Wednesday, June 13, 2007


Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

What!? That's right, after a guilty verdict, the burden of proof turns around. Yesterday, NPR did the first installment of its two part story on Larry Petersen, New Jersey's most recent exoneree. Petersen spent 17 years in prison for a rape and murder that he did not commit. Finally DNA evidence proved him not guilty, but now he's still fighting to get the state to acknowledge that he is innocent, despite New Jersey's admission that he is no longer guilty of the crime. If that sounded confusing to you, then join the club, and welcome to the backwards and contradictory world of capital litigation.

Check out NPR's story here.

The comments by "anonymous" on the previous post, refusing to acknowledge the most basic facts in the case of Tennessee's own Paul House, made me think of the Petersen case. Even after the Supreme Court ruling, even after DNA testing, will we ever acknowledge that Paul House did not commit the crime for which he's been on death row for 22 years.

Comments :
It's interesting that many folks are so eager to kill men who are proven, beyond any shadow of a doubt, innocent. Perhaps it's simply a revenge mechanism - an insistence that someone has to pay for these terrible crimes. In many cases, I'm afraid bigotry is involved - if not for skin color, then for social or financial status. These people are too often considered "undesirables," explicitly or otherwise, and therefore they can look at their wrongful murder with apathy.

Regardless, we can argue all day about the merits or lack thereof for murderers who are in fact proven guilty, beyond any doubt. These are cases of innocent men. I find it difficult to believe how someone could argue against compensation for their wrongful incarceration, much less for their continued incarceration or even death.
Above should read "we can argue all about the merits of the death penalty for murderers..."
Sadly, you are right on target, Mephistophocles. We always say that in capital punishment people without capital get the punishment. The death penalty tends to be about who our society values. The groups that are vastly over-represented on death row are those that are deemed less worthy, i.e. racial minorities, the poor, the mentally ill, and "outsiders." And of course those selected for death sentences are also selected based on their victims, dispropotionately white, more likely if the person is well known, etc. It isn't a pretty picture, but that's a very insightful comment on your part.
Please stop propounding all of these trite generalizations about prejudice and the death penalty without backing yourself up with some sort of proof. Tennessee hasn't executed a minority in over fifty years. How many death penalty jurisdictions with sizable minority populations, like Tennessee, can say that? If you extrapolate from base demographics then, yes, there are more minorities (specifically african americans) on death row then their respective ratios in society as a whole. However, cruise by the T.B.I. statistics web pages for crimes in Tennessee. The majority of murders and non-negligent homicides committed in Tennessee are committed by minorities. Those are simple facts. Thus, it is no surprise that there is a disproportionate number of minorities on death row. There are still more white people on death row despite the fact that whites commit overall a minority of homicides in Tennessee.
As for the "mentally ill," once on death row most everyone can divine some mental illness with which they are afflicted. It's one of the only shots they have at escaping their penalty.
People never want to admit the clear discrepancies in death penalty sentencing. If you'll read my previous comment, death penalty sentencing is biased in that it does not value people similarly. White life is valued over black life (people accused of murdering a white person are 4 times as likely to face the death penalty as those accused of murdering a black victim). People with mental illness which was diagnosed prior to the crime, people like Abu-Ali Abdur Rahman or Gregory Thompson, are disproportionately sentenced to death. The death penalty is almost exclusively reserved for the poor. Does anyone think that 98% of murders are committed by poor people? Then why are 98% of death row inmates indigent? I don't think these are trite generalizations. But saying that the death penalty is applied fairly certainly is. In fact, it's worse, either a lie or willfully ignorant.
Every death sentence rendered is constitutionally required to be "narrowed" from the larger class of simple first degree murders. Most states, including Tennessee, achieve this through statutorily enumerated "aggravating circumstances" which must be found by the jury before a death sentence may be imposed. There is no aggravating circumstance based on the race of the victim, the economic statuts of the murderer, or the mental state of the murderer. In fact, "mental illness" is a commonly argued mitigating circumstance. Frankly, I do believe that the overwhelming majority of murders are committed by poor people. However, if you think that murdering a poor black person in Tennessee will not get you the death penalty, ask Kevin Burns, Tony Carruthers, Detrick Cole, Mikaeel Abdus'Samad, Abu Ali Abdur'Rahman . . . the list goes on and on. As Senator Ford would say, you better "get yourselves better educated." If the murder of a white person is more likely to result in a death sentence, then it is because the facts of the murder fit better in the framework of the required proof of aggravating circumstances. You can keep spouting stats that are based on the arguments raised in a Supreme Court case - McKleskey v. Kemp, look it up - from twenty years ago, or you can do some homework. Yeah, it's probably easier to just parrot what other people say.
Interesting that you should mention McKelsky v. Kemp, because in that case the Supreme Court didn't challenge the fact that death sentences were racially biased, they simply said that if they allowed that to be used as an issue it would shake the foundations of the entire criminal justice system. Thus you have to prove direct discrimination, leading prosecutors to learn to give "race neutral" reasons for striking jurors etc. So now we have a situation where one quarter of the African-American men sentenced to death in Tennessee have been tried before all white juries in even in counties like Shelby and Madison.

Finally, you can always point out a few cases and say that proves your piont, but statistically, holding case facts constant, a person is 3 to 4 times more likely to face the death penalty for the murder of a white person than a person of color. Snide comments aside, those are the facts.
Show me a collection of African American victims where the facts of the crimes satisfy one or more aggravating circumstances but no death penalty was sought and then I'll be impressed with your rendition of "facts." I've already mentioned a few instances of black victims for whom the death penalty was imposed. If I had the time and were so inclined, I could cite more and more . . .
In the end, maybe white victims tend to be law enforcement officers (see Philip Workman, Kennath Henderson). Maybe white victims tend to be young, and more vulnerable (see Robert Coe, Pervis Payne, Daryl Holton). Maybe white victims tend to be subjected to more gruesome forms of torture before they are murdered (See Sedley Alley, who beat a teenage woman and then impaled her 19 inches deep through her vagina with a tree limb, or Pervis Payne, who attacked a twenty-eight year old mother in front of her two toddler children, stabbed her over forty times with a kitchen knife, ripped out her tampon, and left her to bleed to death before turning his attention to the two children. He stabbed both of them repeatedly - one survived, one didn't). In each of those circumstances the simple facts of the murder fit within clear statutory aggravating circumstances. I'm not a racist, so I'm not going to generalize about why black victims, purportedly, are not valued as much as white victims. My point is death sentences are extremely individualized. Raw statistics simply do not, and cannot, account for all of the variables that inform the prosecutor's decision to seek the death penalty. As a final note, one possible explanation, if any should even be required, is that prosecutor's often give considerable deference to the wishes of the family of the victim in deciding whether to seek a death sentence. If you accept that more African Americans tend to disfavor the death penalty - a common proposition for those concerned about "death qualification" of juries - then it would not be surprising to find that more black families would not request the prosecutor to pursue a death sentence. So, perhaps black lives are not devalued as much as base statistics might suggest.
Maybe you should actually look at these studies before you use a few case examples to try to prove a point about a very large system. That's an absolutely backwards and incompetent way to try to look go at social science research. As I've already stated, good science takes case facts, like torture, number of victims, and victim characteristics into account.
Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

Links to this post :

Create a Link

<< Home