This past Tuesday night consisted of rushing to eat dinner, driving with my mom to the movie theater, seeing a film based on my favorite book of all time, driving home in the fog, folding laundry, and ending the night by shaving my legs. Like a lot of girls, shaving is a pretty normal occurrence for me, and I don’t usually think much of it. That night, however, a very weird wave of uneasiness came over me as I began to shave, and after about 10 minutes, I realized why that wave was hitting me: In the movie I watched hours earlier, someone else was having their legs shaved too. However, for this person, the shaving was not voluntary. This person was getting their whole body shaved in preparation for being put to death by an electric chair. His name was Herbert Richardson, and he was one of the death row inmates who attorney Bryan Stevenson represented in the movie Just Mercy. The horror on Richardson’s face as the prison guards shaved him from head to toe to speed up the electric current was extremely prolific, and it made me look at the simple act of shaving my legs through a completely different lens.
Herbert Richardson was an Alabama man sentenced to the death penalty after a bomb that he created and delivered killed a young girl. Richardson had an extremely traumatic childhood, yet he chose to rise above the trauma and do good with his life by enlisting in the military and going off to the Vietnam War. The young man was extremely psychologically traumatized during the war, leading to his honorable discharge. Upon returning home, his PTSD exponentially increased. At one of the hospitals he stayed at, Richardson met and fell in love with one of his nurses. They dated for a while before she tried to cut off contact with him. Not able to think clearly, Richardson devised a plan to win her back. He would construct a bomb, leave it on her porch in a box, detonate it, but save the nurse just in time. He had experience with bombs in the war, and he didn’t see this plan going wrong. Except it did. A little girl inside the nurse’s house saw the box on the porch, picked it up, shook it, and was killed instantly. Richardson, who was watching from across the street, was horrified. He had not intended to murder anyone, let alone a little girl. The courts, however, didn’t pay much attention to this. Nor did they pay attention to his deep psychological trauma. Nor did they pay attention to the honorable discharge and his dedication to fighting for the country. They saw a cold-blooded killer, put him on death row, and sent an electric wave through his body to kill him as revenge. Even the help and expertise of Bryan Stevenson and his team wasn’t enough to save this man. This is what the death penalty looks like in Alabama. As I watched his story play out on the screen, I had to keep reminding myself that this actually happened in real life. You would think that no court would overlook so much good and only focus on the bad, but as Richardson’s story proves, a system so ingrained in racism and discrimination often does just that.