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Thursday 17 January 2002

‘Justice’ Follies & The Death Penalty

This tale explains pretty well why I am strongly opposed to capital punishment in nearly all cases. The New York Times reports that the Supreme Court overturned a death sentence in South Carolina recently because the defendant was not allowed to inform the jurors that there was no chance that he would ever be released if sentenced to life in prison. The jurors, having listened to the prosecution’s tales of how dangerous the defendant was, and thinking that “life” in prison actually meant about ten years until parole, sentenced the man to death.

The problem here revolves around the judge’s and prosecution’s refusal to allow the jury to hear information that might have influenced their decision, because it might have caused them to reject the death penalty.

This isn’t a matter of the judge just omitting to tell the jury the meaning of “life imprisonment” in South Carolina. The judge could be excused for expecting the jury to figure it out for itself, or to ask. In this case, though, the defendant’s attorneys specifically asked the judge to inform the jury, and he refused, on the grounds that it was not required.

And that is the attitude that makes capital punishment in the United States such a deangerous thing. Our criminal “justice” system is not at all concerned with actual justice, but rather with procedure and with having the appearance of being “tough” on “crime”. You’ve got to have procedure, of course, but the purpose of that procedure should be to find the truth, not to arrive at as many convictions and death sentences as possible.

The jury, not the judge or the prosecutor, is charged with making decisions about guilt and sentencing. A system that truly sought justice would not withhold information from the jury because it might influence their decision. The very purpose of information is to influence their decision.

No system that deliberately withholds facts from decision-makers should be in a position of making life-and-death decisions. Hell, the way things are now, I don’t think this system should even be sending people to prison or levying fines.

This pattern isn’t limited to South Carolina, or to death-penalty cases. Hardly a week goes by these days without news of someone in prison for thirty years or so being released now because DNA analysis of the evidence shows that he could not possibly have been guilty. And more often than not in these cases, re-examination of the evidence with techniques that were available 30 years ago — like checking out alibis — show that it was clear even then that the defendant was not guilty. All of this because the system is interested in convictions — which can be counted and measured — and not in justice, which is harder to quantify.

I don’t see this changing any time soon. For an entire generation now — and particularly since the advent of the War on Some Drugs — the justice apparatus has been moving toward a position where they see the general population as their opposition.

The best recent illustration I’ve seen of this is a case in 1997 where a woman was arrested for not wearing her seat belt.

In that case, the Supreme Court upheld the police officer’s actions. When you’re pulled over by a cop for a traffic offense, you’re technically under arrest. The only reason you don’t spent a night in jail for going 57 mph on the freeway is that it’s inconvenient for the police.

I don’t think that whether the officer did or did not have the right to take the woman to jail isn’t the real issue, though. The real — and generally unexplored — question is: what was going on in that cop’s head, when he made the decision to arrest this woman (in front of her two children) and haul her to jail for an offense that carried a $50 fine? There was no indication that she was doing anything else wrong, and the $50 fine, not jail time, is the punishment that the legislature saw as fit for the crime.

Until that kind of thinking is eradicated from the justice system, I’m afraid that we’re going to drift more and more toward living in a police state. Until it is clearly understood by everyone in it that the system exists to serve ordinary society, not convenience and promotions for police, prosecutors, and judges, we won’t see a change from these patterns.

Until that happens, I will not be able to trust the justice system, and I will not be able to support capital punishment.

Posted by tino at 19:03 17.01.02
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