As is probably true of any thinking person, I’ve thought a lot about the death penalty. Is it fair? Is it state-sanctioned murder? Is there any crime or criminal that justifies it or deserves it?
The answer I’ve arrived at over the years is, Yes and no. And I don’t mean that in a wishy-washy, ‘I’m-not-sure’ sort of way.
The Houston Chronicle article I’ve linked to, and reproduced in part below, brought up the subject for me again.
In principle, I believe in the death penalty, but principle is a slippery sort of critter.
My rationale and reasoning on this subject go back about 20 years to, oddly, my divorce. It was a nasty divorce. Before my divorce, my legal experience was limited to traffic citations and small claims suits. (I believe in taking my deserved medicine in traffic court, and I usually win in small claims.) This was different, totally. It was civil family court, with real lawyers, real judges (as opposed to, say, justices of the peace), potentially real juries, and very real and substantial legal expenses.
The details my of divorce don’t matter here except for this one take-away: The system can be brutally unfair, and finding real justice in the courts is a different thing from simply the law. I was 40 when I had that revelation. Until then, I’d thought law equaled justice, and fairness could be found in court. I was a pretty naive 40-year old, I guess.
It didn’t take long after that for me to connect the dots: Yes, there are crimes and criminals deserving of the death penalty, but no, I don’t believe that there is enough fairness and justice in the legal system to apply it safely. “Safely”, as in not killing innocent people because of errors in law, representation, witnesses, or evidence.
People over centuries have claimed innocence before their execution. DNA evidence has shown us that many of those claims were probably true.
What must it be like, going to a gallows, gas chamber, guillotine or lethal injection, knowing in your head and heart that you are innocent of the crime for which you’re being killed, yet no one — at least no one who can prevent it — believes you? Nightmares must be like delightful fantasies when compared to such a reality.
I understand that there are horrible people out in the world, even though I cannot truly understand them. There are monsters. And whether these monsters were born or made, they are monsters just the same. If I had the omnipotence of God, and the complete knowledge that came with it, I’d not hesitate to put monsters to death.
Sadly, we are all human and fallible. We have the annoying ability to be wrong while being entirely certain we are right. Most of the time, this only results in unresolvable arguments. My life rarely depends upon my certainty, or yours. But this is not true in law. Law is pretty much a binary system: 0 or 1. Yes or no.
So, if you can prove the guilt of a monster beyond a shadow of a doubt — a virtually impossible standard –I can support the death penalty. As humans prove guilt or innocence: Not on your life.
There are people who think that Judge Judy is hilarious, and the people she rules over in court are morons. Trust me, when you’ve been in a real court — civil or criminal — where your life, in one way or another, is literally on the line, you will not find a judge like Judge Judy particularly entertaining. I certainly would hate to see her, or anyone like her, preside over a death penalty case.
By PATRICIA KILDAY HART, HOUSTON CHRONICLE, Updated 12:02 a.m., Monday, September 12, 2011
Dr. Death. It was a fitting nickname for the tall gentleman with a spectral complexion who haunted the corridors of the Dallas County Courthouse in the 1980s.
Summoned by prosecutors to testify in more than 100 capital murder cases, Dr. James Grigson delivered his diagnosis with creepy Marcus Welby-ish solemnity. Sometimes without having met a defendant, he’d confirm what prosecutors needed jurors to hear – that the miscreant posed a continuing threat to society.
He checked an important box for prosecutors who, under Texas’ death penalty law, had to prove to juries that the “future dangerousness” of a defendant warranted execution. Without his testimony, the cases would have been run-of-the-mill murders with ordinary prison sentences.
That he made a career of such testimony would ultimately earn him a denunciation by the American Psychiatric Association. His reputation was further sullied when his pronouncements turned out to be dead wrong. [Go to Article]