He related he had just received a call from the Topeka, Kan., police that a body had been found in Jim’s apartment, and they believed it was Jim, but had yet to do fingerprinting. I recall putting my head down on the desk and crying. Stewart could only say, “I know, I know.” Indeed it was Jim’s body. On Nov. 12, 1994, the day after what would have been Jim’s 45th birthday, we remembered him with a memorial service. The following Monday, we buried his broken body next to our grandmother in a small cemetery in Kiowa County, Kan. That weekend was painful beyond what any words could describe.
Another brother, Staley, and I attended the trial of Jim’s murderer. The trial began on March 28, 1995. The facts were that on Nov. 9, 1994, Jim was murdered in his Topeka apartment. The district attorney termed it “one of the most brutal murders ever in this county.” In the trial, the coroner testified that Jim received 63 blows with a knife and iron tools, and that he was “still alive” when he received those blows. Listening to that god-awful account, something within me died that day.
To put a face on this tragedy, I’ll tell you about Jim. James Turner McDermet was born in Lincoln, Neb., the youngest of four sons. Jim grew up in a kind and loving family. He was happy, yet reserved. He participated in activities, but was not a leader. He lost sight in one eye early in his life, yet he read everything, especially history.
Jim was the person you wanted on your side when you played Trivial Pursuit. “What was King George III eating for lunch on March 10, 1819?” Jim knew. Jim would never, ever harm anyone. When I phoned two of our daughters to tell them their Uncle Jim had been murdered, they softly wept and said, “Why would anyone kill Jim? He was so kind.” The New Testament would call him “meek,” one of God’s special people.
No chance for rehabilitation
Since the 1960s, I have maintained an attitude against capital punishment — a concept that says: “We kill people who kill people to prove that killing people is wrong!” As a clergy person, I believe the Christian gospel is a redemptive gospel. The “old” concept of “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth” is one that makes for a blind and toothless society. Even while Jesus of Nazareth was being killed, he said, “Father, forgive them.”
There is much evidence that the death penalty is unequally applied, falling mainly on the poor, the friendless, the mentally unstable and minority groups. There is always the possibility (as has been the case, especially with DNA testing), that the innocent are on death row or are killed. The possibility of rehabilitation is gone.
Following Jim’s death, and the sad experience of the trial, and knowing my beliefs, a relative asked me, “Now, what do you think about capital punishment?” I responded, “I’m still against it.” And I am. How do I feel toward the person who murdered Jim? Anger. Anger, with a capital “A.” Yet, would I feel better, or satisfied, if Jim’s murderer was killed? No.
So, the state of Tennessee does not have enough “death” drugs to kill anyone on death row. I, too, feel the pain of having a loved one murdered. However, this is a good time for Tennesseans to consider getting rid of capital punishment.
William W. McDermet III is a retired Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor who lives in Pleasant Hill in Cumberland County.