Posted tagged ‘Justice’

Life Without Parole

April 8, 2015

So. Dzokhar Tsarnaev has been convicted on all thirty counts in the Boston Marathon Bombing and (closer still to home), the murder of MIT police officer Sean Collier.

Good.

Now for sentencing, in which the grotesquely termed “Death Qualified Jury”™ will decide between execution and life without parole.

Like an overwhelming majority of my Boston neighbors, I am opposed to the death penalty for Tsarnaev, as I am in all cases.  Three reasons:

1.  Error or malice.  It is hardly news to anyone reading this that police and prosecutors f**k up.  Death at the hands of the state not only renders those errors permanently uncorrectable.  As a citizen in whose name the state kills, I can’t accept that moral burden.

CaravaggioSalomeLondon

That some cases, like Tsarnaev’s, are open and shut doesn’t alter the moral and practical force of the argument above, I think. The moment you introduce discretion into death penalty jurisprudence, you re-open the opportunity for error or malice to kick in..  If the standard is overwhelming obviousness, then who decides; who processes the evidence in support of that definition, and so on.  The only way to be certain you’re not killing innocents is not to kill anyone under the cover of state-imposed penalties.

If that makes me soft, so be it.

2.  Soft or not, I’m vengeful, too.   To my mind, LWOP is a fate worse than death.  Because I do not believe in an afterlife, the only punishments that matter, like the only rewards, are those we receive in this life.  Fifty years in a maximum or super-max prison is, to me, a much more thorough and exemplary penalty than oblivion.

3.  I’m practical.  See reason one.  Cops and government lawyers f**k up.  We kill their errors and the urgency of addressing particular patterns of incompetence, indifference, and outright viciousness diminishes.  Patterns of bad behavior and unjust outcomes become much harder to discern.  Any hope, slim as it may be, of creating a better, more justice-driven law-enforcement system, evaporates when the living reasons to address current injustices disappear.  If we want to make things better, we need not to kill the people whom the system failed.  Simple as that.

One more thing:  I’m not non-violent.  But I’m anti-violence.  The fact that we (in theory) surrender to the state a monopoly on violence means that we need to hedge that power around with a mighty wall.  Not killing those in our power, even the most evil, is part of that wall.  Whether the more pragmatic arguments above carry greater weight some days than others, at bottom there is a moral imperative that I can’t find a way to avoid:  when we, or I, don’t need to kill, choosing to do so anyway is wrong.

Me being me, I could go on, but that there’s the gist.

What do y’all think?

Image:  Caravaggio, Salome with the head of John the Baptist, before 1610.

April 5, 2015

The good news:

Anthony Ray Hinton walked out of the Jefferson County Jail at 9:30 a.m. today a free man for the first time in 30 years. “The sun does shine,” he said as he was embraced by family and friends.

The bad:

One of the longest serving death row prisoners in Alabama history and among the longest serving condemned prisoners to be freed after presenting evidence of innocence, Mr. Hinton is the 152nd person exonerated from death row since 1983.

Our justice system is neither just nor, really, a system.  It is instead capricious and often malicious all the way down the line, from cop to court to cell.  It does contain a certain strain of systemized function, of course:  an institutional inability to grasp the meaning of “innocent until proven guilty:

For more than fifteen years, EJI attorneys repeatedly have asked state officials to re-examine the evidence in this case, but former Jefferson County District Attorney David Barber, and Attorneys General from Troy King to Luther Strange, all failed to do so.

Andachtsbild_Gefesselter_Christus_c1720_MfK_Wgt

Only when the Supreme Court forced Alabama officials’  hands did the tests that failed to show a match between the gun Hinton was alleged to have used in two murders and the weapon actually involved did such testing take place.  This man lost 30 years of his life because the engine of justice was rigged that way.  Hinton’s attorney, Bryan Stevenson makes the obvious explicit:

“He was convicted because he’s poor. We have a system that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent, and his case proves it. We have a system that is compromised by racial bias, and his case proves it.”

Malice has a face — several faces.  Stevenson again:

We gave the prosecutors every opportunity to do the right thing. They just would not do it.”

And one last note:  Hinton could be dead.  The state of Alabama wanted him dead.  The miscarriage of justice, huge as it is, could have been worse — to a certainty, has been worse over and over again. In that context, Hinton’s reaction to this latest turn in his life is almost unbelievably mild:

Outside the jail this morning, Mr. Hinton said he will continue to pray for the families of the murder victims, who together with him have suffered a miscarriage of justice. “I shouldn’t have (sat) on death row for 30 years,” Mr. Hinton told reporters.“All they had to do was to test the gun.” He expressed the wish that prosecutors and judges who were indifferent to his innocence be held accountable.

Punish first; ask questions later.  That’s no way to run a country.

You may consider this an Easter commentary.  Has Passover resonance too.

Image:  Devotional image from Blaindt Abbey, Christ in Chains, c. 1720

Asked and Answered In Ferguson — A Tale of Two Times Stories

November 26, 2014

Here’s a fact The New York Times seeks to explore in the wake of the decision to let the killer of an unarmed youth go free:

A nation with an African-American president and a significant, if struggling, black middle class remains as deeply divided about the justice system as it was decades ago. A Huffington Post-YouGov poll of 1,000 adults released this week found that 62 percent of African-Americans believed Officer Wilson was at fault in the shooting of Mr. Brown, while only 22 percent of whites took that position.

The Times notes that this divide is nothing new:

In 1992, a Washington Post-ABC News pollfound that 92 percent of blacks — and 64 percent of whites  — disagreed with the acquittal of the Los Angeles police officers involved in the videotaped beating of a black man, Rodney King.

“What’s striking is just how constant these attitudes have been,” said Carroll Doherty, the director of political research for the nonpartisan Pew Research Center in Washington.

This particular article doesn’t go into much depth on who might be right — the white majority that sees justice being done from King to Brown, or the African American majority that sees culpable killers go free, but it does make clear that the experience of everyday life is … well, it’s the great grey lady (formerly) of 43rd Street, so this is how the sociology passage begins:

That whites and blacks disagree so deeply on the justice system, even as some other racial gulfs show signs of closing, is perhaps not as odd as it seems.

Not odd at all, as it happens, on the evidence of another long analysis piece in today’s paper the Ferguson decision:

But the gentle questioning of Officer Wilson revealed in the transcripts, and the sharp challenges prosecutors made to witnesses whose accounts seemed to contradict his narrative, have led some to question whether the process was as objective as Mr. McCulloch claims.

William_Hogarth_004

And what might have prompted such unpleasant suspicions about an upstanding public servant?  Perhaps this:

Officer Wilson, in his testimony, described the encounter in terms that dovetailed with a state law authorizing an officer’s use of deadly force …

In some cases the questions seemed designed to help Officer Wilson meet the conditions for self-defense, with a prosecutor telling him at one point: “You felt like your life was in jeopardy” followed by the question, “And use of deadly force was justified at that point in your opinion?”

Might as well have just used cue cards.

Defense witnesses — which is to say that those witnesses with testimony to exculpate the voiceless dead against the charge of he had it coming — did not receive such helpful guidance:

Though the prosecutors did not press Officer Wilson and other law enforcement officials about some contradictions in their testimony, they did challenge other witnesses about why their accounts had varied.

Prosecutors did not seem to shy from pointing out the discrepancies between multiple interviews of a single witness, or at some points exploring the criminal history of some witnesses, including Mr. Johnson, Mr. Brown’s friend.

And you know something:  priming works.  This was a prosecutor/cop defense attorney who knew exactly what he was doing:

Over the months, the jurors seemed to focus intently on the final movement that Mr. Brown may have made toward Officer Wilson, after a brief chase. The prosecutor asked witness after witness if it seemed as if Mr. Brown were reaching for a weapon, though few said they saw anything like that. Mr. Brown was found to be unarmed.

Nothing to see here. Move along.

Or rather, this is an answer to the question implied in its companion article.  If blacks and whites view the criminal justice system differently, then, obviously, as the Ferguson trial of that dastardly murderee, Michael Brown, shows so clearly, that’s because it is different for white and black.  Or more precisely to the point made brutally clear in the sorry history of the Ferguson grand jury, both black victims and those African Americans accused of crimes cannot expect the abstract ideal of the rule of law to reach them.

The single essential requirement for justice within a justice system is that the institutions and individuals involved receive genuinely equal treatment.   As we can see from the top level decisions made in this case down to the fine grain of particular questions and answers, Darren Wilson benefited at every stage from the unequal approach prosecutor McCullough chose to employ.  (Take a look at this New Yorker piece by Jeffrey Toobin for a fine account of just how thoroughly the fix was in from the moment McCullough chose to go the grand jury route.)   Abraham Lincoln in his second inaugural address pondered out loud the mystery that two sides, each believing in the same God and in their claim on the blessings of heaven were still locked in an utterly destructive struggle.  How could that be so?  Perhaps, he said, in what seems to me to be the most devastatingly honest utterance by any American president ever:

The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

The offenses still come.  It’s a good thing that in twenty first century America a child can no longer be sold away from its parents.  It’s a step in the right direction that the act of looking at a white woman whilst being a black youth is not still a capital offense.

But a century and a half after a president counseled his war-riven nation, the offenses still come.

The death of a teenager who, we are told, it was OK to kill, simply adds this latest harvest of blood to the debt that Abraham Lincoln sought to settle so long ago.

Image: William Hogarth, The Court, c. 1758.