Friday, September 23, 2011

Capital Games

Some interesting developments and strange juxtapositions in the death penalty arena the last couple weeks (duh).

On the one hand, you have the case of Troy Davis, who may or may not have committed the crime for which he was executed in Georgia Wednesday night. Regardless, after reviewing the salient facts of the case (no DNA or physical evidence, 7 of 9 eyewitnesses recanting, an associate who was known to be at the scene openly bragging about actually pulling the trigger), even the most ardent death penatly advocate has to honestly acknowledge that such punishment should only be carried out under conditions of zero (or damn near zero) doubt. There was not only enough doubt raised in Davis' case to not warrant the ultimate penalty, but to question his guilt in the first place. And of course, it's now too late.

On the other hand, you have Lawrence Brewer, executed in Texas the same night as Davis. Brewer was one of the three white-power knuckle-draggers who beat James Byrd unconscious, then dragged him behind a pickup truck until his head hit a concrete culvert and popped off. There was never a second of doubt about the guilt of Brewer and his two accomplices, one of whom is also on death row pending appeal. Brewer had ceased his appeals, and in fact had said he preferred death to rotting away in a cell for another thirty or forty years. Even the staunchest anti-capital punishment person has to at least reasonably ask themselves if Brewer's crime does not warrant the ultimate punishment, does anything? If not, why not?

As a long-time (really lifelong) member of the decidedly "pro" side of the argument, I can only speak for myself. It is sort of a mantra for me (here and in daily life) that you cannot use rational responses with irrational people; almost by definition it will not work. That doesn't necessarily mean that you should try irrational methods for dealing with irrational people. It is simply an acknowledgement of the basic fact that it is nearly impossible to have a successful outcome by expecting the irrational person to respond rationally to your rationality. I mean, duh, that's why they're irrational.

Similarly, I would stipulate that there are crimes that are so transgressive in nature and scope, that the person who commits those actions is essentially irredeemable. It is a waste of time to try to rehabilitate, say, Richard Ramirez, or John Wayne Gacy, to pick more extreme examples. I would say these fucking animals fall into that category as well.

There's just no walking them back from the things they did. Such a person is capable of just about anything. Warehousing them for the next several decades, in attempt to be "humane", simply gives them absolutely nothing to lose, in essence making them a danger to anyone and everyone they come into contact with, guards, prisoners. The world is simply better off without someone whose pastime is inflicting misery and torture on his fellow humans.

Now, usually you hear the sound bite from victims' families, talking about "closure" or some such. Or you see the garden-variety meathead "hangin's too good fer 'im" comments from the rabble, taking perverse joy in the opportunity to inflict the same punishment on the perpetrator; i.e., dragging Larry Brewer and his friends behind a truck until they disintegrate like putrefied hunks of meat in the broiling Texas sun.

For me it's simply a utilitarian argument, there is no joy or pleasure or revenge fantasy in it. Some people, as the prophet John Cougar Mellencamp once pointed out, are simply no damned good, and warehousing them indefinitely to assuage your conscience (as if your tax dollars don't kill innocent people around the world every fucking day already) does nobody any true favors. But it should never be anything but a solemn undertaking, after exhaustive efforts to ensure truth.

Perhaps that's cold and dispassionate, but actually I think that's how such a process needs to be if it is to be done. You're simply deciding that the crime is transgressive in the extreme, and this person made a conscious decision to no longer act like a fucking human being. Deriving actual pleasure from executing even a John Wayne Gacy is a sure sign of yahooism.

Which takes us back a bit further, to the Republitard debate a couple weeks ago, when Gubnor Dubya Junior bragged about his kill rate -- which almost assuredly includes an innocent man -- and was received with cheers and applause. Even if all 234 notches on Perry's belt are clearly and irrefutably red-handed guilty, this is fucking disgusting, this chimp-like hooting at a death tally. (Christians all of them, no doubt.) This is no longer about the administration of justice, this is a lynch mob, the baying of hounds at a trapped, miserable fox, waiting to tear it to shreds, sating its bloodlust for a minute, before looking for the next kill.

So it seems with Davis' execution; despite the demonstrably flawed evidence of Davis' guilt, the family could not achieve "closure" until they knew Davis was dead. I do not think it will happen for them quite like that; if they could not move past their grief after 22 years, the demise of an abstract figure they presumably had never seen or met outside of the literal and figurative distance of courtroom proceedings is not likely to have the permanent effect they seek, more anodyne really.

I dunno. I do still seriously feel that some things, some people are simply too awful to let stand, that a serial killer or a child rapist is simply irredeemable, and in principle should be dispatched the second the burden of proof is sufficiently addressed. But it's not a conclusion easily arrived at; as with the abortion debate, I don't think this should be a conclusion easily reached on either side, both sides need to listen to one another, and quit shouting and rending garments.

All that said, between the tragically flawed mechanics of the system, the ruthless politicking of players who are all too willing to further their careers on the blood of poor people (notice that people who can afford decent representation never get executed), and the toxic yahooism undergirding that side of the issue, it makes me sick to my stomach to even be in the same philosophical house as those people, much less the same room.

I don't think that life without parole is necessarily as humane (and certainly not as cost-effective or safe) as opponents think it is. If the state of Connecticut decides it would rather shell out sixty grand or so a year to warehouse Joshua Komisarjevsky for the next several decades, while he takes metal shop classes and cyberstalks lonely women in between dodging sharpened toothbrushes and the threat of gang-rape, then okey-doke. Most rational people would rather die, you'd think. But then rational people don't do what Komisarjevsky and his scumbag sidekick did. And if they decide to ice their worthless asses after all, I can't imagine who'd fucking miss them.

But if leaving them to rot steals a cheap thrill from the vicarious switch-thrower, maybe it's for the better.


Anonymous said...

I also struggle with how I feel about the death penalty. My stand on the matter has reversed several times in my life. While there are indeed people that the world is a better place without I have decided that without perfect knowledge (which I'll never have) I would never be able to impose the death penalty. The innocence project has reversed too many "slam-dunk" cases, too many witnesses have recanted (or just been wrong), too many confessions have been shown to be coerced for me to allow myself the satisfaction. In the Davis case I feel the relentless drive to execute regardless is in large part due to the current political atmosphere (we'll show those dirty libuls) and the drive to revenge a police officers death. The justice system was bound and determined to kill somebody--anybody! hope they're happy.

Anonymous said...

whoops. meant "police officer's"

Heywood J. said...

Agreed. In principle, I have zero problem with putting people we're absolutely certain about (there's seems to no doubt whatsoever in the James Byrd case, or the Connecticut case).

But you're right, the procedure is simply too flawed and corrupted, too infested with bloodthirsty yahooism to continue. It's a broken mechanism.

And I can't believe I forgot to mention the West Memphis Three case, probably the most egregious capital case in the last 30 years. They railroaded those boys, and came damned close to killing Damien Echols so many times. Their lives are ruined, but at least they're out, not yet forty years old, some time to rejoin society and rebuild.

But even the WM3 case, to me, is as much of an indictment of the criminal justice system in general, as the death penalty in particular.

I don't know how you take the bloodthirsty, amoral politicking (which seems to account for the vast majority of wrong convictions) and career-building out of it. Until the players agree to seek actual truth and justice, as opposed to merely finding a convenient scapegoat to lock up or hang, it will continue.

Heywood J. said...

-- should have been "putting people we're absolutely certain death."

Marius said...

...The justice system was bound and determined to kill somebody--anybody! hope they're happy...

Kinda like so many Americans after 9/11. They knew Iraq wasn't any danger or had anything to do with the attacks themselves, but dammit, someone had to pay for it. And thus we learned that an American life is worth about 35 Middle-Easterners.

Tehanu said...

Like Anonymous I too have flip-flopped on the death penalty. I wouldn't say I would never impose it. But I'd have to be pretty damn sure I was right about the guilty party, and it's obvious that the system we have now is wrong far too often. A little humility would go a long way ... not that the "Christians" cheering Rick Perry the other night would know humility if it bit them on the butt.

Bolingbrook House Moving said...

The justice system was bound and determined to kill somebody.