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Opinion
Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

On My Mind: What The Death Penalty Does To The Living

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I wonder how many of the South Carolina legislators who voted to add the firing squad to the death-penalty options in the state have ever actually witnessed an execution.

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I have.

It was back in 2005. The prisoner was a man named Elias Syriani, and his case was as close to open and shut as you can get. In 1990, after his wife filed for divorce, he blocked her car with his van one day and stabbed her 28 times with a screwdriver. Their 10-year-old son was in the car. Teresa Syriani died after 26 days on life support. After his trial, Elias Syriani got the death penalty.

I wrote about him near the end because of his four children. They had disowned him after he killed their mother. But as it got nearer to his execution date, they decided to visit him in prison. They forgave him. They did not want him to die. They mustered a final appeal to save him. But Mike Easley, the governor at the time, would not stop the execution.

So, on a cold November morning, in those hours between midnight and dawn, the state of North Carolina set out to kill Elias Syriani. I was one of the witnesses. His children did not come, but two of his friends did, as well as the detectives who worked the case. We waited in a small room with a single window that looked into the room next door. After a while, they wheeled Syriani into that room on a gurney.

The South Carolina legislators added the firing squad to their death-penalty options because they’re having a hard time getting the drugs for lethal injections. So now they can use a firing squad or the electric chair, although their preference is still lethal injection. It sounds strange to use that word. Preference.

Elias Syriani was hooked up to an IV. At 2 a.m. that morning, three unseen executioners plunged their syringes into IV tubes. The contents of one syringe went into an empty bag. The other two went into Syriani’s arm. They did it that way so none of the executioners would know for sure that they had killed him.

I wonder if it mattered.

The strongest point that opponents of the death penalty make is that there’s no way to fix it if we get it wrong. They’re correct about that. We’ve seen too many people released after 30 or 40 years in prison for crimes they didn’t commit. We know that the justice system sometimes gets it wrong. The death penalty is the one uncorrectable mistake.

But even a case like Syriani’s, where the state executed the right man, doesn’t take into account what happens to the living. The family members who had forgiven. The executioners who will never know if they killed someone. And the witnesses, at least one of whom still thinks a lot about that dark night at Central Prison.

If the state of South Carolina wants to make it easier to kill people, fine. I’d just add one requirement: that every legislator who voted for the firing squad has to watch every execution.

Maybe then some of them would learn that when the state kills someone, no matter how we do it, a lot of other people die a little death.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

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