Regarding the death penalty, I owe my existence to the last-minute commutation of a death sentence and the eventual pardon of my great-grandfather, who murdered a child in 1904.
Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, my great-great-grandfather, Joseph “Crazy Joe” Rawlins, was engaged in a feud in South Georgia with a man named William L Carter. Rawlins was a farmer and a former Baptist preacher with five children, while Carter (also a farmer and former minister) had roughly a dozen children. The Valdosta Daily Times recounts that “They dickered about fishing rights, livestock and each other until the contentious relationship festered into a violent feud as they neighbored in Hahira.”
In 1904, Crazy Joe decided to put an end to the feud once and for all, and he commissioned his three teenage sons and a black hired hand named Alf Moore to kill Carter and burn down his house with everyone inside. Joe went to town to create an alibi for himself, while his sons and laborer were sent to commit the terrible deed.
It didn’t go as planned, and they did not kill Mr. Carter. Two of his children came out onto the porch and were shot and mortally wounded, however: a son and a daughter. As he lay dying, the son, Willie Carter, identified my great-grandfather, Jesse, and his older brother as the two shooters.
After more than a year of trials and appeals, Crazy Joe, Alf Moore, and two of his sons (the shooters) received death sentences. The testimony of Moore was pivotal in connecting Crazy Joe to the crime, and is believed to be the first time in South Georgia history that a white man was convicted of murder based on the testimony of an African American man.
Joseph Rawlins and Alf Moore were hanged on a Tuesday morning in 1906. Jesse and his brother Milton were scheduled to die that Friday. On Thursday evening, however, the two teenagers had their sentences commuted to life in prison, thanks to the tireless efforts of a lawyer who believed strongly that they were driven to kill by their controlling and domineering father.
Some years later, when they were in their early 20s, Jesse and his other brother were granted pardons by the governor of Georgia, Hoke Smith, based on their ages at the time of the shooting, as well as their good behavior and rehabilitation.
Jesse went on to marry and have nine children (seven of whom survived to adulthood). His children married and had children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of their own. His descendants include doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, school principals, engineers, carpenters, and a Catholic priest.
Not a single one would have been born if his death sentence or his life sentence had been carried out. When Pope Francis speaks against mandatory life sentences and supermax prisons, I think of this.
I also think of Alf Moore, who was the victim of a harsher sentence because of the color of his skin. I also think of other very young people who have committed grave crimes, such as Lee Boyd Malvo, the young apprentice under the control of the DC sniper, who was given six life sentences for his role in the attacks but is seeking a new sentence. I think about Alessandro Serenelli, who murdered St. Maria Goretti in 1902, spent 27 years in prison (where he experienced conversion and was rehabilitated), attended St. Maria’s canonization in 1950, and lived until 1970.
It is a tragedy that the murdered Carter children never had families of their own, and of course it would have been better had the crime never happened. But it did happen. Still, God works through tragedy and can bring about great good out of the darkest situations. In this case, he brought about entire generations of new life.
This incident is a mystery of my identity and existence. But there are countless other mysteries throughout history, most of them hidden, that have touched everyone’s lives. Each of us, in every moment of the day is called to contribute to the welfare of others, whether it’s forgiving a debt or picking up litter by the side of the road. No act of mercy or forgiveness is insignificant or ever truly forgotten. Francis and the Gospels call us to act with an awareness of how we contribute to our own time and to future generations; this is the human ecology he speaks of in Laudato Si’.
Pope Francis, by declaring the death penalty inadmissible, is speaking about my family. By speaking about life sentences, he is speaking about my family. And he is possibly speaking about yours.
Note: You can read more about the Rawlins/Carter murder, trial, and aftermath in author Bill Boyd’s 2000 book, Blind Obedience: A True Story of Family Loyalty and Murder in South Georgia. The above image is taken from the cover. My great-grandfather, Jesse, is on the right. His older brothers Milton and Leonard are on the left.
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Mike Lewis is the founding managing editor of Where Peter Is. He and Jeannie Gaffigan co-host Field Hospital, a U.S. Catholic podcast.