A Virginia Killing: A Case Against the Death Penalty

A few weeks ago, my home state of Virginia executed Ricky Gray. He was the first individual to be killed by the State of Virginia since October 1, 2015, and only the fourth since 2011.

The execution by lethal injection has played at the back of my mind since it was carried out on January 18th. I did not know Gray or any of the victims of his actions, but an article written in the Hampton Roads newspaper The Virginian-Pilot has stuck with me and framed much of my thinking on the specifics of Gray’s crime and his subsequent death at the hands of the state.

There is no doubt that Gray and an accomplice brutally murdered Bryan and Kathryn Harvey and their two young daughters. His original motive for entering their house was robbery. They did not resist. But nonetheless, after holding them hostage, and under no clear threat of detection, Gray murdered them, slitting their throats and then bludgeoning them to death. It is a crime that causes involuntary recoil. He would then go on to murder three additional individuals over the following few days.

I am not here to apologize for Gray’s actions. They were horrific. The Virginian-Pilot article goes into many troubling details of that day. Yet despite the article being billed and largely framed as a tough-on-crime article documenting the story surrounding the fateful day, it also contains sobering tragic details on Gray’s childhood:

According to his attorneys and psychiatrists, 7-year-old Ricky Gray, raised in Arlington and southern Maryland, was being beaten by his father and raped by his half-brother.

His father used a leather strap, a belt with Ricky’s name on it, a PVC pipe and whatever else he could get his hands on when he flew into a rage, leaving welts and bruises that other family members said they saw but were powerless to prevent.

Gray’s half-brother sexually assaulted him so often that memories of certain smells – Vaseline and other products used to sodomize him – made him recoil in revulsion during a psychological interview conducted on death row.

His family was “riddled with alcoholism and substance abuse, chaos and neglect,” said Dr. David Lisak, a professor of psychology who examined Gray. “This largely eliminated the possibility that he could find protection.”

There was significant corroboration of the abuse – more than Lisak, who has been involved in more than 150 capital cases, said he’d ever seen before.

The rapes, Lisak said, could only be described as sexual slavery.

By age 8, Gray was staying at his father’s brothel, where, he says, he was assaulted and sexually abused by the prostitutes.

“What’s left is a child who believes that they are worth nothing,” Lisak said.

By the end of 1988, Gray, now 11 years old, had been drinking for two years and was using PCP.

These details describe some of the most traumatic conceivable situations to which a child could be physically and mentally subjected. Nonetheless, they remind us of the sufferings of the perpetrator that often lead up to a tragic event.

It is hard, maybe even impossible, to forgive the actions of Ricky Gray. Still, I would hope that we can have the compassion to feel for him, as well. Does he, or anyone, really deserve to die?

As a society, it’s easy to kill a man or to banish him for life, with no chance of redemption (or as we’ve labeled it: parole). It’s much more difficult to strive to build him back up into something better.

It is clear that Ricky Gray suffered from severe mental afflictions. He grew up a sexual slave, addicted to drugs, with no one to care for him. What he needed was counseling, intensive in form and most-likely long-term in nature.

The United States is a wealthy nation, and Virginia a wealthy state. We could afford it. But instead, we chose to believe that certain people are irredeemable. Ricky Gray’s sufferings were the result of the failures of a number of individuals and state agencies. No one intervened. No one spoke out. And he continued to suffer.

The death penalty condemns us all. As a society, we fail to address our biggest shortcomings by taking the easy way out. Death is not an answer. It is simply an evasion.

I feel great sorrow for his victims. But I feel just as much sorrow for Ricky Gray.

And just in case you’re not convinced that the death penalty should be abolished on the moral case, here are a few more ways to think about it:

Regardless of the reason you choose to embrace, it seems clear that the US should join every other “Western nation” in appreciating that putting others to death degrades our own humanity.