Tuesday, December 13, 2005


In Pete Seeger's Where Have All the Flowers Gone, he tells this joke:

A couple hundred years ago a shipwrecked sailor drifted for weeks till he saw land. He crawled up the beach not knowing what country or continent he'd landed on. He staggered up the bluff, and at the top found himself in a large field where there was a gallows and a man hanging. He exclaimed, "Thank God! I'm in a Christian country."
I'm conflicted on the death penalty. On one hand, I see nothing inherently unjust in executing Osama bin Laden, Jeffrey Dahmer, Tim McVeigh, or the leader of a violent criminal gang. On the other hand, I do believe in the possibility of personal rehabilitation and second chances. The life and death of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, co-founder of the Crips brings my ambivalence to the forefront.

If anyone deserves the death penalty, it's people who plan and carefully execute large-scale criminal enterprises that leave cities in ruins and kill people. That explains three of my examples above. Incurable serial murderers are the the other class of people who seem to present a profound case for the death penalty, if anyone does. And on paper, Tookie fit that bill also when he was sentenced

But he turned his time in prison into an opportunity to work against gangs, with children's books, personal memoirs and descriptions of prison life as outreach tools. For him, the prison system worked, and we should encourage that sort of personal transformation.

Failing to pardon him has removed one incentive that the other death row prisoners might have to reform themselves. On balance, it was the wrong decision, and it raises other fundamental questions.

Most people figure that the nation's death rows are populated by people like I listed above, the worst sort of murderers. In fact, most of the people on death row are not mass murderers out of movies or Law and Order, and most were not put there by the best of evidence.

If it were, you wouldn't find patterns like this:

While blacks and whites are murdered in roughly equal numbers in the USA, the killers of white people are six times as likely to be put to death, according to a statistical analysis released last week by the anti-death penalty human rights organization Amnesty International USA. It found that of 845 people executed since the U.S. resumed capital punishment in 1977, 80% were put to death for killing whites, while only 13% were executed for killing blacks.

The findings point to but one chilling conclusion: The criminal justice system places a higher value on the lives of whites than on the lives of blacks and other minorities.
I was in Illinois when more people had been released from death row than had been executed. The stories of how those innocent men got onto death row were shocking. Coerced confessions, bogus evidence, horrible defense attorneys and a general disregard for human life all conspired to put several innocent men within days of their deaths. Whether the death penalty is ever morally justifiable, it isn't under those circumstances. The execution of an innocent man is a stain on all of our hands.

But assume that Tookie was genuinely guilty of four murders. How can we justify putting his blood on all of our hands? Presumably, it starts with the belief that failing to take his life will cost other people their lives. Even if he weren't reformed, a life sentence without parole and containment in solitary ought to prevent him from killing again. And given that he did reform, his eventual release might actually have helped keep some people out of gangs and saved some lives. Or not, I can't see the future.

The problem is that no one can see the future, and we often have trouble seeing the past.

That's why the story of Cory Maye is getting the attention it deserves. Cory Maye is a black man convicted of shooting a white police officer. No one disputes that that's exactly what he did.

The problem is, the cop had no good reason to be in his home, may have busted in without announcing himself, and evidence may have gotten planted along the way. Maye lived next door to a drug dealer, and owned a gun for protection. He used the gun exactly the way the NRA thinks people ought to, to defend himself and his 18 month-old daughter against an unknown intruder in the middle of the night.

We can all agree that there's plenty of blame to go around. The cops should probably not have busted down his door. He probably shouldn't have shot the cop. The cops probably shouldn't have planted pot in the apartment. And so forth. But even if he actually had a joint stashed someplace, and even if the cops did announce themselves, there's no clear reason why Maye ought to be put to death.

The death rows of America are populated by people like Cory Maye. Maybe they're innocent, maybe they're guilty. If guilty, they are not mass murdering sociopaths, they are people who fired a gun at the wrong time and in the wrong place. And even the mass murderers have the possibility of redemption.

If only 100 of the very worst sociopaths, terrorists and ganglords had been put to death since 1976, no one would even notice the passing of Tookie Williams. But the fact that Cory Maye is on death row forces us to reconsider Tookie, too. And when we look at him in detail, not for his crimes but for his totality as a human, things start to look murky.

A system as flawed and arbitrary as this is not worthy of this nation, nor is the certainty of the death penalty reflective of our limits as mortal humans. End the death penalty, turn all the death sentences into life without parole. Then we can start over from scratch, if we want.

Joe Hill” by Utah Phillips from the album We Have Fed You All a Thousand Years (1993, 1:37).

"The copper bosses they framed you Joe,"
"They shot you, Joe" says I.
"Takes more than guns to kill a man,"
Says Joe, "I didn't die."