Saw me in prison and came unto me …

Stephen MarshMormon 19 Comments

The Dallas District Attorney’s office preserved DNA evidence.  When advances in science occurred, they were able to retest many samples in cases where people claimed innocence.  As a result, some men were freed.  Other counties destroyed the same material.  Those men are still in prison.

The innocent who are still in jail we can sorrow for.  But what about the guilty?  Should we care about them?  Really?


After all, Christ did not tell us we needed to forgive only the innocent.  Seriously, the innocent are the ones we want to forgive us.  It is the others we need to visit.

I was remembering my Dad.  His last calling before his Parkinson’s got bad was as a prison chaplain for LDS prisoners, most serving life sentences.  One week a month he was a sealer at the Los Angeles Temple, three weeks a month he served as a chaplain at his own expense (like any other church calling).

The striking thing about the service was how much he felt the men receiving it needed it and how easy it was for others to feel that what he was doing was unnecessary because the  men were guilty.

Yet, as we say “we are all beggars” we might well say “we are all guilty.”

For more,

Comments 19

  1. Yet, as we say “we are all beggars” we might well say “we are all guilty.”

    I really like this. It drives the point home.

  2. a few weeks ago, there was an article in the deseret news about the man who served as bishop to the state prison. he met with ronnie lee gardner the day he was executed. I am sure prisoners need spiritual guidance, but I can’t think of a more unusual calling.

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  4. Stephen, thank you for sharing this. We all fall vastly short of our potential for good and commit moral and ethical crimes, large and small. Mercy and forgiveness towards others are critical for everyone’s sake.

  5. I’m on the fence here.

    First off, my hat is off to Saints who serve men in prison. My grandfather (a larger-than-life figure) was such a man, to his everlasting honor.

    On the other hand, I’ve never quite been able to get on board with “we are all guilty.” Yes, but guilty of what? Granted that God can not look on sin with the least degree of allowance, and so a venial sinner is equally in need of the cleansing power of the Atonement to enter the Kingdom of God, but there’s just something deep inside me that tells me that rape is somehow worse than partnerless loving or Sabbath-breaking. The contrary idea — that all sinners are all equally depraved — seems an echo of the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity, which I reject. In God’s eyes, our righteousness may be as filthy rags, but on this earth, I believe we’re morally accountable for how we use our earthly judgment — and conflating venial sins with mortal sins doesn’t strike me as prudent judgment.

    I dare say I am better than an unreconstructed rapist, for at least some purposes.

  6. Stephen, thanks

    Thomas, I’m sure you are better than some sinners. And perhaps worse than others.

    But the Lord said He will forgive whom He will forgive; we, however, are to forgive all men.

  7. The first thing that came to my mind when I read this post was the movie “Dead Man Walking” I don’t know if any one hear saw it so, the basic premise of the movie was that a nun went in to talk to a prisoner who was on death row. I think perhaps the role of Chaplin/Bishop/ Nun in this case maybe that they can help all who are involved in this process come to terms with what has happened in the past, as much as what is going to take place in the near future,especially if we are talking about the death penalty.

  8. An excellent post! With more effective DNA research, we have discovered that a number of innocent men have been on death row for years and others have been wrongly executed. Perhaps those who are such adamant capital punishment advocates need to rethink their position. Just a thought 🙂

  9. “…and others have been wrongly executed.”

    In fact, there has not yet been a case discovered of a man being wrongly executed. The anti-capital punishmenters got their hopes up a couple years back with what appeared to be a promising case, but when the DnA evidence came back — yep, he dunnit.

    The possibility of wrongful execution doesn’t make me rethink my position that just laws require the death of a murderer, any more than the far more likely possibility that a mistakenly-imposed prison term will result in an innocent man being knifed in prison, or raped and infected with a fatal case of AIDS. If anything, a death sentence is the absolute *best* chance an innocent man has of surviving a murder conviction: He’ll get automatic appeal after automatic appeal, and all the white-shoe pro bono counsel ideology can buy. Whereas let an innocent man get sent to jail for life for a murder he didn’t commit, and he rots in jail without anybody giving a damn.

    Statistically speaking, being executed for a murder you didn’t commit is the absolute least likely of all the manifold ways the government can accidentally kill you.

    Is there any other context in which the mere theoretical possibility of an (extremely rare) total systemic failure resulting in a death that shouldn’t have occurred, causes us to abandon the conduct that carries that minor risk?

    Anyone go skiing? There is a non-zero possibility that you may lose control, and collide with and kill an innocent child. Yet you accept the risk — for something as trivial as recreation.

    Now, does any of that incline you to rethink *your* position?

  10. #7 Paul, fortunately, with the case of most prisoners, I’m not the one with standing to forgive or not forgive. It wasn’t me that they robbed, raped, murdered, or whatever. (God spare me from that trial.) You only forgive those who wronged you; it isn’t your *right* to step into the actual victim’s shoes and “forgive” a wrongdoer for a wrong he did to someone else. For better or worse, democracy has thrust us ordinary folks into Caesar’s place as “a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” Our job as individual souls is to forgive others their trespasses against us. As democratic citizens, though, dealing with offenses against others, our job is to do justice.

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    Speaking of being the one with standing, I took over the office in my old practice group of a guy who was once appointed by the court to represent the guy who burglarized his house. He told the judge the conflict was too much for him.

    BTW, I’m pretty convinced Odell Barnes did not commit the murder he was executed for. On the other hand, he did, best guess, commit at least five or six other rape-murders that he should have been executed for. Sometimes the complete story is an interesting one.

    Anyone go skiing? There is a non-zero possibility that you may lose control, and collide with and kill an innocent child. Yet you accept the risk — for something as trivial as recreation.

    Interesting point there. I’ll have to think about it.

  12. It’s very commendable to minister to prisoners. The law puts them away for a reason. And usually they’ve brought it upon themselves and fully merit their punishment. Of course it’s hard to love such, but the Savior does, and we need to be like Him.
    Technically, there are no LDS “members” in prison, a member who is convicted of a felony is typically excommunicated and does not get rebaptized until his sentence and/or parole is completed. Certainly there are many that have LDS beliefs in prison but the Church has jettisoned them.
    Though we can certainly apply the Savior’s implied directive to visit those incarcerated, the implication is that the one HE was referring to was jailed for being an “enemy of the State” by being a Christian; a situation familiar to those in the early Church.

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  14. As a former inmate, as well as one who has served in a bishopric and stake callings (prior to my incarceration), I stand as a witness that the service men do who are called to serve and represent the Church to inmates are many times life savers. I have rarely felt the Spirit so strong as when attending and participating in LDS Church services while in prison. It was there that many of us really learned what the atonement is all about. It was there that I was able to study and regain a testimony I had lost. It was there that I was able to begin seeing myself as a child of God once again. And it was a place of safety and serenity away from the storm of regular prison life.

    Yes, I am guilty of my past sins and misdeeds that landed me in prison. I cannot turn the clock back. But what I am doing is continuing to move forward and prepare for my re-baptism. I’ve been out for 2 years and not a day goes by that I don’t thank Heavenly Father for those wonderful men who accepted the call to serve us who were and are in prison.

  15. In fact there has yet been a case discovered where an innocent man

    Actually,”The Innocence Project in Texas found 17 men innocent after re-examining the DNA. There are of course more, but I doubt that would satisfy you

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    dblock, none of those had been executed. Most of those were out of Dallas (Dallas, Texas), the DA’s office I was referring to in my original post.

    In addition, many of those men were “innocent” innocent (meaning they did not otherwise have a life of crime or things they were guilty of) vs. specific crime innocent (such as Odell Barnes, who I think really was innocent of the crime he was executed for, but guilty, with DNA evidence, of a number of rape/murders). But they all got out of prison before they were executed.

    Al — thanks for your perspective.

    What really hit me, beyond my father’s experience, was listening to a radio station that caters to inmates and their families while between Huntsville and Houston on the road. I think Christ meant what it looks like he meant in that part of the scriptures.

  17. Stephen

    Your right none of those had been executed, just the same the were wrongfully convicted, I’ve watched many a documentary showing how an over zealous police department can an often do get tunnel vision about who they think committed a crime, all the while the actual person goes free.

  18. @ Stephen

    I was watching an interesting series this weekend on a crime channel that I get here in the northeast. It deals with the criminal justice system in terms of the inmates families, specifically for those on death row and the impact the process has on them. They, meaning the families are innocent, but often are talked about and treated as it they are one and the same. They are often forgotten about, even though they have done nothing wrong.

    Sympathy often leans towards the victim and the victims families, but these people are left out in the cold to figure out what to do next, as one father stated so eloquently, ” I use to be known a Joe Smoe an excellent baker, now, I’m know for being the father of a killer. and people don’t want to talk to me because of it.”

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