Seaton: No Justice in David Miller’s Death

David Earl Miller met his maker on December 6, 2018. He’s the third inmate Tennessee’s executed in 2018. Unlike his predecessor, Billy Ray Irick, Miller chose to ride the lightning on his way out of this life. According to one account, Miller showed no indication of fear, remorse, or regret in his last moments on this planet.

He sat strapped into the electric chair, bald, flabby, pale as the institutional white paint on the walls of the prison hallways. He looked resigned, indifferent — maybe even bored — as the warden asked him for any last words.

If not for the straps, he might have shrugged. We could barely make out what he mumbled, either time.

His attorney gave us his best guess at the statement: “Beats being on death row.”

To those with a simplistic view of the world, this was justice served. After all, Miller beat a young woman to death with a fireplace poker and stabbed her lifeless corpse. For those with a more nuanced viewpoint, Miller’s last words were the pronouncements of a man finally relieved of a life of suffering.

Miller was the product of an alcoholic mother’s one night stand. He suffered routine abuse at his stepfather’s hands. By age 10, Miller attempted suicide, and he spent his teens in a reform school where sexual molestation was rampant.

None of this absolves him of Lee Standifer’s horrific murder. What it should teach us as a society is that two separate wrongs don’t make a right.

Regardless of your stance on the death penalty, here’s a few facts to which we can all stipulate. Miller’s time on death row was the longest in Tennessee history. Lee Standifer’s parents endured three decades of notifications about another development in the life of their daughter’s murderer. They’ve spent more time with David Miller than they could with their own child.

In what world do we consider any of this “justice?”

A man who endured a lifetime of horrific suffering sat in confinement for thirty years contemplating his death. During his final days, he chose electrocution over a controversial three-drug lethal injection cocktail some argue tortures the condemned. The parents of the young woman he murdered take solace in the fact no more envelopes will appear in the mail notifying them of another appellate hearing. The public won’t hear David Miller’s name with as much frequency now that he’s dead.

If there’s a lesson to be learned in the passing of David Miller, it’s the bad taste capital punishment should leave in all our mouths. According to a jury, it wasn’t enough for Miller to languish behind bars knowing for the rest of his life he brutally murdered a mentally-challenged 23-year-old woman in a drug and alcohol induced rage. No, the State of Tennessee had to kill him, they had to let him choose electrocution or a trifecta of drugs with which we wouldn’t euthanize animals, and Lee Standifer’s parents had to live with constant reminders of David Miller’s actions for thirty years.

Telling remarks from a retired police investigator give some insight on the stark reality of David Miller’s passing.

“I don’t take any joy in it,” he said. “It’s just a shame that it’s taken this long and he’s gotten so much publicity while Lee has been forgotten. I hate he has to die, but those are the rules of our society. He broke the rules, and the rules say that he has to die.” (Emphasis mine)

Those rules also said we could have done better. We could’ve taken Miller’s mental illness into account during sentencing, but we didn’t. The cries from community leaders calling Miller’s execution “needless” and “vengeful” fell on deaf ears. Elected officials with the power to give Lee Standifer’s family closure after decades of torment did nothing to ease their suffering.

Regardless, David Earl Miller died on December 6, 2018 because “the rules” said he must. No further thought will go into the way those rules treat the families of the condemned or victims, because Tennessee continues to operate under a framework where “rules” matter more than actual justice.

And we won’t give a damn when the next person makes the choice between the chair or the needle, because it’s easier to remain indifferent when “the rules” don’t affect our lives.

David Miller chose two minutes of violent electrocution as his way out of this life thanks to our adherence on those “rules. His nightmarish life of abuse, alcoholism, and molestation is finally over. There’s no telling if Lee Standifer’s family is any better for the ordeal.

Miller’s last words should stay in the back of our heads the next time we think the death penalty is effective retribution. Anything else really does beat being on death row.

17 thoughts on “Seaton: No Justice in David Miller’s Death

  1. Dan

    “No justice”? Well, in the sense that justice delayed is justice denied, I suppose so. Otherwise, this is bare argument by assertion, and I’d counter that execution is a perfectly just punishment for a brutal murder.

    And by now, Miller will have learned that 30 years on death row is not, in fact, the worst thing that can happen to him–but there will be no escape from this. But I guess that comment has less to do with law than theology.

    Reply
    1. CLS

      It was a comment during a conversation with Gamso that colored my views on this death. Every time David Miller went through another phase of post-conviction relief, Lee Standifer’s parents were notified. No doubt they’ve probably sat through several hearings at some point, reliving the night their daughter went out on a date and never came home.

      How is that just for them? How does thirty years of notices about another case development serve as anything but a horrible reminder of a wrong that can never be truly corrected?

      If one truly believes retribution is the best method of doling out justice, wouldn’t it make more sense to force the man to languish behind bars until death came for him, knowing each day he got drunk and high one night and murdered an innocent young woman?

      Execution may best serve justice in some cases. Here, not so much.

      Reply
      1. Ray Lee

        Respectfully, this argument is strong but cuts two ways — eliminate the death penalty / sharply reduce post conviction appeals.

        Reply
        1. Patrick Maupin

          Sure. After all, nobody on death row was ever found actually innocent.

          If a higher percentage of death row inmates than lifers are trying desperately to get out (or being pawns in someone else’s game), then expediency says you could fix things by removing due process. But expediency always says that.

          Reply
        2. CLS

          Maybe the argument is simply that this was a horrible situation and the best thing to do is admit Tennessee screwed the pooch here?

          Reply
          1. Ray Lee

            My comment was not intended to advance either direction. I’m deeply ambivalent on the death penalty. I merely sought to point out that the “this situation is horrible for the victims family” argument supports opposing solutions.

            Reply
    2. Rendall

      “… by now, Miller will have learned …”

      I suppose a religious person will have certainty that Miller “will have learned” something by now. The rest of us are pretty sure there is no lesson for Miller, given that he is dead.

      Reply
  2. Richard Kopf

    Chris,

    Because I handle death penalty cases (two in my pipeline now, one in Arkansas and one in Nebraska), and particularly because I recently allowed Nebraska to impose the penalty on a third person, I should not and will not comment upon my personal views on the death penalty.

    That said, I do have an observation. The death penalty is, in one sense, a money maker. It serves to fund the coffers of those who oppose it and those who support it and those groups frequently serve as proxies for the larger cultural wars. That creeps me out.

    Great post in a reportorial style that I have so greatly come to appreciate. All the best.

    Rich

    Reply
    1. CLS

      Judge:

      Thank you for your observation and the kind remarks. I offer the following observation in turn.

      The death penalty is a strange bird in criminal justice. We acknowledge as a society there’s certain wrongs that require we take the offending party’s life as punishment. At the same time, we can’t figure out an efficient, safe, or humane way to carry out that punishment. Hell, we can’t even agree if it should be efficient, safe, or humane.

      The companies that make the drugs used in lethal injection protocols don’t even want it acknowledged their products can kill people while the general public realizes every day those drugs kill.

      Creepy, indeed. And there’s no getting past that.

      Reply
      1. IamSmartacus

        I’m not saying anything about whether or not we should have capital punishment, answering that is above my pay-grade. But…..

        RE: “At the same time, we can’t figure out an efficient, safe, or humane way to carry out that punishment.”

        Yes we can, and we did, long ago: drop-hanging from a sufficient height to ensure cervical dislocation (separation of the top of the spine from the base of the skull). My work involved (retired now) being a serial killer (my victims were almost all of the murine persuasion) and I inflicted many kinds of death–gas, injection, disease, and cervical dislocation, and I can tell you, cervical dislocation is efficient, safe, and, as humane as any death inflicted on purpose can possibly be. If I had to choose a method for my own execution, drop-hanging from a sufficient height would be the way; nothing else even comes close. As long as you err on the side of too high rather than too low, the only risk is if the height is too great the victim gets beheaded, which is unsightly and distressing for the spectators but not at all distressing for the victim himself.

        Disadvantages: drop-hanging is gruesome to contemplate, but so is every purposely-inflicted death, even the most “peaceful” if you have actually seen it done; hanging also has a disturbing history in USA as it was a symbol of anti-black racism in our past, but that was mostly strangulation-hanging, not drop-hanging. But from the victim’s point of view, f you’re gonna be executed, it’s the way to go.

        Reply
        1. zoe

          The visual of such an event can still inflict damage to the mental stability of those witnessing the hanging. Even if only the end result is seen (the hanging body), this is still a horrific image, with the viewer imagining the preceding drop and the sound of the snapping bones in the neck. It might be painless for the hanged, but the witnesses may have this gruesome lingering image to deal with in their nightmares.

          Arguably, the electric chair is also has a violent experience (perhaps with added spontaneous fire charring the writing body) leaving spectators to not only see the aggression, but to smell the aftereffects as well. Maybe the condemned have chosen this means of execution as one last violent act…to be remembered (or imagined) by the surviving victims of his crime. One last “Hurrah” to sear the heinous crime into their consciousness.

          The surviving witnesses to the crime would be better served if an uneventful overdose was the end result of the convicted. There’s no final stance from the executed. It’s as unremarkable as falling asleep. Nothing to remember.

          Reply
      2. Patrick Maupin

        Graphing the populations involved in the three “we” references in your comment on a Venn diagram might be instructive.

        Reply

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