(RNS) — On Thursday (Dec. 9), Oklahoma executed Bigler “Buddy” Stouffer, a 79-year-old deeply committed Christian who has maintained his innocence since being convicted of murder in 1985. It was the last execution scheduled for 2021.
This execution came on the back of last month’s halted execution of Julius Jones, one of the clearest cases of innocence in the United States, which had stirred protests all over the world and pleas for clemency from folks like Kim Kardashian and Bishop T.D. Jakes.
Stouffer’s execution was also the first since a horrific series of botched executions in Oklahoma, in which Clayton Lockett lay dying 43 minutes as his body convulsed and John Grant, who was killed in October, yelled, convulsed and vomited before being pronounced dead.
Oklahoma’s record on executions prompted even the state’s Pardon and Parole Board to vote to stop Stouffer’s.
RELATED: Faith leaders backing Okla. death row inmate hail parole board’s commutation request
Stouffer’s execution otherwise didn’t get all that much attention. In fact, when I first spoke to him, I didn’t even know there was a question about his guilt. But in our conversation he was very clear that he did not commit the crime he was being executed for. He even gave me a name of the man who knows exactly what happened. Others have now come forward to help prove his innocence.
I will not be able to forget his telling me matter-of-factly: “I would love to be able to prove my innocence while I’m still alive … but I just hope that the truth comes out, even after I am deceased.”
There is a team working hard to prove Stouffer’s innocence, despite his execution. One of the obvious problems with the death penalty is that you can’t bring someone back from the dead when you get it wrong.
It’s why a growing number of people, including many who lean conservative, are joining the fight for alternatives to the death penalty. Those who mistrust the government as an imperfect human institution are beginning to wonder whether it should have the irreversible power of life and death.
Stouffer’s case exemplifies many of the things that are so wrong with our criminal justice system, especially when it comes to capital punishment. He was convicted based on faulty evidence by a forensic scientist named Joyce Gilchrist, known as “Black Magic” for her alleged ability to work magic with evidence that didn’t match the facts. She testified in his case and hundreds of others in her 20-year career in Oklahoma. She helped send 23 people to death row before she was fired.
In Stouffer’s case, Gilchrist worked closely with the prosecutor, Robert H. Macy, as she did in dozens of death penalty cases. With Gilchrist’s help, Macy sent 73 people to death row in his 21-year career. About 20 of those have been executed. Two, Curtis McCarty and Robert Lee Miller, have been exonerated and released, a number that squares with our tragic national track record: For every nine executions, there is one exoneration.
Imagine if, for every 10 planes that took off, one crashed. That’s the United States’ track record with the death penalty.
As I talked to Stouffer three days before his execution, he told me what really happened that day in 1985. He also told me about his faith, about how his love for Jesus has gotten him through it all. He was joyful, fearless, compassionate.
He shared his sympathy for the family of Linda Reaves, the schoolteacher whose life he was accused of taking, and even talked about how he has forgiven those whose lies in court resulted in his death sentence.
We talked about baseball, the year he had a batting average of .415, and where he got his nickname “Buddy.” He told me about how he had reached out to all 113 of the men who have been executed while he has been on death row, as a pastor, as a friend and as an evangelist who wanted to share the hope he has found in Christ. He told me he would die with forgiveness on his lips and peace in his heart.
He kept that promise. His last words were, “Father, forgive them,” reflecting the last words of Christ, aimed at a system that was killing him in similar fashion. One of his last requests was to have Communion with his pastor. That request was denied because prison officials did not want him to choke on Communion as they killed him. Let that sink in.
We ended our conversation in prayer, which I think would have gone on for a lot longer had we not been interrupted by an automated voice telling us we had “one minute” left to talk. He later called in one last time to greet everyone at the prayer vigil the night before his execution. On that call, he praised God for all the people working to stop not just his execution but all executions. We prayed for Oklahoma’s Gov. Kevin Stitt.
RELATED: Julius Jones was spared by a governor who prayed. Let’s all now pray to end the death penalty.
Stitt is an active member of Woodlake Church in Tulsa. In a Dec. 1 Twitter post he wrote, “From day one, I promised Oklahomans I would sign every piece of pro-life legislation that hit my desk. I am proud to have kept that promise and make Oklahoma the most pro-life state in the country!” A week later he permitted the execution of Stouffer.
Oklahoma has the highest execution rate per capita in the country. It is the latest reminder that the Bible Belt is the death belt in America, where 90% of U.S. executions occur.
It was Jesus who said: “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” If Christians demanded that their governors, judges and legislators be as pro-life on this issue as they are on abortion, there would be no more executions in America.
(Shane Claiborne is an activist, author and co-director of Red Letter Christians. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)