Yesterday, Patheos blogger David Henson said, “A saint’s scheduled execution was widely protested and decried in Georgia. A sinner’s scheduled execution in Texas was largely ignored.” He was referring to the way progressive Christians erupted in protest of Kelly Gissendaner’s postponed execution, while remaining remarkably silent about today’s scheduled execution of Manuel Vasquez in Texas. He doesn’t, however, seem to grasp why that’s the case. Let me see if I can break it down for him.
Kelly Gissendaner was the perfect candidate for a mass protest against capital punishment. She had admitted and repented of the acts which landed her on death row, earned a degree in theology while there and ministered and counseled fellow inmates. As redemption stories go, Gissendaner’s is pretty damn awesome. As I said earlier, her execution has been postponed while the state works out some problems with the drugs to be used. While it’s not a commutation, it’s better than the alternative.
If Gissendaner is the poster child for ending capital punishment, Manuel Vasquez is her polar opposite. Where Gissendaner’s offense was a one-time crime of passion, Vasquez was an enforcer for the Mexican Mafia. Gissendaner persuaded her boyfriend to kill her husband, with whom she’d had a rocky, on-again-off-again relationship; Vasquez was convicted of killing Juanita Ybarra on the orders of his boss because Ybarra wasn’t kicking back the required percentage on her drug sales. Gissendaner had a clean criminal record prior to her conviction; Vasquez’s offense was just the latest act in a lengthy criminal history that includes at least two earlier stints in prison. And, while you can find plenty of evidence of how Gissendaner has turned things around, no such proof exists for Vasquez.
To be fair, part of the reason Gissendaner engendered such an outpouring of support is that we heard about her. Gissendaner had a big name in her corner: the theologian Jurgen Moltmann. Moltmann, who had become acquainted with Gissendaner through a mutual friend, wrote a letter of support for her clemency hearing. Through that letter, their friendship came to the attention from some publications with a rather wide reach, like the New York Times, and the rest is history. Manuel Vasquez isn’t so lucky.
The truth is, we turned out for Gissendaner because she had “redeemed” herself by coming to faith, getting an education and helping others; i.e. becoming like us. Vasquez, on the other hand, is a scary individual with past that shows he is exactly the type of person for which the death penalty was conceived: an unrepentant menace to society.
In the opening paragraph, I said Henson doesn’t seem to grasp why we’re silent about one execution when we just raised hell about another last week. I’ll admit that was a bit disingenuous, because he understands all too well. Basically, our silence says one of these people deserves grace, while the other deserves the needle. And, you know what that says about us, don’t you?