Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Tookie is Dead

Well, all the bluster and positioning are over, and Tookie has been executed. I haven't written a huge amount about the death penalty of late, but it is something that certainly affects my life, as someone who currently represents someone whom the prosecution seeks to kill, and someone else that they very well may seek to kill in the near future when they make their decision about it.

I have long been ambivalent about the death penalty. In many respects, I have no problem with the notion that as a society, we are so angry at someone that we will kill them. I mean, I have certainly hated people enough that I wanted to kill them, and we're not even talking about violent crime. There are times I want to be able to run bad or rude drivers off the of the road in complete anger and disgust. Of course, in the sober light of day, with a little reflection, that looks ridiculous. But certainly, if someone raped my wife or molested my kids, even if they didn't kill them or inflict any "lasting" bodily injury, I would not be happy with a long prison sentence, or even a life sentence, I would want to kill the person.

The fact that society harbors those feelings towards those who do evil is no surprise, or frankly, concern to me.

Certainly, practical concerns about the application of the death penalty bother me. The fact that it is used overwhelmingly (nationwide, although not in California over the last 30 years) against minorities and poor people. The fact that people on death row, especially in places with a lesser sense of "justice," have been given very unfair trials, which have even led to innocent people being left on death row. It is unclear if or how many innocent people have been executed since the death penalty's resumption in the 1970s, in large part due to the fact that far less resources are expended in clearing the already dead, vs the not quite yet dead. Add in that the fact evidence is usually destroyed after an execution and the fact that whatever is left over is almost never allowed to be tested for possible claims of wrongful execution, and it is clear that some innocent have probably been killed (there are cases out of Texas and Virginia in which it appears potentially innocent people were executed).

The final "logistical" problem (as opposed to any moral concerns) one may be concerned with is the randomness of it's application. How someone convicted of a particularly heinous crime one place gets life, while someone convicted of a more "benign" murder somewhere else is executed, frequently due to differences of race, gender, sexual orientation, race of the victim, or more importantly, political considerations of the local or state prosecution or judiciary.

But, these are not the concerns that leave me ambivalent (remember that ambivalent doesn't mean neutral, but rather having feelings in both directions, which is how I feel). I feel ambivalent due to the sterile nature of the process. We take something as emotional as revenge, life for a life, anguish over the death of a loved one, and we transport it to this sterile environment of a courtroom, or a jail cell, and finally to an execution chamber where they use all means possible to keep someone alive so that they can kill him cleanly, at a date and time of their own choosing, not someone else's. This is why people are rushed to the hospital so that they can be held alive a few more days (such as if they try to commit suicide) so that they can be killed by the state.

The sterility of the process belies the vengefulness that begat the policy. And it somehow seems unseemly for the state to go about the sterile application of cold-blooded vengeance. Obviously, the state kills people all the time in a justifiable manner (war, for instance?), but that is not sterile, clean and premeditated (at least, we hope). Recognizing that people will invariably die due to state policies (such as building the Golden Gate Bridge or the Panama Canal, where thousands died), it is very different to act with great pomp and circumstance and formality while the state goes about extinguishing a human life.

As I see the state ramp up it's death apparatus, the cold blooded and steely manner in which the state kills stands in such marked contrast to me from the manner in which the actual victims live in permanent red-hot anger - something that does not abate, regardless of an eventual execution.

And this brings up the point that seems most obvious to me as I sit and reflect on any wrong done toward me over time - there will hardly ever be true personal satisfaction from the ultimate revenge. Listen to the statements of the families of the victims, over and over they say the same thing, at every execution - "he died too nicely," "he got more years than my family member did," "he didn't have the same pain my family member did," and on and on. In attempting to mete out the ultimate revenge, the state perpetuates a system of vengeance that is not, ultimately, any more satisfying than life in prison would end up being.

Sure, maybe we could have trials within a week of the offense, and execute within a month, and emotions will be equally raw, so that the crime and punishment will have a far greater symbiosis, but we have to recognize what every efficiency we put into the system causes - more failures.

Ultimately, I don't know if our desires - red hot vengeance and true justice, can ever result in a system that will give us the society we want. So, while I don't mourn for the killer over their victims, I still feel this disquiet as the state's machinery of death continues on.

But, it is clear that probably the vast majority of people in the state overwhelmingly approve of his execution, and that the state machinery of death will continue unabated for years to come.


Thane Eichenauer said...

Tookie Williams is dead, but Cory Maye isn't yet.

Anonymous said...

I asked this question under your gleeful posting of the Libby indictment but I think it might not get noticed there. Are the vast majority of PDs as liberal as you, the Public Defender Dude. I mean, I gather that you live in the LA area, which has always been a liberal echo chamber, but would you say that the vast majority of PDs, even outside of the LA area, share your politics? I'm just curious. I would guess that at least 80% of PDs are libs but would you say it's like 90 or 95%?

PD Dude said...

I'm not sure how liberal I would rate, at least in big-city California. For the midwest or the south, I'm probably pretty liberal, but on some other issues that I feel strongly about, but don't blog about because they're off-topic, I can be fairly conservative (I'm very pro-free trade, for instance, I'm also a pretty anti-politically correct type).

I would say that most Public Defenders are pretty liberal, but that being said, there is a pretty good core of conservatives and Republicans in the offices. I'm sure it's somewhat affected by your surroundings - PDs from more liberal areas are probably much more liberal than society at large, from more conservative areas are probably less so.

However, when you fight against government all of the time, and you see, in your daily activities, the effect of an all-powerful police and compliant judiciary, along with a political prosecution, you get somewhat cynical no matter what your political affiliation. This goes for many of the conservative Republicans that I know of in the PDs office.

Does that answer your question?

Anonymous said...

Yes, thank you for the answer! I must say that I am surprised to hear that there are conservatives (and plural!)in the PD office in a big city in CA. I went to very liberal law school in a mid-sized city so imagining conservative lawyers is difficult for me period, especially in a PD office.

an english cop said...

Mmmmh. I'm not actually taken with your arguement about where capital punishment leaves the family once complete. Whilst you report they make statements which suggest they've gotten nothing from the process, I would be willing to bet that in private they are thinking "The bastard got what he/she deserved and I'm pleased". They don't vocalise this sentiment because they believe (and probably rightly) that it makes them appear no better than the person who has just been executed. The death penalty is about one human reaction to a situation, revenge/retaliation, ie hurting someone back. If it was about deterrence, protection, etc, then imprisonment until the death of the offender would do just as well. The problem with todays society is we don't like revenge as a concept because its too basic or animalistic.

The only problem in the UK is we dont execute those we should, (Huntley, Brady, Shipman, West, etc,etc) but instead keep them inside until they die of old age, top themselves, become a cause celebre at which point someone decides they are potentially innocent and makes a multi million pound career out of trying to prove it, or they are released with a false identity to reoffend once more.