Musings on the death penalty and justice

 "It's interesting, this question of the death penalty. In many ways, we've been taught to think that the real question is: do people deserve to die for the crimes they've committed? And that's a very sensible question. But there's another way of thinking about where we are in our identity. The other way of thinking about it is not do people deserve to die for the crimes they commit, but do we deserve to kill?" Bryan Stevenson in his TED speech.

I've had a weird past week. Partly overwhelming, partly spring break for my children, partly the usual crud that seems to crop up occasionally, and so I haven't felt much like writing anything. That's not to say I wasn't thinking, though, and wondering, and watching. Just that I wasn't ready to write anything about it.

I watch the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC online. I don't have cable, so I watch it the following morning on my computer. Yesterday she had a gentleman on named Bryan Stevenson. Mr. Stevenson is founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Before the interview, Maddow showed a short clip from Stevenson's TED speech.

I don't know about you, but I love TED! They have the coolest people talking, sharing, explaining! I love it so much. I also love having my thoughts turned to something I hadn't pondered, quite in that way, before. Mr. Stevenson's speech is here, and if you have time, I urge you to take a peek at it. Mr. Stevenson spoke about injustice.

A quick note about the Equal Justice Initiative, and the work they do. From their own website:

The Equal Justice Initiative is a private, nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners who have been denied fair and just treatment in the legal system.

We litigate on behalf of condemned prisoners, juvenile offenders, people wrongly convicted or charged with violent crimes, poor people denied effective representation, and others whose trials are marked by racial bias or prosecutorial misconduct. EJI works with communities that have been marginalized by poverty and discouraged by unequal treatment.

I have watched them for some time, and became interested in the EJI when I noticed a strange lowering in the age of juveniles going to prison, or even put to death until the Supreme Court ruled that was unConstitutional (thankfully). Now a kid can be sentenced to life in prison, though-- we're still working on that one.

The thought of a kid being put to death bothered me greatly when I heard about in my Senior year of high school; in drama/debate class that was one of our topics: should a juvenile be put to death for a crime committed before he/she was 18 years old? The teacher assigned sides, so I had to argue that they did have to be put to death. I didn't agree with that, even then, but I did my best to lay out my debate, and my points, although I can't remember what they were. The teacher did this on purpose, he had explained, "I want you to be able to see both sides, even if that side revolts you." He wanted us to be able to really listen, even if we didn't want to hear what the other person had to say. This came in handy later, as I learned and grew, and evolved. It came in handy when I started digging into the death penalty, and how it worked-- versus how it is technically supposed to work.

I can blame my friend Tony for my change of heart on the death penalty. It isn't a bad thing at all, really, it never is when you're really seeking for truth. We had talked about many things, and even though our politics have always been divergent, we do agree on many things. He asked me one day, "Just think about it. Look into who gets put to death. And who the victim was. That's all I ask."

So I did. I'd heard the old chestnut, "Better to let ten guilty men go free than to punish one innocent man" and I had long agreed with it. I had learned about capitol punishment by teaching myself, so I know I was terribly uninformed. I thought the appeals process would winnow out the prosecutorial misconduct, the racism, the injustice. That it would protect the innocent, and they would be freed. Even if it took a little while, they would be freed, and I knew that most states have a fund, like a backhanded apology, but still it's something-- that money helps the person get on their feet, because it's the right thing to do.

I was sickeningly naive about it. I know that now. The vast majority of people put to death are men of colour, African-American men. These men are poor, often in southern states, and have a better chance of being put to death if the victim of the crime is white, than not. If I shoot someone, I can get off much easier, because of white privilege; if my neighbour shot someone, Arizona would probably want to kill him. He's Hispanic. He's American, as opposed to an immigrant, so they might let him off, but probably not. I mean, <gasp> he's not white! *

So I dug some more, and what I found made me pretty ill. It turned me from a "well, shit, it's a last resort, an absolutely last resort if we absolutely have to" supporter of capitol punishment to a "No way, no how, never! It's immoral!" hater of it.

I believe that humanity seeks to be just, and merciful. If we don't, well, dammit, we ought to! We are humans, yes? We care about our pets, our cats and dogs, our fish and hedgehogs, turtles and horses, right? We want to protect children from being kidnapped; protect little old ladies and gentlemen from being robbed; we want to protect everyone from drunk drivers. When crimes occur, we want justice, we want the punishment to fit the crime, to be merciful, but fair. At least, I want to believe we do. How can we care about the welfare of animals if we can't be bothered to care about the welfare of "those people"-- meaning anyone we put into our out group. (In group meaning your friends, those people you consider "us"; out group being those people you consider "them".)

It's been a little over thirty days since Trayvon Martin was shot by the over-zealous Zimmerman. You can read about President Obama's reaction to it here, at the New York Times. I won't dwell on it, other than to say if Martin was white, Zimmerman would have been arrested immediately, and the cops would have taken their sweet time sorting things out. Instead, this man, obviously unstable (have you taken a look at his previous 911 calls?) was allowed to hunt down and kill a  young man, and is walking about freely as anyone. That's wrong. It's not justice.

I've been watching Florida's reaction, or should I say lack of reaction, to the egregious law that allows them to shoot the hell out of each other without repercussion ("Oh, I felt threatened, I thought he was going to hurt me!" Cop looks at the naked jaywalker and back to the shooter, "Oh, OK, cool. See you tomorrow at the bowling alley?") I think Arizona's law is much the same. It's a lot more convoluted, but it seems that the statehouse up in Phoenix thinks they live in the Wild West, complete with vicious attack cacti and train robberies, so we can always shoot first, and ask questions to the silent corpse. I hope justice is done in Florida, as that will go a long way for people like me, who are seeking some sanity in the laws here in Arizona.

That's really all justice is, sanity. Sanity, knowing your mind is right. If your mind is right, well, not ill or clouded with hatred, but healthy, you can see truth and justice and mercy. These three things seem so far apart in the US Justice system today, but I think we can bring them together, and make it something worthwhile. We have to start with ourselves, our kids, and our communities. Start where you live, make it better than it was when you got there, and that beauty, that justice will grow.

We can do this a multitude of ways, I think. One of them is to look at the people we share communities with as people. See, the minute you look at your neighbours as "that nice gent and lady who have those dorky dogs, and that cat so fat he's a 'Garfield' who live next door to me, and you know, he loves his car," is the moment you stop looking at your neighbour as "One of Those People". Looking at your neighbours, the people you work with, even that guy who plays violin at the grocery store (yes, we have a couple of those) are People, they deserve the same justice and protection under the law as I.

I don't care what race, colour, creed or religion you are. You are worthy of justice.
I don't care if you're green! You're a human, and a person, and you are worthy of justice.
If I've learned anything in life, it's that two wrongs do not make a right. Killing someone who trespassed against society is not going to make the evil they did clean. "Eye for an eye makes the whole world blind", as the sage Mahatma Gandhi said.

"What about that guy who raped 15 people, and kidnapped 47, and murdered 80 and ate someone?" you might ask.

He may deserve to die, but I can't condemn him to death. Rather, I'd spend the money that would have been used to rent the doctor, buy the medication and all that, in paying an artist. Plaster and varnish photos of the victims laughing, happy, full of life and joy, all over the walls of that tiny cell. Make that man go through therapy and take his medication, make him see what he did, and why it was so wrong.

Then make him live with that knowledge until he dies.

That's the worst thing I can think of; the worst thing to do to someone: make them well enough to feel remorse. Never letting them out; taking away the hope of release, and reminding them of the hurt they did. Maybe they could work at the prison, sending their wages to the victim's families, or another group to help people. Make something good come out of that evil.

I hope there comes a day that "capitol punishment" is banished from my beloved United States. I hope there comes a day when we realised that the immorality of murder isn't made clean and moral when the government does the murdering. I hope we can rehab the kids in prison, help them grow past the hurt they did, and we subjected to-- because prison ought to be about rehabilitation, not just punishment.

I hope that today and every day we can find mercy in our justice-- that we can truly have blind justice. Because right now, Lady Justice sees the colour of our skin in this country, and the darker it is, the less she shines her light of fairness and mercy upon us.

Aren't we supposed to be better than that? So, let's be better! Let's work with the EJI, and other groups to bring justice in truth to people, not just in a vague word. Contact the EJI, Amnesty International and even your State Governments. Raise hell up in your capitols! We are better, we're human, and so are all of "them".

I think there really isn't a "Them", just "Us".  We are all "Us".

*Just an aside, my neighbours are Hispanic, with an Irish surname. That's why they might get off on a technicality down here. Arizona's state government is terribly racist against brown people, it's pretty horrible.


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