Sunday, January 14, 2018


Sunday Reflection: Redemption in the desert

It's been quite a week.

On Tuesday, I found myself in Florence, Arizona. It's a dusty, remote place, out in the middle of the desert and far from Tucson and Phoenix. It's a prison town; there are more people inside those prisons than outside in the town.

It has a beauty to it, though. There are mountains around, and as a flatlander that always makes my heart skip a beat. The land in and around town is flat and dry, but not barren. The sun defines the place of course, and even in January it was inescapable. I liked it.

As I drove in, I saw what looked like snow by the side of the road. It was over 75, though, and I knew that couldn't be right. I pulled over and picked at it-- it was cotton, which grew in the fields nearby and had piled up in the ditch and roadside. It felt primal, to run it through my fingers next to the empty highway.

I wasn't there on an agricultural mission, though. I had been invited to Florence by James Mannato, the public defender for Pinal County. He had come to a presentation I had given last June on selecting capital jurors, and wanted me to come talk to his team as they prepared for trial in a death penalty case. I found myself presenting in a small courtroom, with the lawyers and staff in the galley and along the wall. It was humbling; they knew more than I did, of course. Their questions were real and somber, which is what you get when you are dealing with life and death. Mr. Mannato explained the case to me--at least the public details--and I was struck (as I always am) by the complexity of these cases, the underlying humanity to it all.

It's been a difficult period in some ways, these past several months. As I look around, I don't see much hope in the near future for a resurgence in the role of human dignity within criminal justice. We who care about that have to fight just to maintain our ground. But that afternoon rejuvenated me. I loved hearing about what they are doing, and how they are doing it.

I drove out at the end of the day with a new hope. I'm part of a community of people who care about justice being just and humane, and sometimes I forget that. It was good to be reminded.

As I drove out, I passed one of the prisons in town. Behind a fence, there was one man in the yard, silhouetted against the sky as he leaned an a pole. It was an image I can't get out of my head. And between me and him was a field of rough earth, bone dry, marked with a few scrubby plants covered with thorns. It was this kind of land that Jesus walked across, I suppose. He told us to visit the prisoner, because then we visit Him. And to do that, in the United States in 2018, you have to go to  a place like Florence, Arizona.

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