Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Big death penalty debate over the past couple weeks. On the one hand we have Stanley Tookie Williams, co-founder of the Crips, who was executed yesterday for four charges of murder. On the other hand we have Cory Mayes, who is currently on death row for shooting a police officer in a maybe-illegal, undeniably-unnecessary no-knock raid on his house in the middle of the night*. My thoughts? Pretty much everyone is claiming that Tookie is a bad example for anti-death penalty activists to rally around. But I disagree - simply based on my experience. Most opinions about him seem to be "I'm against the death penalty in most cases, but this guy deserves it." But a lot of people are instead saying "I'm for the death penalty, and people like this are why." (Usually throwing in a few gratuitious barbs at the eeevil libruls in Hollywood who have supported Tookie more vocally than Mayes, of course.) A month ago I had been in the first group. But after hearing a lot of talk from the people in the second group, now I'm saying "I'm against the death penalty." So maybe I'm not the target for the anti-death penalty arguments, but Tookie's case worked on me.

Months ago someone e-mailed Andrew Sullivan to argue that the torture in Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere was acceptable because terrorists are monsters and deserve whatever they get, and Sullivan's response only disputed the belief that all the abuse victims were terrorists. That e-mail and its response pissed me off - not "outraged", in the overused that-politician-won't-get-away-with-it sense, but genuinely made me angry. The only difference between that attitude and the most vicious, destructive forms of totalitarianism is a matter of degree. (In Sullivan's defense he didn't explicitly agree with the e-mailer, just argued a side issue, so I don't assume he believed the same.) And some sociopath manages to pass it off as fucking normal and walk around in polite society as if it's just another difference of opinion.

Someone once said something to the effect that the measure of a society is not how well the "normal people" live but how the least among you get treated. I think it was Jesus, but I haven't been able to find the chapter and verse. It's inevitable that the rich and influential will be free and protected. It's normal that the middle class, when it exists at all, will be pretty secure. But how a society treats the poor, the crippled, the criminals, the gays and Jews and gypsies and other groups that have been pariahs throughout history - that is the measure of how just and fair and ethical a society is. And people already know it, even if they don't think about it in those terms. Why is America so great? Because it has almost always been a better place for the poor and downtrodden, with more opportunity and equality, than the rest of the world.

And Tookie's case reminded me of that. Forget how we handle the suspects of crimes who are probably innocent, how should we handle the ones who probably aren't? Cory Mayes is easy. He had every reason to believe he was acting in self-defense and the police didn't have a good reason to be there in the first place, so don't kill him. But that dodges the entire question in the death penalty debate. Do we, should we, kill the guilty?

If it was a case of us individually, most people wouldn't even think about it for long. We might take an "eye for an eye" view if it was a loved one, and of course people do terrible things when there's a mob mentality spurring them on. But most people in the position to make a consequence-free, cold-blooded decision about killing a human being would say "I'm not going to sink to their level." I don't think I'm being too naïve in saying that - of course some of the people would pull the trigger all the time, and all of the people would pull the trigger some of the time, but most people would not pull the trigger most of the time. But when it's safely removed because it's done by someone you've never met, to someone you've heard nothing but bad things about, when you don't have to think about what it means, it becomes controversial.

* I know both the links are biased. The idea was not to endorse one or the other of them, but if I happen to agree with Mayes I wanted to be fair to Williams.

Edited on 1/16/2006: Just because I can. No major changes, just tightened up some of the language.


Katye said...

I thought forever about whether the death penalty was moral or not. It's easy (my firends and I did so through college) to cop out and say that the implementation is flawed, and wait until we are sure of guilt before assigning death.

I have realized one distinction I draw on death penalty morality. I think the death penalty is assigned - not necessarily often - for cases that don't seem to be that severe. Take Scott Peterson for example. Heinous crime, yes, but he doesn't feel like an threat to society.

The simple test - what if they escaped from prison? I know there are some criminals, serial killers mostly, that would have me scared to death of the mere possibility that they escaped. Most of those (who get press) on death row, however, don't feel like an immediate or severe threat to the general populace.

Any time I think I'm anti death penalty, that idea comes up. Not a question of revenge or wanting justice, just knowing that there are some people whose mere possibility of freedom would absolutely terrify me. So the internal debate continues.

Cyrus said...

It is my belief, though I'm too lazy to look it up right now, that successful escapes by maximum security prisoners are vanishingly rare. That their frequency today is a tiny fraction of what it was in the past when the prison system, like so much else, was a lot more disorganized and decentralized than it is today, exaggerated even further because it makes good fiction. If I'm wrong about that, if it changes, or if we decide we don't want to take even slight risks in those areas, then those would be a good arguments for capital punishment.

In the context of this discussion, I saw some reference somewhere to other countries that have degrees of guilt in their justice system. Where we have "not guilty" (which itself includes a range from "acquitted" to "exonerated") and "guilty", they apparently have "not guilty", "guilty" and "caught on videotape fucking the fourth corpse." I'm not sure if our system should have that or not for other reasons, but the biggest advantage of it would be that it resolves these problems neatly - the death penalty, should it exist at all, is reserved for people in the final category.

Katye said...

A death row prisoner walked out of jail the other day (Charles Harrison, Harris County Jail). Just walked right past the guards. Granted this isn't what I would call maximum security - but why someone who apparently deserved to be put to death for his crimes isn't in maximum security just boosts my argument.

Categorization of guilt is an interesting idea. In civil trials, the determining factor isn't "beyond a reasonable doubt", it's "preponderance of evidence". I wonder how that would serve as a third tier.