Sunday, October 11, 2009

Death Penalty Sunday School

In Sunday School this morning we were honored with a real pro talking about the death penalty.

Steve Bright, a Danville native and now president of the Southern Center for Human Rights was talking about some truly dreadful death penalty cases. The big picture of the death penalty doesn't look much better. The people on death row and already executed are almost all poor guys with terrible lawyers. They are criminals, and did horrible things. The injustice is not that they are in prison. The injustice is that rich guys who do the same thing can afford competent lawyers who plead them into life sentences rather than execution. The further injustice is that many of the poor guys committed their crimes in the few places where the prosecutor seeks the death penalty - especially if you live in Houston, the death penalty capital of America.

The most striking sociological point that Bright made was that juries that convict in death penalty cases are mostly in white-flight counties around non-white cities. The fear that led to the flight in the first place gets played out in court when the overwhelmingly white juries sentence to death predominantly non-white vicious criminals with bad lawyers.

I asked if there were any practical way to reserve the death penalty for the most dreadful crimes - Timothy McVeigh, Ted Bundy, Charles Manson. Bright said, in effect, probably not. For one thing, the most dreadful criminals have been able to plead to life imprisonment in exchange for revealing further details of their crimes. For another, more important reason, it is up to the local, elected prosecutor to decide whether to seek the death penalty or not.

As a centrist, I think it would be possible to write a very narrow statute specifying when the death penalty could be sought that would distinguish cold-blooded mass murderers from stoned junkies who shoot clerks in the course of robbing liquor stores. That is a question best addressed by the professionals.

What was clear to me, though, is that even if you think that the death penalty is appropriate in a few rare circumstances, as I do, the current way we use the death penalty is grossly unjust.

10 comments:

Thomas said...

Could always get rid of the felony-murder rule. I think Kentucky already has.

But really, who's to say that stoned junkies who commit homicide while robbing a story shouldn't get the death penalty, while serial killers (who often have demonstrable brain defects) should? Presumably the legislature, and in most states they believe that the stoned junkie who commits homicide in the commission of a felony should be executed.

randy said...

i find that i really have no strong opinions pro or con about the death penalty. but i've noticed an interesting phenomenon;

strongly ANTI-death penalty advocates seem to morph very quickly into Pro-Convicted Murderer advocates. if one is trying very hard to stop a given execution, it's as if it's next to impossdible not to view the murderer in the rosiest light possible. many times i've seen documentaries about the fight to stop this or that execution; each time the lawyers, the protesters, get emotionally involved; crying and carrying on, apologizing to the heinous killer when their desparate efforts to save him fsil. this i find sickening.

i remember listening to 'democracy now' when folks were trying to save troy davis, i think it was...my god, you'd think the man was up for some great award so lavishly was he praised.

anthri said...

I don' know how it is where you are but I live in what you would call a white flight neighborhood. The minorities have flighted with me. My family is white, my neighbors are white, black, Hispanic and middle eastern. I have served on juries in Dallas county. As a white male I was the minority on each one. The majority of jurors were female minorities.

Gruntled said...

Bright specifically talked about how Dallas is different from Houston. In Houston the prosecutor decides to seek the death penalty, so prospective jurors are polled about whether they have objections to the death penalty. Non-whites, especially African Americans, are much more likely to object, so they get removed from the pool at the outset. In Dallas, for example, a different prosecutor with the same facts is more likely to not seek the death penalty, so the whole jury pool is not whitened in the same way.

Anonymous said...

I have to object to the classification of public defenders as "incompetent" or "terrible," as implied by your assertion that those who could pay had competent lawyers. Maybe the lawyers in these cases were incompetent, I obviously don't know the specifics, but the way it is phrased here applies that implication to all public defenders who have to defend capital cases.

I'm not a PD, but I have plenty of friends who are, and the vast majority of public defenders are doing the absolute best that they can for their clients with the meager resources they have. This is not to argue that justice is not swayed in favor of those that can pay, because it certainly is, but blaming the public defenders, rather than the system itself, is unfounded. (See Kentucky public defenders suing the state over inadequate funding)

Gruntled said...

Actually, the terrible lawyers that Steve Bright talked about were not public defenders, but court-appointed members of the private bar.

In any case, the issue is not public or private, but good or bad. Poor men who commit terrible crimes but who have competent lawyers, whether public defenders or otherwise, don't end up on death row.

paran said...

Some people need killing. Let's just get it right.

Thomas said...

Why exactly do they "need killing". Or are you saying nothing more than you want some people to die?

paran said...

They need killing because they have murdered innocent people on purpose.

Thomas said...

So we have established the class of people who you want to die. Other than narrowing down what you want, you haven't really said anything.