The guilty pleas Monday by Alvin Watts and Jacob England to the killing of three African-Americans and the wounding of two others in a fit of racial rage brings many lessons for the citizen at large. There are lessons in patience, community, faith, hope, and not least, hypocrisy.
Watts and England embarked on a night of terror in North Tulsa on the Friday night of Easter weekend 2010. They became known as the Good Friday killers.
They were arrested a couple of days later. Initially the state asked for the death penalty.
Mayor Dewey Bartlett, Police Chief Chuck Jordan and various civic leaders, both white and black, issued appeals for calm and patience once it became obvious that the killings were racial and random.
The appeals gained traction and a potentially violent situation was defused. This was seen as a great step in achieving racial parity in a city where parity has always been elusive, especially on the North side.
The killings appear to have been motivated by the death of Jacob England’s father two years earlier during a domestic dispute at the hands of Pernell Jefferson, an African-American. The district attorney ruled the shooting death as self-defense.
Now, 18 months later, the pair have admitted to their crimes and been sentenced to three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole and an additional two more life sentences with possibility of parole.
These men, because each sentence must be served separately, will be in prison for the rest of their lives. Both men are relatively young, England is now 20 and Watts 32.
Prosecutors, victims and families of victims appear to be in agreement that the sentences handed down are just. In short, life without parole for the random killing based solely on race is, in fact, justice.
And justice it is.
But now the question: if the England/Watts life without possible parole on Monday is justice, then why, less than 24 hours later did we, the people of Oklahoma, gleefully kill Johnny Dale Black, 48, at the state prison in McAlester?
If life with out possible parole is justice then why are there any executions at all in Oklahoma. This is the lesson in hypocrisy.
There are many suggestions as to why we kill prisoners. None of those reasons appear to hold water whether deterrent, closure, and most of all not justice.
In Oklahoma we have killed prisoners even when the parole board has recommended clemency that is life with out parole. Why?
Unfortunately the answer is perhaps more political than judicial. Strapping unarmed, incarcerated people to a table so the assembled can watch them die is always a big draw for conservative votes.
Perhaps this is why Gov. Mary Fallin and Attorney General Scott Pruitt are so keen on having people executed. Killing prisoners is a way, just like gangs on the street, of making your bones.
But considering the England/Watts affair, no Tulsa County prosecutor should ever again ask for the death penalty. The standard has been set.
For those who seek, carry out, support or encourage the death penalty for political gain there is nothing but shame. The death penalty shouldn’t ever be a campaign issue.
Whether carried out by Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein or death squads in Guatemala killing prisoners for political gain is wrong. If a candidate feels they must dip their arms in prisoner blood to win an election, they should not hold public office.
If the electorate demands blood from candidates, we as a nation are much further down the road of moral decline than any other issue could possibly take this republic.
The England/Watts sentences were in fact just. They also prove no one needs to die in order to attain justice.