Postscript for a Grieving Zen Priest

Kobutsu is the one on your right

Kobutsu is the one on your right


I’m just a plainspoken Colorado criminal defense lawyer, but the way I see it…

At his website, Kobutsu Malone offers some explanation for what may have radicalized him, from initially seeing correctly (I think) that execution is state-sanctioned killing, to an evolved view (incorrect, to my legal way of thinking), that execution is state-sanctioned murder, even lynching.

Kobutsu explains the choreography of death in which he has participated:

I am fully aware of the nature of the dance I may very well have to endure with Amos [King, to whom Kobutsu was spiritual advisor when the state of Florida killed King a dozen years ago] in the next four days. I have been through this before and know from direct personal experience that it is the ultimate exercise of premeditated murder ever conceived by mankind. Each and every event, each step, the placement of each of the individuals taking part in this choreographed dance of death has been predetermined. A judicial execution is the most cold blooded of premeditated murder possible.

My place in this deadly dance has been carefully crafted to maintain absolute control over my actions during the murderous process. I will be coerced into playing a role completely dictated by the deadly bureaucratic will of the Department of Corrections. It is foremost in my mind that every prison employee I come in contact with this next week will have the intention of killing Amos King. I am coerced into my role of remaining silent and cooperating with their rules and orders while I am with Amos out of fear of being bodily removed from his presence at this most critical time. In one sense, I am as much a part of this choreographed murder as those who strap him down to the gurney and those who pump poison into his veins.

Unless I physically try to stop their inevitable dance, I am cooperating in murder. Every witness to an execution who does not stand up in protest joins me in cooperating with this abomination. I fully accept this position and I am willing to stand in public with blood on my hands. The stains on my hands are the same for every citizen in the State of Florida. What has been ordered by Governor Jeb Bush is in the name of all of the people… each and every one of us bear responsibility for judicial homicide. If Governor Bush is unwilling to take full responsibility and be present at the execution he has ordered, then I will stand up in his place as a murderer.

I know that feeling, much too well. A feeling of powerlessness and responsibility at the same time. Within my own family while growing up, and within the military while suddenly growing old at twenty-one. It’s one of the reasons I became a lawyer. To feel I do have a power to effect change in lives, in the courts, and be listened to, and sometimes even heard. Or at least to have tried.

I never felt it more powerfully than I did here, before I was a lawyer:

Someone died.

Someone else. Three suicides three weeks.

A woman overdosed. She seemed fine when the crisis worker talked with her. she was going to make it. She didn’t. Did she take more pills? Did the hospital release her too soon? Who knows. The coroner is in no hurry to find out.

A man, a longtime client, went home one day, put a shotgun under his throat, and blew his head off.

Now Billy. Billy hanged himself. Three weeks after I stood in a locked room with him struggling against four-point restraints and begging me release one of my hands please just one of my hands Billy hanged himself. I sent him to the hospital that day because I felt there was no alternative. I sent him knowing we couldn’t really help him there because the system isn’t set up to help people it’s set up to control them and to protect sane people like me from crazy people like Billy. I sent him knowing his alternative to the hospital was probably worse, that he was unable to care for himself in his state of mind and that there was no one else in any state of mind willing to care for him. So Billy went to the hospital and a few days out of the hospital Billy hanged himself and maybe that’s the sanest thing he’s done lately. I don’t know. I don’t know.

Billy never had a chance to stay out of the hospital. He never gave himself a chance, and nobody else did either. The first time I saw him through the window he kicked the door. Hard. I didn’t have to be told this was the man I was here to evaluate. As I’m asking the people at the nurses’ station if I can see the police write-up on Billy I see that he’s pacing very quickly, his eyes are rolling about, and he hits the wall with his open hand.

Somebody says we’re going to have to restrain him. I mumble how I don’t think that will be necessary, and somebody else says let’s get the team together, let’s get him into restraints NOW. Some guy asks me if I can help, have I had restraint training, and I say no, and he says too bad, and I think no, not too bad, I wouldn’t help you do this anyway.

Look, I say, why don’t I just talk with him in one of the quiet-rooms. He’s out of control, the team leader says, didn’t you see him hit that wall? But he hasn’t threatened any person, has he, I say. He could hit you, she says. I don’t think so, I say. Look, I’m willing to take that chance. Excuse me, she says, but we have work to do and it’d be better if you just stand over there. So I just stand over there.

They go for Billy. What is it that he sees. The guy’s already psychotic and now a bunch of thugs are grabbing him, pulling him, dragging him into a quiet-room, onto a gurney, into restraints. He’s not going easy. He screams to them let me go, leave me alone, I won’t hurt anybody, I just want to go home. I don’t want to look, but I look. I don’t want him to see me looking, because if he does he might think I’m one of the people who want to tie him down and maybe then he won’t want to talk to me. If it were me I wouldn’t particularly want to chat with the guy who’d just thrown me down a hole.

He’s begging them please, please, throwing his head from side to side on the bed. I feel an impulse to go into the room and stroke his brow, to tell him it’s going to be all right. I don’t do it. I’m afraid it would be regarded as interfering.

And there’s probably the heart of it: I’m afraid of offending the people tying him down. I’ve already offended them by suggesting he didn’t need to be tied down. I feel powerless to act. It’s a familiar feeling, one that I suspect is a fraud, because maybe I’m not powerless, maybe I just don’t have the guts to do what I think is right and to hell with what gets back to my supervisors.

Billy spits, spits with all his might, and he hates, hates. Somebody pushes a pillow over his face. I remember thinking that was a good idea, a gentle way to block his spitting, yet the pillow is delivered to his head with more than necessary force, and totally unnecessary venom. Still, it wasn’t me who was being spat upon.

We all let Billy alone for a time in his locked room, with his tied arms and legs. We’re giving him a chance to cool down, giving ourselves a chance to cool down. Everybody’s crowding the sink, washing Billy off their bodies, their clothes.

After a while I go in to see Billy. His eyes are wide open, staring at the light fixture. I can see tears that have dried along his temples. I can tell by the way he’s staring at the light fixture that he’s listening to it, perhaps has been talking to it.

I ask Billy a question, an admirably stupid one: how are you feeling? Oh, man, just get me out of these things, please, I won’t do anything, I’ll be okay. I can’t do that, Billy.

And I proceed with a brief evaluation, brief because it is eminently clear from Billy’s answers that he is floridly psychotic, unable to care for himself, unable even to remember how he got here.

But those aren’t the questions I remember, as I sit in the office three weeks later and hear that Billy has hanged himself. Those have no part in the process that slowly eats into my awareness and I remember with horror that I stood in that room with a helpless human being and could not reach out, could not reach out to him, not even just to touch him on the brow, or to hold his captive hand, even as he was begging me to release that hand, just that hand, please, just for a little, please, I’ll be good.

I can’t do that, Billy. I can’t do that because if I do that I won’t be asked back, I’m not sure how to do that anyway, I’m not sure that I should, the professionals would never forgive me, my job would probably be over.

I can’t do that, Billy, because I never could, and I honestly don’t know if I ever will. I don’t know what kind of a human being I am. And it hurts me more than it will ever hurt you.

That’s what I’m feeling today, Billy, as I sit in the office so afraid to ask about how you died, so afraid that I listen to snatches of information from others who casually wonder about your death, I listen and say nothing.

Someone died. Someone else died. And I never touched you. I never touched you.


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