A Conservative’s Reflections from Death Row (Jan-Feb 2005)

By Matt Dabbs

by Matthew Rawlings
January – February, 2005

I’m a conservative Republican. I am a corporate defense attorney, a card carrying member of the Federalist Society and the National Rifle Association. I even spent two years on Capitol Hill working to pass Newt Gingrich’s Contract with America.

Like many of my fellow conservatives, my political views have been largely influenced by my upbringing in an evangelical church. The death penalty is one of the issues that many conservative Christians believe is crystal clear. Evangelicals often cite scriptures such as Exodus 21:12 or Leviticus 24:17 which commanded the Israelites to put to death anyone who took the life of another human being. I held such a view when I left Abilene Christian University to attend Cornell Law School.

During my second year of study, I signed up to participate in the Cornell Death Penalty Clinic. The program is run by two Cornell Law Professors who represent defendants facing or appealing capital sentences. Students earn academic credit by serving as the professors’ clerks and investigators.

I enrolled out of the desire to get out of the classroom and to work with two attorneys that I admired as instructors, but felt were woefully out of touch politically. They assigned me to the case of Chadric E. Fulks, a young man implicated in the disappearance and death of two women in a multi-state crime spree. It was a tough case to defend. It was a gruesome case to investigate.

It was a case that shook my faith in the administration of capital punishment in America.

Chad Fulks was born in the mountains of West Virginia, which was, and is, afflicted by abject poverty. The Fulks family was not immune. His situation was made all the worse by parents who struggled with substance abuse. Chad’s mother apparently even drank during her pregnancy. Leading up to trial, experts diagnosed Chad with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which produced, among other things, an I.Q. in the low seventies.

Handicapped by a low intellect and financial distress, it was not long before Chad turned to crime. He had been in and out of juvenile facilities most of his teen years and graduated to prison not long after turning eighteen. Chad was never particularly violent, but he was a thief and a habitual drug user. In the fall of 2002, he found himself in a Kentucky prison. He was incarcerated this time for, among other things, stealing credit cards.

Chad then suffered the grave misfortune of being assigned to a cell with Brandon Basham—a violent and emotionally disturbed young man with a passion for guns and knives. Brandon had escaped from prison once before and talked Chad into accompanying him on another jail break. They succeeded and embarked on a journey through seven states before both were captured. Chad went quietly with FBI agents in a field near his brother’s home in Indiana. Brandon, however, successfully shot his way out of a near arrest in Kentucky, then police fished him out of the Ohio River before hypothermia set in.

Chad and Brandon were questioned about the disappearances of Ms. Samantha Burns of Huntington, West Virginia and Mrs. Alice Donavon of Conway, South Carolina. Each admitted that the women were dead and both blamed the other for their killings. Brandon also accused Chad of raping Mrs. Donavon. Chad stated that Brandon had raped her then insisted, with gun in hand, that he do the same. Chad maintained that they had stolen the women’s cars and that he last saw both being led into the woods by Basham for the purpose of tying them up long enough to give them time to escape. Chad’s story held up under three polygraph tests. Basham refused to submit to one.

Polygraphs, or lie detector tests, however, are not admissible in court and the jury who sat in judgment upon Chad never heard this evidence. Nor did they hear from Chad’s parents who refused to testify in his defense. They did hear Chad’s long record of theft and accusations of rape. It took them only four hours to sentence Chad to death.

In all probability, the federal government will end Chad’s life sometime in the next few years for a crime he most certainly did not commit. He spends most of his days under suicide watch in a maximum security mental health facility. He does not have a bed. He usually cannot wear clothes for fear that he will find a way to take his own life with them. He is only allowed access to a children’s Bible sent to him by a Christian lady in New York who correctly surmised that it would be easier for him to read and understand. Every once in a while when he has access to a phone, he will call me. I don’t really know what to tell him other than “I’m sorry” and “My wife and I are praying for you.”

The whole experience led me to question my easy acceptance of the death penalty in America as “biblical.” My professors at Abilene Christian implored us to keep every verse of scripture in its proper historical and literary context. God commanded the Israelites to put certain offenders to death, but He did so in the context of a political system that expected its leaders to recognize YHWH as their king and look to Him prayerfully before administering justice.

Yet, we live under a judicial system that prides itself on the separation between church and state. I wonder how appropriate it is to trumpet the death penalty as “biblical” under such a structure? I wonder how many other Chads there are on death row? I wonder how to reconcile Exodus 23:7 which commands God’s people never to put an innocent man to death with the belief that innocent people are sometimes executed in our country? I wonder about these questions to the point of being haunted by them.

I am a conservative Republican, but I am first and foremost a Christian who longs to be “biblical.”

I wonder if I have too easily assumed what that means.New Wineskins


Resources

Sister Helen Prejean, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions

Gardner C. Hanks, Capital Punishment and the Bible

Margaret Edds, An Expendable Man: The Near-Execution of Earl Washington Jr.

The Cornell Death Penalty Project

Matthew RawlingsMatthew Rawlings is a litigator with the law firm of Bowles Rice McDavid Graff & Love, LLP in Charleston, West Virginia. He has previously served as the preaching minister for the Ithaca Church of Christ in upstate New York and as interim preaching minister for the Kanawha City and Nitro Churches of Christ in West Virginia. Before attending seminary and law school, Matthew worked as a music publisher and music video director in Hollywood and as a legislative aide on Capital Hill. Matthew and Emily, his wife of six years, have an 18 month old son, Jackson Dylan Rawlings.

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1584 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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