Sunday, January 29, 2006

Life and death on a whim...

Television is a little slow in South Africa. Despite ubiquitous satellites that deliver signals instantaneously from any point on the globe to any other point, American television takes months…sometimes years…to make it here. Nationwide, we have only four non-subscription television stations, three of them owned and operated by the government, and this being a nation of eleven official languages, locally produced programming runs the gamut from Afrikaans to Zulu…which can be a bit of a problem for a person like me who speaks only pidgin Spanish, high-school French, and American English. And so, despite the programs being outdated and old news, I confess to watching American television programs here, trying to think of them as reruns of programs I missed the first time around. This, then, brought about the situation in which I found myself, last night, watching a year-old episode of “Extreme Makeover” and being unexpectedly…and forcefully…reminded of my long-standing opposition to the death penalty.

I didn’t always object to the death penalty, you know. Once I was a staunch supporter of the concept of permanently and irrevocably removing predatory individuals from society. My family had believed in it and, as a youth and a young woman, I had unquestioningly absorbed that belief and the rhetoric that supported it. But something changed: at the age of 38 I began college and, in preparation for the final debate in my Argumentation and Debate class, I spent several weeks intensively researching capital punishment. Since this was before the advent of the internet, my research did not consist of biased and subjective websites posted by the uninformed but highly opinionated; all that was available to me were scholarly tomes, research studies, and white papers. Instead of Google, I had the Library of Congress index and several libraries full of books, magazines, and papers. It was a slog, even with a partner who worked with me shoulder-to-shoulder. We created pile after pile of 3x5 index cards full of data, then colour-coded and sorted them and, from there, created our attack…and our defence. And, for me, an entirely new point-of-view.

What fired my thinking were the accounts of the Salem witch trials. We tend not to think of them in terms of capital punishment, but they are archetypal examples of everything that is wrong with capital punishment, both then and now. As many as twenty-five people were executed after being convicted of the capital crime of being a witch…two dozen people who were killed by the state for crimes they did not commit. Worse, after the hysteria died down and reason returned, many of the accusers and even some of the prosecutors, expressed regret for their involvement…but no amount of regret or remorse could give back the lives taken. And therein was the crux of my dilemma: duly constituted authority, respectable citizens and presumably rational human beings had, under the banner of protecting their society from the threat of evil, had brought about the legally-sanctioned deaths of their fellow citizens…and when having second thoughts about the whole affair later, could do nothing in the way of making right their grave wrong.

It hit me like a brick: there is something wholly irrational about imposing an irrevocable sentence based on an inherently fallible system. If the guy isn’t guilty…if the evidence is flawed or incomplete, if the prosecution is not honourable, if the defence is not wholly competent, an innocent person can be convicted of a capital crime. If the person is given a sentence of life without possibility of parole, then if errors in his conviction are discovered, he can be exonerated and released to live the rest of his life in freedom. But if the person is executed, it is moot: convicted rightly or wrongly, he’s still dead and no form of restitution is sufficient to right such a wrong.

It seemed pretty simple to me: human beings are fallible and because of that, the institutions we create are fallible as well. The fact that someone joins the police force or becomes a prosecuting attorney does not ensure that the person is, ipso facto, honest and above reproach. In America, more than 100 people have been released from prison since 1973 after having been convicted of capital crimes and sentenced to death. They have been released not due to the diligence of the system in discovering their innocence late in the game…indeed, sometimes the system has fought long and hard to prevent outsiders…attorneys, journalists, family members of the convicted…from having access to the means to exonerate those in prison and thought to be wrongfully convicted. Despite this, more than 100 times in the last 30 years convicts with friends outside have been successfully exonerated through the efforts of those friends. Sometimes it was new evidence, sometimes it was discovering exculpatory evidence suppressed by the prosecution, sometimes it was DNA, sometimes it was the discovery of false testimony…but every time---100 times---it resulted in a person facing execution being discovered to be innocent of the crime of which he was convicted.

Amazingly, this concept…the idea that if the conviction was incorrect you can say “Sorry!” and let the guy go…seems to be beyond the grasp of many people. I’ve heard people say “Well, there are bound to be occasional errors…” as if an error that can end a man’s life is of no more consequence than picking up the wrong brand of washing powder at the supermarket. Would they be so offhand if the person who is the victim of that error was a close family member? A brother or a husband or a father or a son? (The vast majority of those facing the death penalty are men.) One woman astounded me with her response: she said her father and brother lived the kind of lives that would not put them in jeopardy of being arrested for such a thing as a murder or rape. She, therefore, need not concern herself.

It was this woman’s remark that came to mind last night when I watched Extreme Makeover. A man had spent ten years in prison, three of them on Death Row, only to be ultimately exonerated through the efforts of his friends and family (to the tune of $800,000). Known as the “Snaggle-toothed Killer” due to his crooked teeth, he had been convicted primarily because the police, comparing the pattern of his bite on a Styrofoam plate to bite marks on the skin of a raped and murdered waitress, looked no further for a perpetrator…even to the point of suppressing and ignoring exculpatory evidence. Since we know now that this man, Ray Krone, is absolutely not the killer (DNA tests eventually exonerated him and implicated another man), what lead to this man being identified by the as their prime suspect?

I thought about what that woman had said, about how father and brother led such exemplary lives that they would never even come under suspicion…a feeling I am sure many others share. And yet Mr. Krone also led such an exemplary life. He had never been in any difficulty with the law, he had served his country for six years in the Air Force, being honourably discharged after attaining the rank of sergeant. He shared an apartment with an old Air Force buddy and worked for the US Postal Service as a letter carrier. He was a member of a darts team at a local pub where the murdered woman was an employee…he was casually acquainted with her.

If you are thinking… “Ah! A bar…” suppose for a moment that she was a hair stylist and worked in the salon where Mr. Krone got his hair cut. Would that make any difference? Or maybe she was a cashier at the local 7-11 where he regularly stopped off to buy the newspaper? Or perhaps she was a barista at the corner Starbucks where he picked up his morning cup of joe? Her place of employment is immaterial, and his acquaintance with her was no more than casual...the same kind of casual relationship you might have with a car wash attendant, news seller, or McDonald's cashier. The salient point is that Ray Krone led a clean, above-board life as a law-abiding citizen…and he ended up wrongfully convicted of raping and murdering a woman and sentenced to die anyway, due to the justice system’s inherent fallibility.

Despite the fact that the delays between conviction and execution are often decried by death penalty proponents, it was just this delay that saved Ray Krone’s life. Had he been swiftly executed, as happens in many countries, the maturity of science and diligence of his family and friends would have come too late to save him. The loss of ten years of the prime of his life was a terrible tragedy, but it pales by comparison to the tragedy that his execution would have represented. What is most frightening to contemplate, however, is not Ray Krone’s ordeal but the statistics that his nightmarish experience represents: since 1973, for every seven death penalty inmates who are executed in America, an eighth inmate is found innocent and released. Does that make you wonder if one…or more…of those seven might have been innocent as well? Florida has executed 51 people since 1976…in that same period of time, 22 people have been released from Florida's Death Row as having been wrongfully convicted…that’s nearly one third of the total…22 out of 73 people sentenced to death were later found to be innocent. The governor of Illinois put a moratorium on executions in his state when 13 people were released from Death Row, having been exonerated of the crimes for which they were sentenced to death. Isn’t this beginning to alarm you?

There are those who say that the fact that these individuals were found and released proves that the system works, but they are wrong. The system did nothing to exonerate these people and, in many cases, opposed every effort by others to do so. In some instances it took years of litigation simply to force the state to turn over biological evidence so that it could be tested using modern technology. In Ray Krone’s case, his parents lost their house, the community in which he grew up held car washes and bake sales, a distant cousin contributed $100,000 worth of defence efforts, and his attorney allowed him to run up a bill of half a million dollars, all in an effort to see justice done on Ray’s behalf.

The desire for law-abiding citizens to remove predators from their midst is understandable, and killing those predators is the most sure way of guaranteeing that they will not return to commit their crimes again. But until we have an absolutely foolproof means of identifying those predators, we are at risk of murdering the innocent who, for whatever reason, fall unsuspectingly into the legal system. And that is just too high a price to pay, especially if that executed innocent is my son…or yours.


  1. Glad to see you back and what a wonderful column. I couldn't agree with you more about the death penalty. There are times when you hear of a horrific crime that you think you might vote for the death penalty (I lived in one state where it was not legal), but as you so ably pointed out, if there flaws in our reasoning, there are going to be flaws in our institutions.

    Nice to see you back with your incredibly interesting and intelligent words.



  2. All good and well, I agree, lets find a way to prevent wrongful sentencing. Sentence them to death only after being 100% sure. In these cases juries are not to be trusted. You need to have a panel of trained experts. The technology available today including DNA and more should allow there to be no reasonable doubt.

    Without DNA testing there may be reasonable doubt. If the prosecution hides exculpatory evidence, The prosecution should be charged with Defeating the ends of justice. Also if the person is executed due to lack of concience and investigation, the prosecution team should be charged with murder. Along with buying stolen goods, these are the worst crimes in my book.

    Saying that the death penalty is not a deterrent is factually incorrect. Look at the countries that vigorously enforce capital punishment such as Singapore, Do they have the levels of crime that are found in more civilised societies?

    Make it a crime not to investigate thoroughly, The police are known to be lazy and go for the solve. The obvious is not always the answer. but sometimes it is.

  3. SV

    Excellent piece of work. I agree with what you are saying. By doing this you prtect the rights of the perpretator but what happened to the rights of the victim? I am talking murder victim here. I would like to hear what your point of view on this is.

    Guy has also got a valid point.



Your comments welcome! Anonymous comments are enabled as a courtesy for people who are not members of Blogger. They are not enabled to allow people to leave gratuitously rude comments, and such comments will not be published. Disagreement will not sink your comment, but disagreeable disagreement will.