COLUMBIA — The Rev. Sam Duckworth said his opposition to the death penalty began at age 6 when he saw a man beaten to death by a plantation owner in Mississippi.
"The plantation owner would administrate the justice. He was the judge, the arrestor, accuser, prosecutor and executor," Duckworth said. "I opposed the death penalty from that day on, watching someone get whooped to death."
His wife, Patricia, made the same decision after seeing the man who murdered her niece in the courtroom.
"I had some very mixed emotions sitting there in that courtroom not knowing," said Patricia Duckworth.
"I had this pull on me where I thought, 'This man deserves to die for what he did,' and then my heart is saying, 'No, maybe he shouldn't.'"
The Duckworths and a third chaplain discussed the the death penalty and their experiences with death row inmates on Saturday at the Unitarian-Universalist Church. The panel discussion was organized by Missourians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty.
The three panelists have been affiliated with the Potosi Correctional Center, a maximum security facility in Washington County.
They all agreed that inmates can change during long prison sentences, so the individual facing execution may not be the same as the one who committed the crime.
"Sometimes executions might take 20 to 25 years," Patricia Duckworth said. "In that time, sometimes you see a person that's become a new creature."
The panel also noted that executions contradict the purpose of the restorative justice programs underaken by inmates.
Since Missouri allows death row inmates to take part in the restorative justice system, they shouldn't be suddenly cut off from it, said the Rev. Herb Conley.
"If you are going to give a man a chance to restore himself, and he does, then why shouldn't he have the right to continue to be a part of that community?" he said.
Conley said he didn't have an abrupt awakening to an opposition to the death penalty, but his advocacy is no less strong.
In an unprecedented move for a chaplain, he said he submitted affidavits to Gov. Jay Nixon in unsuccessful attempts to stop two executions during his time in Potosi.
Patricia Duckworth cited the case of a death row inmate in Potosi named Leon Taylor, who was able to transform himself during his time in prison through religion, she said. He was playing guitar in the worship band when his execution date was set.
"I saw the effects that he had on the other inmates," she said. "He modeled before them just what the Lord had placed in his spirit and how he was going to carry on."
Taylor asked both Duckworths to witness his execution. Patricia Duckworth credited God and Taylor's transformation for their ability to watch his death.
"Some of those hearts in the prison are actually changed," she said. "Leon Taylor was one of those people."
The death penalty no longer serves its intended purpose as a deterrent to violent crime, Conley said.
"If we want to do it as a deterrent, we need to do it like we used to — put them out there in a hanging or a guillotine and let the whole world see," he said.
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