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The Death Penalty and Albert G. Brown September 29, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
Tags: , , , , ,

The state of Virginia executed Teresa Lewis last week, and here in CA Albert Greenwood Brown was scheduled to die this week, but the execution has been put on hold because of a shortage of sodium thiopental, the drug used for the lethal injection.  Is there a national, or even a local debate about the death penalty about to happen? Not according to the Los Angeles Times a few days ago:

Brown, 56, is poised to be the first inmate killed in the state’s new death chamber in San Quentin, built after U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel ordered a stay on executions in California in 2006 because its three-drug lethal-injection method appeared to violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Brown’s attorneys say Fogel’s decision last week not to block their client’s execution was rushed, and that even though Fogel is giving Brown the option of a single-drug method that is considered more humane, the judge still hasn’t examined the new death chamber or properly studied new training procedures for the state’s executioners.

They may have a point, but that’s not why we’re disappointed. We had hoped that Fogel’s stay would start a dialogue in California about the death penalty, which is objectionable for a host of reasons, and not just because the three-drug death cocktail may not ease the pain of the condemned. We’d hoped Californians would be shaken by the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was executed in Texas in 2004 following a conviction based on shoddy forensics evidence, or of the 17 death-row inmates in other states who were exonerated by DNA testing. We’d hoped they would notice that capital punishment has no deterrent effect on violent crime, or that the cost of carrying it out is helping to bankrupt the state, or that most developed nations have abandoned it because of its essential inhumanity.


Here you have the essential abolitionist arguments. For the sake of Fairness in Blogging (FIB), let me mention the key arguments in favor of the death penalty (retentionism): No other punishment matches the severity of the crime of murder. No other punishment guarantees that the murderer will never be pardoned/will never escape. No other punishment guarantees specific deterrent (the criminal himself/herself won’t repeat their crime). The high cost is due to the long appeals, not the punishment itself. And the unfair executions of defendants based on shoddy evidence and/or discrimination are flawed, but such situations can be avoided in the future with sufficient reforms.

As reported by MAARS News,

John Hall, a spokesman for the Riverside County district attorney’s office, said prosecutors were pleased with Fogel’s ruling.

“This is a horrific case with horrific facts,” Hall said cited by the Los Angeles Times. “This man showed no remorse. He never claimed innocence…. It’s time for this family to finally see justice. It’s been delayed too long already.”

Brown was convicted of raping and murdering of Susan Jordon a student of Arlington High School in 1980 in Riverside. The 15-year-old was walking to school when Brown pulled her into an orange grove, raped her and strangled her with her shoelaces.

He even called the girl’s parents and the police and told them where to find her body.
Brown had been paroled four months earlier from a prison term imposed for the 1977 rape of a 14-year-old girl.

Here is a recap of the whole, heartbreaking story from AP .

And indeed it appears that we are about to have a debate about the death penalty, at least in CA: Here’s a comment from The Faster Times, by Maureen Nandini Mitra:

The evidence was compelling too. Several witnesses had been seen him approaching Susan. Among other things, police found semen-stained clothes, Susan’s missing schoolbooks and phone directory open to the page with her parents’ phone number in Brown’ possession. At the time of the murder, he was on parole. He’d been released four months earlier after serving four years in prison for the 1977 rape of a 14-year-old girl.

As I discovered the details of Brown’s crime, my rage boiled over. Despite my intellectual opposition to death penalty, part of me felt he deserves to die.

Then I took a second look at the figures. Brown’s lawyers have managed delay his sentencing for 30 years. Which means Susan’s family has been waiting for three decades for some kind of closure to their pain. They’ve had to relive their trauma over and over again through years of appeals and two reversals of the sentences by the California Supreme Court. And it’s still not over.

 Is there a “right” view and a “wrong” view? From an abolitionist POV, of course, the answer is easy. But for those on the fence or in favor of capital punishment (70 percent of us!), the cases of Lewis and Brown provide a challenging juxtaposition: One, a borderline mentally disabled woman rushed through the court system (relatively speaking) and put to death, even when there was some doubt about her initiative in the murder-for-hire, and clear evidence of her remorse. The other, a confessed rapist/killer without a shred of remorse whose lawyers have kept him alive on Death Row for 30 years, and who have just won him another reprieve. Is it acceptable to have capital punishment in a nation where justice is meted out with such vast differences in different states? Are individual cases where our sense of justice feels let down enough to undermine an entire judicial tradition? Of course we should have a political debate about capital punishment, allowing both rational and emotional arguments to be heard, because without emotional engagement we are unaffected by the suffering of the victim and her or his relatives, as well as by the concept of mercy, and without reason we are incapable of acting justly, as well as comprehending social consequences. It need not be a partisan discussion, because even if the L.A. Times seems to assume that the reasons the Democrats in CA don’t want to discuss the issue is because they’re cowards, the fact remains that there are retentionists among Democrats as well as Republicans, and abolitionists among Republicans, too. So we need to hear each others’ best arguments. Are we willing to listen?