Since 2018, New Years Eve has not been the same holiday it once was for me. Where before stood a holiday dedicated to looking past the toils of 365 days, welcoming in new hopes as a new year arrives, now stands nothing but a moment of grim reflection.
On Dec. 30, 2018, my close friend, Mason, was murdered in his home during a burglary gone-awry. At only 20 years old, a young man filled with nothing but potential was stripped of his life by three measly twitches of a finger.
This comes to mind with voluminous recollection at every New Years party I’ve cared to attend since that day.
The first year of processing the murder of a close friend is the least difficult, at least in my experience. However, my experience is unique due entirely to the time and place I’ve found myself processing this tragedy within.
Your mind is bombarded with contradictive thoughts of who is to blame, who deserves justice and who deserves restitution for the first 365 days. Waves of anguish and rage repeatedly crash upon the shore of your psyche. After a year, anguish and rage persist to crash, but the shore becomes numb to it.
By year two, it’s 2020 and a pandemic stops time as protestors huddle en-masse to either speak out against racial injustice or storm the U.S. Capitol. Meanwhile, Virginia passes a laundry list of firearm regulations. On top of all that, you shake your head and ask “why” as you watch Brandon Bernard walk down a cinderblock hallway towards the room of his demise — your bombardment of thoughts gets coupled with all these newfound issues.
By the third year, it is 2021 and Virginia has abolished the death penalty.
Three years is quite a time squeeze for anyone to process a murder while also deducing his or her’s feelings on capital punishment. Alas, I am forced to pick a side in this gloomy disposition — apathy is not a valid perspective when the public discourse forces a litmus test based in auditing the value of human life.
I‘ve now taken that litmus test too many times to count, and have ultimately come to the decision that abolishing the death penalty is one of many steps in the right direction.
I could put pen to paper and investigate all the many fascinating and gruesome statistics about capital punishment — like how it has been estimated by many experts and research firms that 1-in-25 death row inmates are wrongfully convicted. Empirical arguments are usually the best way to prove a point, but not in this case; not when Mason’s story is cast against political strife, and some of those left in its wake are living and breathing proof that forgiveness is possible.
I have made many bad decisions in my life, but I got lucky. I grew up and got out of my hometown, went to college and found my footing in journalism and writing. Others were not so lucky.
Some made it out in handcuffs. Others made it out on hospital gurneys or in body bags. Most never made it out at all.
Such is the case as much for Mason as it is with his murderer. Who am I to assume why that person broke into my friend’s house that night? Who is anyone to do so? Bear in mind that no court case is ever definitive — there are two sides to every story, and no one was ever arrested nor charged for Mason’s murder.
At a certain point, I had to throw up my hands and admit that Mason’s murder will probably never be solved. But, I also had to admit that anyone who has taken the life of another, regardless of context, is in dire need of help.
I’m not arguing that taking the life of another person is peanuts. In fact, I’m arguing quite the opposite because I agree that taking the life of another human is quite possibly the most destructive and heinous crime there is, except maybe rape. All I’m saying is that the triggerman doesn’t deserve to lose his life too.
Furthermore, I ask: what does the death penalty actually accomplish? I would take no solace in learning that Mason’s killer was caught and executed — it would not bring my friend back to life. It would not relieve me of my pain, nor would it relieve the pain of anyone else who knew Mason in his time on this earth.
All capital punishment would achieve is an extension of my pain unto the perpetrator’s loved ones. And, after watching Mason’s mother and father break down in tears at his funeral —still one of the most harrowing scenes my eyes have ever beheld — I wouldn’t wish the emotional torment they felt on my worst enemy.
Some may disagree. I’d be willing to bet that many of the mutual friends I had through Mason will read this and curse my name. Friends come and go, but your principles last forever if you let them.
Mason’s murderer may have been severely mentally unstable and in dire need of counseling; they may have been so desperately impoverished that they were willing to go to any extreme for cash to buy insulin; for all I know, Mason may have been keeping a horrible secret all along. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall.
Make no mistake, Mason’s murder will follow me for the rest of my life as a grim reminder of the cycle of pain in our criminal justice system. Mason’s murder will never be solved and that’s a scorching bitch of truth to accept. But, I reject this preposterous, antiquated idea of eye-for-an-eye in criminal justice. The heartless grindhouse of the prison industrial complex is the very thing that fuels much of the violent crime we see in America today.
Maybe, if such a cruel, vindictive and purely-punitive system never existed, Mason would still be alive today.