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.