Monday, Justice Scalia issued an order staying the execution of Ronald Chambers who has been on death row in Texas for 31 years. On April 21, 1975, Chambers shot and beat to death a Texas Tech college student. The student’s name was Michael McMahan. His father’s name was Mabry; his mother, Bennie; his sister, Janna. His neighbor right across the street throughout his childhood – Mike Farris.
We lived in Kennewick, Wash. Michael was a year behind me in school. Our families were very close, sharing Thanksgiving and birthdays and the joys and trials of everyday life. Ironically, when we were young Michael used to brag that a local beauty queen was his babysitter. A few years later, her name was in all the headlines: Sharon Tate, the victim of Charles Manson.
Michael and a friend, Deia Sutton, went to a dance club while at a college conference in Dallas. After leaving the club, they were accosted by two men who hijacked their car. They marched them to the riverbank and shot them both in the back.
Miraculously, they both survived. But before the shooters had cleared the area, Michael called out to Deia to see if she was alive. She was afraid to answer and he called louder. The men returned and beat him to death with the butt of their shotgun.
Deia lived and provided the critical testimony that led to the arrest and conviction of Chambers and his accomplice.
Chambers has twice had his conviction overturned on purely technical grounds. There is no doubt of his guilt.
Scalia has now stayed his execution. It is stayed until the petition for certiorari is granted or denied. There is some suggestion in the media that the Court may be waiting until another case raising similar issues is decided. Michael’s mother has told the press that she can’t take it any more.
The Associated Press reviewed some of the news of the day to convey a better sense of how long it has been since Chambers was first sentenced to die. Gerald Ford was president. George W. Bush was in business school.
Let me tell you how long it has been in a different way.
I was 23 and had been married for three years when Michael McMahan was murdered. Michael’s parents were invited to our wedding. Michael never married. My wife, Vickie, was pregnant when we went to Michael’s funeral. Two months later, our first child was born. Michael never had a child. His parents never had a grandchild. When Chambers was first placed on death row, I had just entered my last semester of law school. Michael never graduated from college. The year that Chambers’ first conviction was overturned by a Texas appellate court was the same year my fourth child was born.
He was tried, convicted and sentenced to death a second time in 1985. My oldest daughter was in the third grade. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed that conviction in 1989. My wife and I sent our annual Christmas letter to Bennie and Mabry telling them about our growing family of six children and regaling them with stories of our first son after five daughters. Michael Farris Jr. was a year old.
Chambers was sentenced to death after yet a third trial in 1992, the year I began to run for lieutenant governor of Virginia. Michael never entered his dream career as an electrical engineer, though he was on the threshold of graduation when he was beaten to death.
It is this 1992 conviction and related order of execution that has now been stayed by the Supreme Court. Since 1992, our 10th child was born. Two of our daughters have graduated from college; Michael Jr. is in college; four of our daughters have gotten married; and we have been blessed with eight grandchildren – all of that since the third conviction.
Bennie and Mabry have suffered the tragedy of every parent who loses a child – the marriages that never happened and the grandchildren that never came along, the milestones that were never achieved, the calls never received, and the hugs never given. But for Michael’s parents and his devoted sister, Janna, the passage of time has not only been a reminder of that loss and the emptiness it brings, but it has been 31 years of emotional torture that arises from the lack of resolution. How can anyone blame them if they have begun to doubt the ability of our justice system to deliver anything that resembles justice?
My oldest daughter is 31 years old. There has not been a day go by that I haven’t thought about her. Every single day that my daughter has been alive, Bennie and Mabry McMahan have thought of their son and also have had to ask themselves, “Will it be today that justice is done?”
After 31 years, making these decent people wait for justice even one more day is cruel and unusual punishment.
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