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The indecency of the death penalty

I never met David Earl Miller. I didn’t even know he existed until the week he was set to die. Dec. 6 was his execution date at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tennessee. Both the U.S. Supreme Court and the governor refused his lawyer’s final attempts to gain a reprieve.

The Nashville Tennessean newspaper explained the details of how Miller’s execution went down.

When it was Miller’s time, “when the warden signaled for the first charge of 1,750 volts of electricity, Miller’s upper body raised up in the chair and his elbows stuck out,” reporters from the newspaper wrote.

The story of Miller’s life is even more horrifying than his death, and it should make us all question the justice of state execution.

“David Earl Miller came to Knoxville in 1979 a 22-year-old drifter — homeless, jobless and friendless. He might never have stayed had he not been picked up on Interstate 75 by a preacher looking for sex — and Lee Standifer might be alive today.”

Standifer is the woman Miller was convicted of murdering in 1981.

The details of Standifer’s death — beaten with a fireplace poker and stabbed — are excruciating to read. So are the details of Miller’s childhood. He was born in a suburb of Toledo, Ohio, in the summer of 1957. “His mother met his father during a one-night stand in a bar, drank throughout her pregnancy and was later diagnosed with brain damage from exposure to toxic fumes at her job in a plastics plant. He was 10 months old when she married his stepfather, an alcoholic who routinely beat him with boards, slammed him into walls and dragged him around the house by the hair, according to court records.”

According to Miller, he was sexually abused by a female cousin at 5, then by a friend of his grandfather at 12, and by his own intoxicated mother at 15. “Miller tried to hang himself at age 6 and began drinking, smoking marijuana and huffing gasoline daily by age 10. By age 13, he’d landed in a state reform school where counselors regularly whipped boys with rubber hoses and turned a blind eye to sexual molestation.”

In a court-ordered examination, Miller said that his earliest memory was being beaten by his stepfather. He said that he couldn’t remember anyone ever telling him they loved him as a child. “Being beaten by his stepfather is the earliest memory that Mr. Miller can recall, and beatings are the rhythm of his childhood,” a clinical psychologist wrote. “Mr. Miller, from a very early age, harbored a simmering rage. He hated his stepfather for the brutality and humiliation he was subjected to, and he loathed his mother for first failing to protect him from his stepfather and later for turning him into her sexual plaything. …. His rage has also been enacted on many other innocent ‘stand-ins’ for his mother.”

Miller never had a chance. No one cared to give him a chance.

Miller had been on death row for 36 years. He was the third person to be executed in Tennessee this year. More are scheduled for next year.

Justice and mercy involve recognizing evil, but also acknowledging humanity, too. Could the state have acknowledged the evil done to Miller long before that deadly night of rage in which he took a young woman’s life?

I think we are called to be better than the death penalty. As we approach Christmas — the celebration of the birth of a man who was himself executed by the state — give thanks for the opportunities you’ve had and the blessings you’ve counted, and think about all the things that were denied Miller. Whisper a prayer for God’s mercy all around. Think about what kind of people we are and what kind we ought to be. Real thoughts and prayers, difficult conversations and more merciful policies will mean Miller did not die in vain. May the ugly details make us more human.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. She can be contacted at

Kathryn Lopez

Kathryn Lopez

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