mardi, décembre 14, 2004

The Recommendation is Death

“If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear." Deuteronomy 21:18-21.

Here is something, that I think you just can t understand
(How I could just kill a man!)
And you wonder why and how it is I could just kill a man
(How I could just kill a man!)
You see, in these streets I pack my heat cuz should it be for real
(How I could just kill a man!)
And if you think you wanna come and test me, then come deal with my steel
(How I could just kill a man!)

Cypress Hill "Here Is Something You Can't Understand"

The Scott Peterson trial is concluded. The jury has recommended that Mr. Peterson be given the death penalty. He will be sentenced by the judge in February. Given the (near non-existent) rate at which judges overrule jury sentencing recommendations, it is safe to expect that he will be condemned to his death.

Faithful readers of this web log will not be surprised to learn that the entire staff here at iliveinminnesota opposes the death penalty. We even oppose it for guys like Scott Peterson who kill their pregnant wives. We regard the jury’s conclusion here as a sad day for American justice and as the continuation of a very dark period in our nation’s history.

In 1976, when the Supreme Court (by a 5 to 4 vote in three cases, Gregg v. Georgia, Jurek v. Texas, and Proffitt v. Florida) advanced its 1972 decision in Furman v. Georgia (striking down all federal and state death penalty statutes as arbitrary and capricious) by ruling that the death penalty was permissible if the criminal trials were bifurcated to first determine guilt and then to consider whether mitigating circumstances were present to justify the death penalty.

Without getting into the specifics of why I oppose the death penalty (someday I will do a series of posts on the subject), I want only to argue today that Scott Peterson should not have been given the death penalty.

His crimes were heinous. I don't understand why a person would kill another person, and I do not have the ability to understand why a man would kill his pregnant spouse. As a husband and as a father, I am sickened by Scott Peterson’s crimes. I pity him, the family and friends of his wife, his family and friends, and the community where the crime took place. What Scott Peterson did is indefensible and completely repugnant. Don't want to be a father? Rabbitt, Run!

What I do not believe is that he is such a threat to society that he must die (and here let’s acknowledge that he will live on death row in California for a very long time – he may die of natural causes there. Apparently, there are 600 plus death row inmates in California, and 10 have been executed since 1976). It is quite enough, in my view, to segregate him from society for the remainder of his life. With the exception of revenge, nothing at all is served by killing him.

This point is underscored by what I learned from the three jurors I saw today on Good Morning America (how clever am I? “Today” on “Good Morning America” – get it?). The jurors essentially eschewed all traditional arguments supporting the cruel and unusual penalty of death (deterrence is the most popular (but we all know the death penalty does not deter crime), cost of life in prison is another (but we all know execution is more expensive than life in prison)) and recommended that he be killed because he didn’t cry in the courtroom. They wanted more (visible) remorse and they didn’t get it, so juice ‘im.

At the risk of sounding overly logical, the Supreme Court’s goal with Furman v. Georgia was to make the application of the death penalty less arbitrary and capricious. But it still is both things. I’m left with the feeling that had Mr. Peterson cried more, he would have been spared. That sounds arbitrary to me. There are other cases – I recall one where a man killed two people then stayed in the same room with their dead bodies to eat their lunch. The jury was troubled by that, as much if not more than the killing itself, and felt the man should die.

We draw a lot of bizarre distinctions where the death penalty is concerned. I heard just the other day that 15 times in Minnesota last year a spouse killed another spouse. We all know that domestic abuse is a pandemic in America. Now, while that does not excuse or justify Mr. Peterson’s actions, it does allow us to challenge whether his crime is really exceptional enough to deserve this punishment. Yes, this is an ugly and difficult argument to make, but divorce it from the Peterson case for just a second. Every five minutes or so, someone is murdered in America. Not all of those murderers are sentenced to death. Spousal abuse and spousal murder is not rare in the United States and yet not all who commit spousal murder are condemned to death.

So…what is it that makes Scott Peterson different? His wife was pregnant (this is the only factor that has any merit – if we want to decide that killing a pregnant woman is a mitigating factor justifying the death penalty in all cases, then we should do it – even though the death penalty itself is wrong, at least that mitigation would make sense. Consider the other reasons…). When she was missing it was national news. We were shocked when we discovered he was a suspect. And, if I can draw a serious conclusion from a joke in the Jon Stewart book – ...America, A Citizen’s Guide to Democracy Inaction, she was white and pretty and middle class (or more) and young and excited to be pregnant and her husband cheated on her…to state it frankly…it was sensationalized and a lot of America could identify/sympathize with her.

Let’s change the facts a little bit. What if Scott Peterson were a minority and walked into a crack house and killed his moderately homely pregnant wife – also a minority (but let's still say she was excited to pregnant) - along with three others then dumped their bodies into Lake Erie - and denied it. Does anyone think that Scott Peterson would get the death penalty? Anyone?

Does the sensationalism around the trial mean that Scott Peterson should die? To me, the answer is no. In fact, to me, the decision here really illustrates how arbitrary the application of the death penalty is. Let’s recognize capital punishment for what it is: a cruel and unusual punishment and the furtherance of a sad era for our nation.

I take solace only from this: I know in my heart that we will evolve as a nation and that some day, future generations will look back on this time with amazement. Not only did we elect a moron President (only once yes, but still), we also sanctioned state-run murder to serve our basest urgings.