The Politics of Redemption

Governor Schwarzenegger on Thursday decided to parole convicted-murderer-turned-priest, James Tramel, after some twenty years in prison. This is good news. This is a step in the right direction. Tramel, 38, who was convicted of participating in the stabbing death of a homeless man in 1985, was a Christian and deacon before becoming well known as the first ordained Episcopal priest behind bars.

Many people fought for his release, and rightly so.

But now this begs the question: Why is Schwarzenegger, or any government official, determining who is reformed and who is not, who dies—as in the case of Tookie Williams—and who gets to be free?

If a right-wing conservative politician is in power, it appears they will make decisions about granting freedom based on their own politics and even race—releasing a white, conservative Christian, for example.

Tookie Williams was African American, a former Crip leader, and a non-Christian who had reformed and began to write and speak out against gang violence. He also had many supporters, even famous ones. A movie was made on his life. He wrote books. Yet Schwarzenegger, in his statement denying Tookie his life, implicated Williams’ politics and his supposed “lack of remorse” (largely because Williams would not accept guilt for crimes he has always maintained he didn’t do).

Politics killed this man. Politics freed another man. This, by the way, is California history. It’s US history. It has nothing to do with right and wrong, real redemption or fake redemption, remorse or lack of remorse. In many people’s eyes (not the right people, apparently), Tookie Williams did about as much as any man in his circumstances to turn his life around. So did Tramel. Only one went one way and the other went another way. And being that race and class are always at the heart of most major decisions in this country, this also prevailed.

Such a system must not continue. Fairness, objectivity, judging a person on a true measure of what is change and not change is sorely needed here. However, let’s not fool ourselves—such things don’t exist in the current political environment. Taking this reality in account, people should not die just because they don’t correspond politically, culturally, economically, or racially as those in power.

Remember, the last two men executed in California were African American and Native American. These men were convicted of murdering people outside their race and culture. The next person to die was Latino, also found guilty of killing someone other than Latino. So far, he has been spared due to a federal court’s ruling on the cruel and unusual punishment surrounding lethal injections (a doctor was supposed to make sure the prisoner would die without pain, but a qualified physician couldn’t be found who would do this).

Unfortunately, the state may still find a way to kill this guy.

Simply put, it’s time to stop. It’s great that Tramel has been released. Many more men should probably be given the same opportunity. I doubt that will be the case. Most of the men in California prisons are Latino, Black, and poor white. They happen to be nothing like Schwarzenegger. Nothing like those in power.

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