Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Death Penalty

Recently, there was a trial here in Florence involving a defendant who had been 17-years old at the time he and a co-defendant had attempted to rob a WWII veteran, Clair Chaffin. A jury found defendant Dondre Scott guilty of murder and he was sentenced to life imprison.

During that trial, there were several comments and remarks we noticed popping up in the cyber world about the criminal justice system and the death penalty in particular. They ranged the gamut from ignorance (why didn't the Solicitor seek the death penalty--uh, he couldn't under the law) and racist (just look at some of the comments over at SCNow), to sympathy for both the Chaffin & Scott families.

It always surprises us to hear the certainty with which some people can make statements and claims about such an ultimate issue when they most often know nothing about the criminal justice system at large, the actual details about the application of the death penalty in our system, the laws concerning that application and the specific facts any particular case.

We have been fortunate to never have had a loved one or close friend the victim of the type of heinous crime that would even broach this punishment. We hope we never are. So it's impossible for us to sit here and try to say how or what we would feel if we were put in such a terrible position. But we would like to think that even then, we would understand that nothing that happened would bring our loved ones back. Nothing that could possibly happen to the person who harmed our loved one would have any effect on the life that had been taken. We can understand how others would not feel that way. But regardless of what your position is on the death penalty, what do you really know about it?

The Sun Magazine has a good interview up with Sister Helen Prejean. Yes...Sister Prejean is the woman portrayed by Susan Sarandon in the movie Dead Man Walking. Since she has dedicated her life to assisting those on death row, she has a unique perspective on the subject of the death penalty.


The death penalty is the most important civil-rights issue of our time. It’s a deeply symbolic issue, because it says that the way we’re going to solve problems is by violence. It says that some among us are such a danger to who we are and what we stand for that they must be eliminated. To arrive at this mind-set, human beings have to flip a switch inside themselves. Deep down we know we are brothers and sisters and are all connected. For the death penalty to exist, we have to throw some switch that says, “The Other is not human like us,” and so we can do whatever we want to them. And of course the execution must be removed from the public eye. The chamber is behind prison walls, and we don’t hear about what goes on inside it.


Yes, we incarcerate more people than any other country in the world. Prison is an industry from which certain people benefit: Politicians benefit because they get elected by claiming they are tough on crime. Businesses make money off prisons. That keeps the system going. Two-thirds of the people in prison are there for nonviolent crimes, like bad checks or drug possession. Why do we use such excessive punishment? What does it mean for us to take a woman who writes bad checks and separate her from her family for five or eight or ten years? What is the effect of that? Is that what she deserves?

As a society we have to examine our belief that severe punishment is the way to restore order. The main objective of prisons is to keep society safe, not to cause prisoners pain simply because they caused others pain. People who have committed violent crimes need to be imprisoned to keep the public safe, but we must also strive for rehabilitation. We know that prisoners who get an education tend not to reoffend, but we’ve cut most educational programs from prisons — really, any program that might restore humanity to the prisoners. Restorative justice would improve our society instead of simply throwing people away.


Some people approve of the death penalty because they think it is cheaper than life imprisonment. Actually the death penalty is more expensive. That’s why more and more states with budget crises are doing away with it. A capital-murder case, as one prosecutor says, is the Cadillac of the criminal-justice system. It takes multiple trials, requires airtight evidence, and uses more expert witnesses than any other type of case. Then you have to build a special section of the prison and hire personnel to staff it. Often death-row prisoners are not allowed to work to defray the cost of their board and keep. In California it costs millions of dollars a year to house more than seven hundred people on death row.

In response to these arguments, I share stories about people I know. When New Jersey did away with the death penalty, sixty-two murder victims’ families testified that the death-penalty process had only prolonged their agony. They had been told it would provide “closure,” but in reality it meant they had to witness the death of another person, often after waiting ten or fifteen years to do so, and this death would do nothing to bring back their loved ones. During the waiting process, their story is in and out of the spotlight. It makes their wound public, and the healing doesn’t come. Many murder victims’ families have been prominent in the abolition movement.

I also point out that the death penalty is not reserved for the most terrible murders. It’s more common in cases where the victim is white, for example: approximately 80 percent of death-penalty cases involve the murder of a white person, yet 50 percent of all homicide victims are people of color.

Whether the death penalty is sought comes down to the decision of the prosecutor. Thankfully juries have to be told now that they can sentence someone to life without parole even when the prosecutor is seeking the death penalty. In the past juries were not given that information. They thought the death penalty or freedom were the only options. Even in Texas death-penalty sentences have diminished because of this. Juries — which are made up of ordinary citizens entrusted with godlike power — have a terrible responsibility


Some other interesting points from the article:

-93 percent of the world’s executions take place in five countries: China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and the U.S. Hellified company to be keeping, eh?

-Less than 1 percent of the roughly fifteen thousand people who commit homicide each year are selected for death. Ninety percent of the prisoners who do end up on death row were abused as children. Nearly 100 percent are poor.

-the U.S. has almost 5 percent of the world’s population and almost 25 percent of the global prison population.

We have the privilege of getting to know some of those who stand in the way of the freight trains in this fight...capital defenders. One such fella was our man of the year for his willingness to fight for his clients, Bill McGuire. It's a field we are readily admit we are in awe of. It seems to be such a thankless job, in fact...scorned by many who don't understand the true nature of defense, which would enact a terrible price on one's heart. We salute those who fight this fight. Moreover, we hope that everyone takes the chance to really evaluate their ideas on the subject. The severity of it demands at least that much.

Hattip Savitz

1 comment:

Nickname unavailable said...

Being "tough on crime" apparently means being callous.