The death penalty is always a controversial topic. Lots of us know exactly how we feel about it. But do we know why we think that way?
When Verify asked for people who strongly support the death penalty, Sharmin Anselm volunteered. She's a mother and a grandmother from Burleson and she works at a phone company.
“If you're a pedophile and you've murdered a child, I don’t think you should have that right to live."
Sharmin's rock solid in favor of the death penalty.
“You didn’t have to kill those people,” she said.
So reporter David Schechter is going to expose her to people who oppose it and she's going to explore this question: Do we need the death penalty?
Sharmin and David headed to Huntsville, where Texas executes death row inmates and where 43-year-old Terry Edwards is scheduled to die by lethal injection. Edwards was convicted of robbing a Subway sandwich shop in 2002 and murdering two employees.
“This is about as solemn of thing that you can go to,” David said.
“Kind of like a funeral,” Sharmin responded.
David asked the state if Sharmin could witness Edward's execution. They said no because she's not a journalist. So, David will be witnessing it for her.
A small group of protestors gathered outside the Walls Unit Prison, including Pat Hartwell. She’s a long-time opponent of the death penalty.
“To watch someone die is an experience that you never want to have in your life,” Hartwell said.
“You say we shouldn't murder these people, but they've murdered. We don't play God, but they play God. How do you use that argument for these people when this is what they've done?” Sharmin asked Hartwell.
“What do we gain by killing Terry tonight? What is going to be accomplished?” Hartwell responds.
“You tell me what you believe is being accomplished?” Sharmin asked.
“Nothing. Absolute nothing,” Hartwell answered.
Hartwell says watching an execution is enough to change anyone's mind.
“It floored me to watch a perfectly healthy person have the life sucked out of them. it affected me so much,” she said.
Before David headed in to witness the execution, he and Sharmin wanted to learn about the legal system that sends inmates to death row.
Rick Halperin is a professor at Southern Methodist University. He's an internationally recognized opponent of death penalty. He says, when it comes to the capital punishment -- if you're poor -- the legal system is broken.
“It is the have-nots of our society. They are the easiest group of people not to like and to care even less about because most of them have done these terrible things,” he said.
This is what Death Row looks like: The largest group are black, at 44% according to the Texas Tribune. Records provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice show 65% report having less than a high school education. Almost all are poor, Halperin says.
He says these are the kinds of people least equipped to defend themselves.
“It’s a system that’s flawed and you won’t ever have a perfect system. When are they punished enough?” Sharmin asked.
“I can’t sit here and tell you I have the answer to that question. I just don't think we should be in the business of killing people, especially when the system is so flawed,” Halperin answered.
Back in Huntsville the witnesses, including David, were led to the death chamber -- where cameras are not allowed. Sharmin talked with protesters, like Yancy Balderas.
Her husband is actually on Death Row. She wasn't happy with her husband's court-appointed attorney.
“I went to go to a private attorney. He said, just to start, he needed $60,000 up front," she says. "Where we going to get that money from?"
Protesters rang a bell 14 times, once for every year Edwards was on Death Row.
So what was the execution scene like?
“He starts making this heavy breathing sound and then snoring for about 45 minutes,” David recounted.
“Because the medicines had been started, or whatever?” asked Sharmin.
“Then that was it,” David said.
“How did it affect you? Sitting in on an execution?” Sharmin asked.
“The big sentiment I walked out of there with was the government has a lot of power. To take a life. That is a power I hadn’t thought a lot about the government having. They can take a life,” David told Sharmin.
Sharmin and David then headed to Houston to meet with Anthony Graves. He spent almost 19 years on Death Row for a crime he didn't commit.
Now he runs a foundation that helps inmates prove their innocence and has written a book about his experiences. To him, being exonerated does not mean the system works.
"You stole 18.5 years of my life. You tried to murder me for something I knew absolutely nothing about. You damaged me and now you say it’s okay?” Graves said.
“Some of these crimes are pretty heinous, so where do we go with the punishment fitting the crime?"
“We have what's called life without parole. It's a death sentence. You've got two death sentences. You got one where they're going to pump poison in your vein. And you've got one where you're going to die of natural causes,” said Graves.
“So, if both are death sentences, why do we have to stoop so low to treat people like animals? Kill them like pigs and put poison in their vein when we can take the high road in society and let them die of natural causes?” Graves added.
Life without the possibility of parole, what Graves favors, is now a sentencing option for juries in every state but Alaska.
Experts say it's one reason why the number of death sentences in America has plummeted 84% in the last 20 years. From 311 sentences in 1995 to 49 in 2015.
For Anthony, life without parole means you never execute an innocent man.
“When you execute him and he’s innocent, you can’t bring him back and say I’m sorry,” Graves said.
The group traveled back to Huntsville to wrap up the trip and talk about what Sharmin’s thinking. She started this trip believing the death penalty is just punishment, and has now heard the case against it.
“It's been very enlightening, See where both sides are coming from,” said Sharmin.
“Is it possible you want the death penalty, more than we need the death penalty? Does it make you feel justice was done?” David asked.
“Depending on the case, I sure do,” Sharmin answered.
“But does everybody need it?” David asked.
“I think it’s a good thing to have,” said Sharmin.
“You want it, do we all need this?” David asked, further pressing the question.
“I believe it’s needed in our society and our justice system,” she answered. “Used the correct way, done the right way, you need to be held to a higher punishment for the higher crimes,” she finished.
For Sharmin it still comes down to this... the most horrific crimes deserve the ultimate punishment.
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