wine and myrrh, cross, and stabbing served in causing Jesus's death.
Perhaps most intriguing is the appearance of an emotional and zealous prosecutor, Caiaphas. He is so committed to conviction and execution that he tears at his clothes. Today, we still are plagued by cases of injustice where an over-committed prosecutor is a part of the problem.
This month, one of those prosecutors made a striking public statement. A.M. "Marty" Stroud III was involved in the wrongful conviction and death sentence given to a man named Glenn Ford in 1985 in Louisiana.
Glenn Ford was released after 30 years because the district attorney asked for the charges to be dismissed due to new evidence, but the state of Louisiana is fighting against paying Mr. Ford any of the usual compensation. Meanwhile, Ford is dying of lung cancer.
In the middle of all this, Mr. Stroud has written a memorable letter of regret regarding the case. In that letter the prosecutor begins this way (after a few preliminaries):
I was at the trial of Glenn Ford from beginning to end. I witnessed the imposition of the death sentence upon him. I believed that justice was done. I had done my job. I was one of the prosecutors and I was proud of what I had done.
The death sentence had illustrated that our community would brook no tolerance for cold-blooded killers. The Old Testament admonishment, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, was alive and well in Caddo Parish. I even received a congratulatory note from one of the state's witnesses, concluding with the question, "how does it feel to be wearing a black glove?"
Members of the victim's family profusely thanked the prosecutors and investigators for our efforts. They had received some closure, or so everyone thought. However, due to the hard work and dedication of lawyers working with the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana, along with the efforts of the Caddo Parish district attorney's and sheriff's offices, the truth was uncovered.
Later, Mr. Stroud reveals a more human part of the story:
In 1984, I was 33 years old. I was arrogant, judgmental, narcissistic and very full of myself. I was not as interested in justice as I was in winning. To borrow a phrase from Al Pacino in the movie "And Justice for All," "Winning became everything."
After the death verdict in the Ford trial, I went out with others and celebrated with a few rounds of drinks. That's sick. I had been entrusted with the duty to seek the death of a fellow human being, a very solemn task that certainly did not warrant any "celebration."
In my rebuttal argument during the penalty phase of the trial, I mocked Mr. Ford, stating that this man wanted to stay alive so he could be given the opportunity to prove his innocence. I continued by saying this should be an affront to each of you jurors, for he showed no remorse, only contempt for your verdict.
How totally wrong was I.
To be moral, the death penalty must be perfect-- we must know that innocents won't be killed. Capital punishment is a product of humans, though, and we humans can never be perfect, or create perfection. The death penalty cannot, then, ever be moral. It certainly wasn't when Caiaphas urged the crucifixion of Jesus. People are not so different now, and that, too, is part of the message of Holy Week.