My guest is Shane Claiborne, a Christian activist fighting against war, gun violence, and the death penalty. I got to meet him recently at a death penalty abolitionists' meeting in Columbia, S.C., and he graciously set aside a little time to talk about the struggle to end state-enforced killing in my state and across the country.
On a personal note, Shane's writing has meant the world to me. His first couple of books, The Irresistible Revolution and Jesus for President, helped me understand the teachings of Jesus as radical, countercultural "good news for the poor" as the Good Book tells us. His more recent books include Executing Grace and Beating Guns.
Talking with Shane was a breath of fresh air after my previous interview with Fred A. Leuchter Jr., the man who earned the nickname "Mr. Death" because he sold so much death chamber equipment to states in the '80s. I published that interview in Luke O'Neil's Welcome to Hell World newsletter (there's also an excerpt up at brutalsouth.substack.com if you want to check that out).
Here's a clip from the interview when I asked Leuchter for his opinion on firing squads, which South Carolina just authorized for executions this year:
“I’d rather be electrocuted, if you really want to know. But one of the things I found out, and I didn’t know this when I started, but I found out after being involved in it for over 30 years, is that the human body as I told you earlier is designed to protect itself and not allow you to kill it. And because of that, and everybody’s body is different, we can design a system that is completely flawless and works all of the time and does everything exactly right, but you’re gonna get, 20% of the time, you’re gonna get somebody who’s not gonna fit the mold, and he’s gonna be an issue. So even when we do everything right, we have a problem that we shouldn’t have had, and it’s because of an unknown physiological condition in the person that we’re executing. My feeling is that if we’re gonna execute people, we need to do it right and humanely. Other than that, we shouldn’t be doing it. If I can’t do the execution right 100% of the time, maybe we shouldn’t be doing it. So I’m not a proponent of capital punishment.”
I'm skeptical of Fred Leuchter's claim that he's not a proponent of the death penalty. He may have done more singlehandedly to aid and abet the execution of imprisoned people in the U.S. than any other person in the second half of the 20th century, and he went out of his way to do so without a medical license or formal training in electrical engineering.
The Leuchter interview was difficult and strange for me. I didn't want to lend credence to what he was saying, but I felt it was important to highlight his central role in the making of the modern death penalty regime in the U.S.
My interview with Shane, on the other hand, was a great relief. I went from talking about the practical and mechanical issues of killing another person to the life-giving work of loving our neighbors. Shane stands with an executed savior, and so do I.
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In other news, I have a Freedom of Information Act request awaiting a response from the South Carolina Department of Corrections. I’m seeking information on the purchase, inspection, and maintenance of electrocution equipment in the state's death chamber. If and when they send me some information, I’ll keep you updated via the newsletter.
The episode art is “The Magpie on the Gallows” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1568).