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Posts Tagged ‘death row’

As I  discovered when I started writing my novel about a death row inmate, it’s not possible to write an apolitical story that involves capital punishment.  Either my character was destined to remain unsympathetic, or I was going to make my readers sympathize with a murderer.  I chose the latter and in making my protagonist sympathetic, I found I’d inadvertently crafted an argument against the death penalty.  Perhaps there are people who can simultaneously sympathize with a person and nod approvingly at his execution, but I’m not one of them.  Yes, he’s crass and mostly without remorse and willing to kill again if it suits his purposes, but he is still human.  Painfully human.  Capable of being hurt.  Capable of being healed.  He’s not a monster, as inconvenient as that is.  Many death penalty supporters would like to believe that all murderers are monsters.  That would make killing them easier.  It would relieve us of our ambivalence and our uncertainty.

Having written that failed-to-be-apolitical novel, I find that the topic of the death penalty catches my eye in the news in a way it never did before.  The same is true for my friends and critique group members who read the early drafts.  I receive all kinds of emailed links on death penalty stories.

Associated Press photo of Andre Thomas

Associated Press photo of Andre Thomas

At the Polunsky Unit in Texas, one of the most notorious death rows in America, an inmate plucked out his right eye and ate it.  Under ordinary circumstances, I might cite this story as an example of the degradation of mental health that frequently occurs among segregated death row inmates.  One small detail of this news item forces me to file it under another heading: the frequency with which the mentally ill are convicted of capital crimes.  You see, this isn’t the first time Andre Thomas has done something like this.  In 2004, shortly after he was arrested for killing his wife, his son, and his wife’s infant daughter, he pulled out his other eye, but he did not eat it.  At the time, he was declared to be mentally competent to stand trial.  Now that he’s blinded himself and eaten his own eye, the Texas DOC is reconsidering its stance on whether he’s sane.

While the US is only fifth in the world for number of executions, Texas leads the pack at home, with 26 in 2007.  The other 49 states account for a mere 16 in the same time period.  For a while, it seemed like more states were backing away from the death penalty, but in December, after nearly half a century of rational, sane judicial rulings, New Hampshire has its first death row inmate.

Similarly, in little St. Kitts, they’ve performed their first execution–a hanging–in a decade.

Jamaica, which has had a 20-year hiatus from executions, is currently trying to clear the way to begin performing them again.  More importantly, they are trying to overthrow the Privy Council’s requirement that anyone convicted in a capital case be executed within five years or have their sentences commuted to life.  Essentially, Jamaica would like to go to the double punishment system currently at work in the US.

It doesn’t surprise me.  We are in the midst of a global recession, and for myriad reasons, as people run short of cash they also tend to run short of compassion.  People in poverty can’t afford mercy and as tycoons and swindlers make off with ill-gotten gains, the little people are desperate for even an ephemeral proof of justice.

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You’ll remember Mark Fuhrman from such media frenzies as O.J. Simpson’s trial for murder.  You may also recognize him more readily as the author of a series of sensationalist true-crime novels, but I recently read his book on the death penalty in Oklahoma.  My interest in the book began as practical research for a novel in which the main character is an inmate on Oklahoma’s death row.  It bloomed into a rather lengthy and intense look at my own attitudes toward the death penalty.

In Kansas, the death penalty gets very little play in the media for the simple reason that the state has not executed anyone since the death penalty was declared constitutional again in 1976.  There are nine men on death row in the state, so there is a chance albeit slim that we’ll eventually see our first execution in more than thirty years.

This only strikes me as odd when I consider the proximity of Kansas to Oklahoma, third in executions, behind Texas and Virginia.  Growing up just a few miles from the border between the two states, the difference between the two was indiscernible, and not only because the landscape is uninterrupted.  Yet attitudes toward the death penalty are sharply different.  Even my staunch Republican Kansas relatives are hesitant to militate for more capital convictions or more executions.

Fuhrman’s book, Death and Justice, gets at some of the elements in that difference.  He’s not a lyrical writer by any stretch, but he manages to hint at the way the line between justice and revenge goes grey in Oklahoma politics and society.  It helps that throughout the book he acknowledges his own biases about the death penalty.  If you read much about the way the death penalty is administered in this country, perhaps it won’t surprise you that Mr. Fuhrman experiences a shift in his understanding as he tours Unit H in McAlester, Oklahoma.

Fuhrman goes into the bermed facility convinced that the death penalty can be administered justly, that it serves a valuable purpose, but he leaves shaken.  After considering the conditions the inmates are kept in (Unit H has the dubious distinction of being the only underground death row in America), the judicial routes by which many of the inmates reached that point, and the prolonged waits for execution, his certainty erodes.  He leaves McAlester convinced that the death penalty is a mistake.  The book is a simple but eloquent statement on the dangers of our current system of incarceration and execution.

Flaws in the judicial system cast doubt on guilt and highlight discrimination, and as Fuhrman realizes, even if all the inmates on Unit H are assuredly guilty, they are being punished twice.  As the faulty system struggles to validate convictions, it forces inmates to serve out a prison sentence while they wade through the appeals process.  In some cases, the inmates may serve ten, fifteen, twenty years or more before they are executed.

At the root of it, as Fuhrman’s own shifting attitudes suggest, is America’s ambivalence about the death penalty.  Supporters are quick to proclaim that they have faith in the system and in the rightness of the sentence, but only the most hardline supporters would agree to radically shortening the appeals process.  Most Americans accept the lengthy appeals process as a hedge against something they know is suspect, both morally and judicially.  We have frequently expressed anxieties about executing the innocent, but more deep-seated are our anxieties about executing the guilty.

If we truly had any faith in capital punishment, we would execute the convicted in short order, without consideration for whether the technique is humane.  That we don’t do this is proof we are trying to back away from the very act itself.

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