Next Tuesday, 34-year-old Christopher Young is scheduled to be executed in Texas for the 2004 murder of a 55-year-old convenience store owner. Exactly three months later, on October 17, Ohio plans to execute 61-year-old Raymond Tibbetts for the 1997 murder of his 67-year-old landlord. Young is black, Tibbetts is white. Young was 22 years old when he was arrested for killing Hasmukhbhai Patel during a robbery. Tibbetts was 40 when he was arrested for the murder of his wife, Sue Crawford, and his landlord, Fred Hicks. Very different men with very different stories, but with one important similarity: both deserve clemency.
The Christopher Young who was sentenced to death 12 years ago when he was 22 is not the Christopher Young who is sitting on death row today. When he was 22 years old, Young was a gang member, and a self-confessed alcoholic and drug abuser. Now, he is a thoughtful, caring, gifted artist, who says, “Death row saved my life. . . . If I would have gone straight to prison with the attitude I had, my growth process would not have started, and my gang-banging ways would still be there. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to look at myself and tell myself I was doing wrong. I wouldn’t have been able to help anybody.”
Young’s attorneys are challenging his conviction and seeking a new trial based on what they consider a violation of the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Their appeal specifically cites the fact that during jury selection in his trial, a potential juror was struck from service based solely on her religious affiliation and her participation in the Outreach Ministries Program at Calvary Baptist Church in San Antonio.
More than 550 faith leaders nationwide endorsed a letter of support asking the U.S. Supreme Court to consider Young’s case, but the Court declined. It is now up to Gov. Greg Abbott to grant clemency, which is not a hard ask. Young was just 22 when he was arrested. Research shows that, as the ABA stated in February “there is a growing medical consensus that key areas of the brain relevant to decision-making and judgment continue to develop into the early 20s.”
Young has been rehabilitated as this video clearly shows. If Abbott believes in redemption, as is called for by his Christian faith, he should weigh Young’s age at the time of the crime, and the man Young is now – one who pledges that if his sentence is commuted to life, he will help the other young men who enter prison as damaged as he was.
Raymond Tibbetts was also damaged when he was sent to Ohio’s death row in 1998. The problem was that his jury never knew just how damaged when they sentenced him to death. It wasn’t until juror Ross Geiger decided to check on Tibbetts’ status in January, and found a clemency request filed by his attorneys that he learned that Tibbetts had had a horrific childhood, starting at the age of 14 months when he was sent to the first of several foster homes and juvenile facilities where he was brutally abused and neglected. He began abusing drugs and alcohol in his early teens, and had checked himself in to mental health facilities on two separate occasions. He was briefly sober at one point only to relapse when he was prescribed painkillers for a work injury in the mid-1990s, and began abusing opioids. Shocked, Geiger wrote a letter to Gov. John Kasich saying that aside from brief testimony from a psychiatrist who told “anecdotal stories that Tibbets had a tough upbringing related to inattentive parents and poor foster care,” the jury never heard of the abuse, neglect, and mental illness he and his siblings suffered. Saying if he had known, he would never have voted for death, Geiger asked Kasich to grant Tibbetts clemency.
Kasich responded by postponing Tibbetts’ February execution to October, but late last week, the Ohio parole board again voted against clemency. So, Tibbetts’ only hope now is Kasich. It remains to be seen if he will be swayed by Geiger’s insistence that he would not have voted for death if he had been presented with the mitigating evidence he knows now, but in his letter Geiger says it really is simple. “Governor, if we are going to have a legal process that can send criminals to death that includes a special phase for mitigation shouldn’t we get it right?”