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Jamie Arpin-Ricci Headshot

The Death of Innocence and a Plea for Life

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I have seen two people die and both deaths were violent and tragic.

The first happened when I was only a teenager attending a local regional fair. As I stood in line, I watched in shock as a fair worker attempted to jump across the tracks before the roller coaster arrived. He did not make it.

The second happened only a few years ago, when I watched a friend jump to his death from a building on my block. Serving as a pastor in an inner city neighbourhood means that I have been no stranger to the tragedy of untreated mental illness, but never had it culminated in such a final and public end.

Needless to say, both events are forever etched in memory. I will never forget the sights and sounds and smells of those moments. And each time my brain replays their deaths, I cannot help but wrestle with the impossible question: Could I have done something to prevent it from happening?

In less than a week another friend of mine, Matt, is going to be dead -- killed as surely and finally as the other two. I will not see his death, but because the setting of his death is determined (and by some, celebrated) I am already haunted by the images of him dying. It has not happened yet, but I feel as powerless to prevent his death as I am with the others.

You see, my friend Matthew Puckett is being executed by the state of Mississippi on Tuesday, March 20. Matthew has been tried and convicted of a brutal murder. Doubtless there are those who believe that deserves this end and will take great joy when his sentence is carried out. I am not one of those people.

While I know many of my fellow Christians do not agree with me on this point, my faith makes it impossible to condone capital punishment. I will not attempt to argue that position here, for there isn't the space nor is it the primary point. Whether you believe in the death penalty or not, what I hope we can agree on is that, should we use this form of punishment, we had better be damn sure there is no question of their guilt. As I look at Matt's case, there are simply far too many uncertainties to make such a sentence acceptable.

In the United States alone, there are more than 3,200 people facing the death penalty. More than 1,200 people have been electrocuted, shot, hanged, lethally injected and asphyxiated in the name of justice -- men, women, children and people with mental illness. Despite the increasing evidence is showing that many innocent people are being killed -- for example, for every eight people executed, one person on death row is exonerated -- too many people still support this flawed system.

Too many of us embrace the comforting, yet naive myth that our justice system is just. While there is much to be commended in it, our successes should never give us license to ignore the glaring failures that exact their price in the lives of the innocent. Despite our hope that justice is blind, evidence is mounting that many groups do not receive the same justice as others- racial minorities, the poor and the mentally ill, to name only three.

I believe that Matthew Puckett is innocent. For those not convinced, I hope that you will examine his case and recognize that he was not given the kind of justice our society boasts as being the right of every person. Given that reality, I ask that you consider signing this petition to save Matt's life and/or contacting Mississippi's governor, Phil Bryant, and ask for a stay. Allow Matt at least the chance to live his life, even if behind bars.

Few groups more passionately address the issues I raise here than the Equal Justice Initiative. Please take the time to watch this powerful challenge from EJI's founder and executive director, Bryan Stevenson: