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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.
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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?


The Death Penalty and Teresa Lewis September 22, 2010

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Criminal Justice, Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.
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1 comment so far

Let’s talk about the death penalty. A final appeal has just been denied by the Supreme Court, and a convicted criminal is headed for execution Thursday night. Such denials of appeals happen on a regular basis, but this one is a little different—and I’m not talking about the fact that the criminal, in this case, is a woman. If we want equality, well, there it is: If a man can get executed for being the mastermind of a murder-for-hire (and he can), so can a woman. No, it is the fact that this case goes against the recent tendency in the legal discussion to reserve the death penalty for the “worst of the worst,” if the death penalty is to be imposed at all.

If you are opposed to the death penalty, there is no particular reason to look more closely at this case, because all executions are, to you, morally wrong, regardless of the guilt or innocence of the person on Death Row, their age, their mental capacity, their remorse or lack of it, etc. Still, the case provides another opportunity to argue why capital punishment is wrong per se. If you’d like to share such arguments here as comments, feel free. But if you are in favor of the death penalty, this case deserves your attention, because Teresa Lewis doesn’t seem to fit the category of “the worst of the worst”—not like serial killers Ted Bundy (executed), or Robert Yates (awaiting execution), or the Green River Killer Gary Ridgway with his scores of murders (serving life without, because he made a plea deal). She hired a man (who happened to be her lover) to kill her husband and stepson. Before he killed himself in prison, he apparently stated in an interview that he had put pressure on her to go through with it, because he needed the money. Both he and a second hired shooter got life because of plea deals.  And it appears that Lewis’s mental capacity, while not reaching the criterion of being legally “diminished,” is still on the low side with an IQ of 72, making her sense of judgment more like that of a 13-year old.  She has no prior history of violence, and she apparently has shown genuine remorse during her years in prison.

I can’t claim to be familiar with the ins and outs of this case, because it just came to my attention, but after reading a number of news stories about Lewis, it seems to me that we’re definitely not talking about the “worst of the worst.” From a utilitarian point of view she would  present no danger to the general prison population, if  her sentence were commuted to life.  From a deontological point of view, justice must be done, but wouldn’t justice be served as well with her in prison, since that was the sentence given to the actual gunmen who may have influenced her decision? Her guilt is not in doubt, but her role as sole instigator may be.

There are many things I don’t know about this case; were D.A.s and judges up for reelection while it was going on? I have no idea. If they were, would it matter to their voters if they were tough on crime? I don’t know. I will assume that the trial had no elements that would make us question the motivations of the court, other than justice. But it seems to me that, contrary to that other infamous killer who took the life of his wife and their unborn baby/3rd trimester fetus, Scott Peterson, who didn’t have a history of violence, either, and who was sentenced to death, Lewis seems like a person who might be manipulated. Not a person of good intentions (or, as her lawyer says, “a good and decent human person”) at the time of the crimes, to be sure, but not a manipulative master mind, either. Still, within the legal parameters of capital punishment, we’re probably not talking about a miscarriage of justice if this woman is put to death—but might this not be an appropriate occasion to consider mercy?

According to author John Grisham, in a Washington Post article earlier this month,

Such inconsistencies mock the idea that ours is a system grounded in equality before the law.

In this case, as in so many capital cases, the imposition of a death sentence had little do with fairness. Like other death sentences, it depended more upon the assignment of judge and prosecutor, the location of the crime, the quality of the defense counsel, the speed with which a co-defendant struck a deal, the quality of each side’s experts and other such factors.

In Virginia, the law is hardly consistent. There have been other cases with similar facts — a wife and her lover scheme to kill her husband for his money or for life insurance proceeds. But there is no precedent for the wife being sentenced to death.

Your thoughts?