Pages

Friday, October 17, 2008

Give and Take

Friday, October 17, 2008

"Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion, or I shall suspect you don't understand."
- C. S. Lewis, "A Grief Observed"

Your first steps into a new classroom are always a little tentative. You are trying to simultaneously make yourself invisible and be noticed by the "right people." Coming to prison is no different. You don't really know what to expect. Will I have to fight? What will it feel like to get stabbed? After 18 months in the county jail (as well as three other detention facilities), all the fear of physical conflict was pretty much burned out of me. In one of the many short stories that always end up getting flushed down my toilet, I referred to the souls of most prisoners as resembling used up light bulbs - burnt and gray and tossed into the rubbish bin. That's how I feel about fights now. You learn after a while that winning or losing matters a whole lot less than showing up. I was more concerned about the guards, honestly. Prison screws are not known to be the most scrupulous of people. These units are not part of America. Oh, they are on the map. You can Google Earth them and check this. While they geographically may be within the territorial boundaries of your country, they are a world apart. Your police hold no sway here...they can't even get in the gates. Not even your Army has permission to enter, unless the governor grants them this permission. The Warden is the Man, the god, the genius loci, the guy sitting on the throne. What he says is Law. And, unless some extraordinary set of circumstances come into alignment, you will never know about any of the happenings in his domain. (incidentally, this is the reason the officials HATE these sites. The veil is torn, and the wizard is revealed, and they cannot stand it. I am hit for "random" searches with a frequency rivaling that of major gang leaders.) If a guard decides he feels like playing a little whack-a-mole with the heads of some inmates, all he has to do is get a few buddies (read: at least 6 or 7), and a stick. He knows it won't make the news. So, maybe fear and extreme caution are two distinct entities. Sort of like a cliff. You may not be afraid of it, but you are going to be damned careful when you look over the edge. Prison is like that for me. When you roll up to your unit, you are shaved, numbered, tagged, and hog-tied. (Actually, I'm not even sure what being "hog-tied" entails, but it sounds appropriate...seems like I should have such knowledge encoded in my Texas DNA, or something.) The guards are out in force, shotguns and batons. Some even have on their plastic body armor for good effect. I'm not terribly impressed by such infantile tactics, but I imagine some might be. They are certainly trying to put on their "fearsome" faces; that I do remember. All you can really do in the face of such displays of dominance is to swallow your core, all the things you care about, and wall them up somewhere deep down inside you, where they cannot be taken. Because everything else will be. The whole time I was in Mexico, I wore a piece of leather cord around my neck, upon which hung a ring someone very special had given to me when I was 18. When I needed to feel grounded, I would touch it, and feel the weight of it against the skin above my heart. Maybe I was going a little nuts at the time, but I imbued into that piece of metal all of the love I had felt for my Angel, and it became a symbol of the only good thing I had ever done in my life. I had worn the ring on my right hand for almost seven years before I disappeared into the mountains of Mexico. That first day, I took it off, and put it on the cord, no longer feeling worthy of it. I could not bear to part with it, though. It was her laughter and her smiles and that look which was just for me and the sound of her voice and the way it lit up when she heard it was me calling on the phone...how do you cast that away? Even when you know it is a weight dragging you into the earth? I protected that ring the whole time I was in Mexico. The guards stole it from me when I came to prison. I can forgive them for all the wanton cruelness they inflict upon me, but I will never forgive them for that. Ever. That is what they do here. They take and take and take, raping deep down into your soul, until they are sure you aren't hiding anything from them. And then they keep going, because they can. Every facet of your life is dissected during diagnostics. "Whats that tattoo mean? Why you done what you done? What you gon be thinking about when they stick you, uh? I thinks I'll be volunteerin' for that one myself. What you think of that?" That's how you arrive on Death Row. The cell door closes, and that is that.

Almost. My sleep was, shall we say, troubled that first night. I was not disappointed to be woken up, however, as even prison reality was a better thing to face than my dreams. I was not sure what had woken me, until I heard someone calling "Hey, new guy!" from down in the dayroom. I moved to the door, and an older white man smiled at me and tossed a brown paper bag in front of my cell. "Be blessed!" he called, before climbing back down the bars. The sack contained toothpaste and toothbrush, soap, a razor blade, and some food; important necessities, as it usually takes 5 or 6 weeks for your ID card to reach you...which is necessary to buy from commissary. As you can imagine, going six weeks without brushing your teeth is unacceptable, especially in an environment where the only dental care we receive is, "Rip that sonabitch out and move on to the next!" The man who slid me the bag was Alvin Kelly. He was executed this past Tuesday, the 14th of October (to be followed by six more in November). Major Kathryn Cox of the Salvation Army told me they spent the last two hours of Alvin's life singing praise songs, and he was still singing when they pumped him full of poison.

I have become what they call a "writ-writer" since my arrival on DR, meaning I offer case reviews to the men with execution dates. I do not charge for this. It has nothing to do with me having some special knowledge of the courts and their processes, because I have no such expertise. It has everything to do with the fact that quite a few inmates move the entire way through the appellate process without having a single attorney give a rats ass about their cases enough to actually look at the record. So, I do. I think every man should have at least one friend before they die. I did this for Alvin. He was my 5th failure. I couldn't save him, or the others. Some of his damned issues weren't preserved properly, and so he died. Listen to me, and listen to me good, for this I swear on my life: I will not fail one day. Someone will leave this place alive before you have your way with me. I'm sorry I failed you Alvin. So sorry.

It started something for me, though. A small legacy, to be sure, but we inmates deal primarily in small quantities, save perhaps regret and misery. Because of him, I have not missed sending a care package to the new guys when they pull up. Black, white, Mexican, it doesn't matter to me, and so I honor him for his lesson. I doubt I was the only pupil of his. He would have been a boon to whatever unit he ended up on had his sentence been commuted. But you wouldn't listen, Mr. Perry, and so the cycle of pain loops back around for another pass. I also learned something from Sayid, whom I mentioned in an entry well over a year ago. I don't know where Sayid is (I hope Jester IV), but there are no shortage of men like him here on the Row. From him I learned that, cliche as it might be, giving really can be better than receiving. I always pick one man like him (with mental problems) to take care of each week. It's not much, I know: a few soups, candy bars, soap, etc. I find this all so deliciously ironic that me - "cold, narcissistic, sociopathic" me - does the job that all of the "anti-DP" groups will not. I do what the lawyers cannot. I do what the church does not. When it comes right down to it, most of these "activists" are mere mouthpieces. They make a lot of noise, but don't do much of anything. The late Jack Henry Abbott said it all pretty clearly: "No one else does a thing. The liberals, the humanitarians and clergy are worse than anyone else. They are 'too busy'; there is nothing they can do, etc. They stand around talking to one another about their experiences with prisoners; they seek to be "recognized" as authorities and "spokespersons" for prisoners. And never once have they ever as a group or as individuals effectuated a single reform or helped a single prisoner tortured in prison." I don't agree with him on all of that, as I have met a few people who have the power to change worlds inside them, but he is sadly correct when it comes to organizations. I'm not scolding. Simply relating truth. And it pleases me to act in the face of such apathetic inertia. So, I do not give selflessly. I give to help the men around me, because I do care (ie: empathy). I also give out of a sense of responsibility to my philosophical and religious ideas of morality (ie: what I ought to do). But I also give because it satisfies me to do so, and there are very few avenues for finding such pleasure in this world of concrete and sweat and fear. This troubled me for awhile, as I thought it meant my giving was tainted. The philosopher Kant postulated that an action performed from self-interest could not be virtuous. I'm not smart enough to say whether he is right or wrong. I wonder what he would say about an action that is performed from self-interest AND obeys the rational law of morality (otherwise known as a duty, I think)? Does the pleasure I get out of giving nullify the duty? or can an action be both? Does God care? I've the feeling Kant was worlds more rigid than God on such things. The Bible says that the poor and persecuted are blessed, but then advocates that we are to help such people, which may sound sort of contradictory on it's face, but is far from it in actuality. I am blessed by the harshness of my environment in that I would never have matured and evolved the way I have under normal "free-world" living conditions. Correction has been hard, but I am a better man for it. So, I guess pain isn't all bad...though that is a huge issue for another day. Knowing all of that doesn't really help, sometimes. To quote the late Bill Hicks, my second favorite comedian behind the also passed Mitch Hedberg: "I don't mean to sound bitter, cold, or cruel, but I am, so that's how it comes out."

I want to be free of such bitterness, but I am weekly faced with death and injustice and poverty and ignorance and I try to keep such things from infecting my mind, but I am not sure such a thing is possible if you are a creature with eyes and the ability to empathize. I hope you will forgive me my brief (and not so brief) bouts with anger and the like. Some of it is actually justifiable; some of it is not. I have found it is much easier to forgive a person that it is to forgive a bureaucracy...an institution has no face. Might as well try to forgive a rock for being in existence and stubbing your toe. It doesn't have much effect, because it has not humanity in it. I still have a long, long way to go to be like Alvin, because I have no doubt he forgave the executioner as he was singing. Sound like the actions and thoughts of a monster to you? Me either.

"Quit your worship charades.
I can't stand your trivial religious games:
monthly conferences, weekly Sabbaths, special meetings-
meetings, meetings, meetings - I can't stand one more!
Meetings for this meetings for that. I hate them!
You've worn me out!
I'm sick of your religion, religion, religion,
while you go right on singing.
When you put on your next prayer - performance,
I'll be looking the other way.
No matter how long or loud or often you pray,
I'll not be listening.
And do you know why? because you've been tearing
people to pieces, and your hands are bloody.
Go home and wash up.
Clean up your act.
Sweep your lives clean of evil doings
so I don't have to look at them any longer.
Say no to wrong.
Learn to do good.
Work for Justice.
Help the down and out.
Stand up for the homeless.
Go to bat for the defenseless.

-God, Isaiah 1:13-17
("The Message" translation)




Perfecting the Death Penalty by David Dow


© Copyright 2008 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Ignorantia Juris Neminen Excusat

October 2, 2008

I've been coasting lately. Some brief ups and downs, like most everybody. I will always have my eternal inner battles with guilt and self-loathing, but the last few weeks have been passable on that score. Had a lot of drama in my personal life, because I am an idiot and destined to get myself into car wrecks, but I hope to have that cleared up in the near future. It is funny how we get sort of complacent as we coast downhill, isn't it? I learned pretty quickly on my cycling trips that you really need to get your speed up for the next uphill climb; that inertia really helps. Some positive stuff has happened to me lately, so I should have been preparing myself for the storm, to switch metaphors midstream. I received quite a letter last night. This very well may rank as the most nasty piece of literature I have ever read. In addition to the letter, I also received a print-out of a forum thread, which was almost as nasty. I sort of have the feeling I know this person, because her style of writing is vaguely familiar, and she made a few comments that lead me to believe she had met me at some point in the world. Naturally, she omitted her name and return address. How easily my balloon gets popped these days! Where do these people come from, I wonder? I think most people in this country want to believe we are basically "good." Not perfect, but certainly not monsters. I think that we suppose ourselves that since we are about as 'good' as our neighbors, who are "decent" people, that we, too, must be "decent". We are certainly better than those terrorists or that a-hole murderer who has that website, we say. Unfortunately, we won't be judged this way by God, by comparison to our neighbors. The counterweight on those scales is something of a different nature altogether. And, frankly, when you get right down to it, our neighbors may not be all that great anyways. We get sort of acclimated to our 'small' sins, and so they fade into the sub-audible (IE, "If everyone else is doing it, then it's ok, right?") We also believe that time cancels out sin (IE, "Oh, that was years and years ago.") Once again, unfortunately, this will not matter much to God. Those are only effective arguments to wash your conscience clean, who is a tricky little lying whore on the best of days. Worst of all, I think we as a society have reduced all of the virtues down to "kindness", and all of the vices down to "wanton cruelty." Thus, it is very easy for us to tell ourselves we are "ok." Kindness is sort of a bad benchmark for goodness, though, isn't it? Aren't we basically all kind unless we are faced with something really negative? And besides, kindness is far too easily confused for happiness. And happiness is certainly not the measure for goodness, for evil men can be happy whilst doing horrible things, and we all know that Christ led a life not of pleasure but of suffering.

Despite all of that, I desperately want to believe that this country is basically filled with "good" people. I have certainly met some, (Darlene, Veronica, Suleika, Joe, Ray, Diane, Jaime, Erin, et al.) But I seem to attract a certain other type of person also. I have oft remarked on this species of man, calling them hate-mongers, and I have lightly condemned them before in previous entries. I always regret doing so, as they are probably "decent" people, or at the minimum, simply very flawed, as am I. I wish I didn't feel such sadness and disgust at these letters, but I am human, and by no means a master of my emotions. I am going to include some samples from the forum, to give you a little taste of what I eat on a regular occasion:

"I read about it (the story) so yeah, I know all about that is involved...I know Bart was a greedy bastard who wanted mommy and daddy's money...I believe in forgiveness but he shouldn't be alive."

"I mean, there are so many more meaningful things you can do. Like volunteer at a children's hospital, go around your neighborhood and get people to vote. Adopt a needy child. Do charity work. Search and beat down Casey Anthony. Anythings besides write to a murderer who doesn't deserve to be alive."

"I have to say this. I don't hate anyone. I was raised to forgive. , you can kiss my [expletive]. I will judge a murderer any way I damn well please and don't you forget that."

I could go on, but I don't have the heart, and most of it was pretty vile, and not something I want to have any part of duplicating. I think you can feel the mood by this point, anyways. When I read such things, all of my pretty mental constructions are absolutely demolished. What can I say in the face of such hatred? I pray, and I fast, and I try to do good works, and I still feel this immense weight on me that will never be lifted. These posts, do they represent the "good" in America? The poster claims so: she says she has a husband and kids, and claims not to have horns and a tail, though I am not convinced. As much hate as my heart ever contained is a tiny hill next to this woman's Everest. Is this what we have become?

Some would toss this pile of papers out, and move on. I cannot. I feel the need to do something, though I cannot define what that action might encompass. Do I refute this? Do I accept it? Do I listen to the Haydn concert tonight on NPR and try to forget about it all? (For the record, Haydn sucks, but I am so desperate for some decent music that I will even listen to "Theresienmesse". Zoltan Kocsis will be playing "Jardins sous la pluie" after that, so maybe the night will end well, at least.) Somehow, everything seems so much more pale after reading such vitriolic nonsense. I try to ask myself what would this woman want me to do, and I am afraid she would ask me to take my razor to my throat. I am sure she would miss the irony inherent in that request. Hell, maybe not. She would probably say something along the lines of, "it's not irony because you aren't human ."

The demons come out and play at 3:00AM. Someone is crying downstairs, which always makes me maudlin. I am afraid that I am going to do something I said I would not do, way back when I first set up this site, and talk about the DP in detail, I hope this does not make me a liar. I can only excuse myself by saying: situations change.

I want to address this woman. I want to point out some things to her. I am afraid, however, that I can not really get to the root of her arguments without getting into the mechanics of who I am, as identified as a condemned man. This is something I have been loathe to do. I could maybe just talk about the surface issues in her commentary, but I am not sure that would really amount to much. I guess that is a possibility worth attempting, before the rest of it. We shall see.

In the examples I laid out for you, the person claims to have extensive knowledge of my case, because she...what? Read about it in the newspaper? How very trusting of you. I am afraid I have some news for you: the ADA told my attorneys' months before the trial started that he knew money was not my motivation. They went with that, because it was an easy sell. But they knew that wasn't the central issue. Too bad you didn't bother to check the court records, or my Dad's book, huh? Surely you don't doubt his word? But more importantly, the statement: "I believe in forgiveness but he shouldn't be alive." How exactly does that work? I am being serious. You have a premise and a conclusion that are totally at odds with each other. It's like me saying, "I like blue shirts, but will punch anyone who wears one." How did you get from point A to C? This goes with the other comment which says, "I don't hate anyone. I was raised to forgive...I will judge a murderer any way I damn well please..." I somehow feel like maybe I need to check the dictionary for the definitions of the words "forgive" and "judge". And those are only the logic errors...when you drift into theology here, I think any of us who have ever read the New Testament can see that you are on shaky ground. I am blessed to have had someone show me what forgiveness is, and it is diametrically opposed to judgment, madam. I hope, one day, that you have that opportunity. I also hope, for your sake and mine, that God is not a Kantian, or we are both screwed, in equal measures. You may think you are that "good", but I do not need to actually know you to see that you are not. You call for the willful murder of another human being in a situation that has nothing to do with you. That makes you as cold as I ever was. I hope that gives you pause. And, quite frankly, it doesn't make much sense to berate my pen-pals as being individuals "wasting their lives", when you spend all of your free time on a third-rate, poorly-coded cesspool of a chat-room, talking trash about men who have no internet connection.

So this is what the sewer looks like. I must ask the obvious: where does the end of your logic chain take you? What is the "Boardwalk" on the Monopoly board of your philosophy? "Kill em all, and let God sort em out?" I keep thinking, one day we will start acting like we live in the 21st Century. Let me tell you where my philosophy takes me: healing, restoration, and peace. Frankly, sister, I will take that over your backwards, 12th Century b.s. any day.


God forgive me. I just can't help myself. It's all just too enmeshed in the bigger picture. Do you know why I didn't believe in Capital Punishment when I was in the world? Ever been to the DMV? Had a piece of mail vanish in transit? Had the IRS make a mistake on your tax refund? Very simply, I didn't trust the government to do even an adequate job of this. Look at the track record. You think the courts work any better than the DMV? Honestly? A system run by men whose very job description requires them to manipulate information? Yeah. I don't think so. Funny truth: guess who the most ardent supporters of abolition are in this nation? Attorneys. When you need to have your gall bladder removed, who do you call? That's right, a surgeon. Want to construct a building? Call an architect and an engineer. What does it say when the very people who know the court system in this nation better than anyone else are the people most adamant about executing the Death Penalty? It says something is rotten. Invariably, DP supporters cleave to three basic arguments: cost, deterrence, and retribution. Before I address each of these, I want to say that all of the information I am using is publicly available from places like the Death Penalty Information Center, DeathPenalty.org, NCADP.org, and DeathPenaltyCurriculum.org, though there are plenty of other sites out there with good data. Don't take my word on any of this stuff. You get no points with me for ignorance. If you want to hate me, fine. At least do yourself the favor of truly understanding the issue so your hate has some legs to stand on. Otherwise, you are just a bully with a stick.

Cost - Nobody really uses this to try to push the DP any more, though it used to be carried about as the battle standard leading the vanguard. One of my own jurors made the comment to a reporter that she didn't want to pay for me to be locked up for life. Here's the flaw: it costs WAY more to execute someone than to imprison them for life. I mean, way, way more. And that doesn't even include the millions of dollars spent on my trial, which came out of your pocket NOT because of what I did, but because the prosecutors refused to come off the DP and let me fade away quietly into the sunset of life in prison. He made that choice, and you paid for it. And you are still paying for it: millions of dollars for a series of (mainly) lip-service appeals for every last man on the Row. If you aren't currently thinking billions of dollars, you need to be. California spends 100 million dollars a year on DP litigation, and we are not far behind. I have seen varying figures for Texas, but to house an inmate in prison for his natural life cost between 300 and 700 thousand dollars, depending on the level of security. My appeal will likely exceed well over 3 million dollars, maybe much more. And don't be mislead, TX has consistently been rated one of the worst (if not the worst) states for the quality of appellate representation in the nation. Where does the money go? I have no freaking clue, because my attorney works for peanuts, and getting money out of the state for things like investigations is like trying to rob Fort Knox. But this is the cold, hard, inescapable truth: if this nation sent everyone on all of the Death Rows to prison for life, you, the taxpayer, would save a bundle. How much? Do the math:

3200 - the number of inmates on DR in this country
X 3,000,000 - the average cost per appeal (conservative estimate)
= 9,690,000,000.

"Hi. My name is Mr. Ten-Billion. I could be building you highways or schools, but I'm just going to sit right here and not do anything. That ok with you?"

Deterrence - Now we get into the meat of the argument. Deterrence is what intelligent supporters of the DP tout, and for good reason. The theory basically says that if Joe-Bob does something bad, and we punish him in a public manner, then Billie-Jean won't repeat his actions. It is summarized in what some French guillotines had etched on their blades: Pour Encourager Les Autres or "in order to encourage the others." This is what Justices Scalia and Thomas and several others hang on to, in order to justify their legal and political positions. Basically, they argue for deterrence because if the DP does not have some form of deterrent effect on crime, it serves no useful purpose, and is therefore cruel and unusual and in violation of the 8th Amendment.

Sounds nice, but scientific studies have consistently failed to show that executions deter people from committing murder. In fact, states with the DP have HIGHER murder rates than states without the DP. We clearly need to look at this, and I am going to do so from several directions. Firstly, let us see what the criminologists say about the matter: 84% say it has no effect on crime. These are hard numbers, mind. Look them up. In a Hart Research Associates poll, a majority of Police Chiefs said they don't believe that the DP reduces the number of homicides. Actually, they said it ranked "as the least effective way to reduce crime."

What do the statisticians say? Did you know that in a 2000 review of murder rates over the past 20 years, the New York Times found that states with Capital Punishment had rates 48 to 101% higher than states without the DP? The South accounts for 80% of executions, yet has the highest murder rate in the nation on a consistent basis. What, exactly, is going on here? The answer has several facets. The first has to do with why this information is not used to end capital punishment. In an op-ed piece which originally appeared in the Washington Post, we may see a portion of the answer.

The article was written by Cass R. Sunstein, the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, and Justin Wolfers, an Assistant Professor of Business and Public Policy at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. They felt compelled to write the piece, because their research had recently been misquoted and misused by members of the US Supreme Court in the arguments last Spring revolving around the use of Capital Punishment in this country. Basically, they were pissed, because somebody took their data and said, "Oh, hey, thanks for all the hard work, but I am going to just assume I know more than you do and rewrite the conclusion." It should worry you that the person who did this is one of the top nine judges in the country. Quotes:

"To support their competing conclusions on the legal issue, different members of the court invoked work by each of us on the deterrent effects of the death penalty. Unfortunately, they misread the evidence."

"Justice Antonin Scalia cited a suggestion by Sunstein (with co-author Adrian Vermeule) that 'a significant body of recent evidence' shows 'that capital punishment may well have a deterrent effect, possibly a quite powerful one.'"

"Justice Scalia relies on the suggestion by Sunstein and Vermeule that some evidence suggests a deterrent effect. But that suggestion actually catalyzed Donahue and Wolfe's study of available empirical evidence. Existing studies contain significant statistical errors, and slightly different approaches yield widely varying findings, a problem exacerbated by researchers tendencies to report only those results supporting their conclusions. This led Sunstein and Vermeule to acknowledge: 'We do not know whether deterrence has been shown...nor do we conclude that the evidence of deterrence has reached some threshold of reliability that permits or requires government action.' In short, the best reading of the accumulated data is that they do not establish a deterrent effect of the death penalty.

"One approach notes that in states with the DP, the average murder rate is 40 percent higher than in states without the DP...those states that impose the DP also have a historic culture of violence, including lynching."

Keep in mind, this was the BEST study Scalia and company could come up with. I hesitate to call his Honor a liar, but...he is either that, or is so married to his ideology that he sees everything through a tinted set of lenses, which may be even scarier than him simply being dishonest. Sometimes (oftentimes?) Judges already know the decision they are going to reach, before they even hear the evidence, and only afterwards do they send clerks to find the case law to back them up.

Lastly, I am going to give you a cons view of deterrence, something that hasn't been looked at, so far as I know. The whole notion is silly to me, for several reasons. I read a book on criminology once where this tweedy fellow expounded in great detail on the subject of how criminals use sort of a "Risk/Reward calculus" before committing a crime. In other words, if the risk is greater than the reward, they won't commit the crime, and the converse is also true. Hate to tell you this, but most murders just happen. A bad situation gets ugly really fast, and peoples' brains get a flood of chemicals, and suddenly a gun is smoking and somebody is on the ground. If you have ever been in a car accident, you might be able to understand how the body can have a life of its own when the fight or flight response is triggered. It seems a terribly foolish way for someone to lose their life, but I am surrounded by men who look me straight in the eye and say, "Thomas, I know I did what I did, but I just don't even remember doing it. The dude was in my face, and I saw him reach for his belt, and it just happened." Another very simple point is this: Most people who commit crimes believe they will get away with it. Foolish ignorance that may be, but that doesn't change the fact that it is true. For other crimes which were planned and which are caused by deep passion, I can tell you from personal experience that you cannot see past the hate. It is a presence in your mind, and you honestly believe that the only way past it is to do the act. I know you like to think that you are all morally superior to me, but I hate to tell you that we are all capable of murder, if the buttons are pushed in the right order. That you disbelieve me is only because you have never been pushed to the places I have. I hope to God you never are. If you do, one day you will understand what I am talking about when I say that punishment isn't even on the radar screen. Only the act is, the event, because you have convinced yourself this is the end of it all - all the pain, the anger, whatever. You feed everything to that flame. Deterrence? Risk/Reward calculations? Please. Another major problem with the theory is that the DP is just too rare. Murders happen all the time, everyday. Only a select few (less than 1%) are prosecuted for death. Nobody thinks it will be them. Just this week, Darnell Hartsfield was given a life sentence for the murders of five people in a restaurant. People look at that, and say, well, certainly I won't qualify, if he didn't get the DP. If you live in Houston, you no doubt remember the recent case of Juan Quintero, who shot a police officer in the back of the head multiple times while he was handcuffed in the back seat of the police car. He is now serving a life sentence. So are Manson and the "Son of Sam" killer. It's just too random for someone to think they will ever receive it. That is if they even bother to look that far down the road, which they most likely will not. Look, it is easy to sit there in your comfy chair and say, "Well, it should deter people in some way." But you are projecting. Most of you are responsible people, who pay your bills on time and all of that. But lots of people are not like you, and cannot see causal relationships until they are already moving into the realms of the effects. That is just the way it is in the real world, and ignoring that fact or lamenting the inability of some people to be more responsible is done at the risk of becoming out of touch with the nature of the world. Which, unfortunately, seems to be the national pastime with us these days. When the DP ends in this country - and I'm sorry to all of my angry friends, it WILL end one day - it will be because of the whole argument of deterrence finally saw the light of day. (Though, I should note, I am confident that TX will take care of me long before this day of reason happens.)

Retribution - Ah, good old revenge. While the scholars quibble and toss about non sequiturs on the subject of deterrence, revenge is really at the heart of the popular support of the DP. It is easy to understand the need for vengeance. Crimes should have effects which are negative or punitive on the person committing them. The alternative is anarchy. Many people like to say, "Well, he's guilty, he should be punished" as a response to why they support capital punishment. There is something of a gap there, though, isn't there? That statement would only be logically sound if all murders = the death penalty, which we know is not the case. The only two options are not freedom or death. I've never said, "Hey, I'm a different person now, you should let me go." Even though I know in my heart of hearts I would never get so much as a speeding ticket if I were to be released from prison, I wouldn't leave if they let me. That is something I think most of you don't understand about me. I very keenly feel my guilt, and the only way I get through the day is because I know I am at least paying for some of it, an hour at a time. You can still punish a man severely without partaking in his murder.

I think maybe we are conflating justice, which is the responsibility of society, and vengeance, which is most definitely not. If some of you are confused as to how these are different, I am not surprised. I've made something of a study of this, and I have found that most Europeans and East Coasters can very easily point out to me why these are distinct entities, while most Southerners see them as synonyms. In the land of the evangelical, it is the policy of vengeance which rules justice...and that is very confusing to me. Vindictive passion is evil and expressly forbidden by the Bible. Revenge loses sight of the end of the means. So why are certain religious organizations (The National Association Of Evangelicals, The Moral Majority, The Christian Coalition, all Fundamentalists and Pentecostal Churches, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the Southern Baptist Convention) the strongest supporters of capital punishment in America? (The Catholics, non-SBC Baptists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, the United Church of Christ, and the Methodists oppose it.) I think we need to look at portions of the Bible to understand. Exodus 21 is basically the cornerstone of the biblical pro-death argument. I invite you to look it over. If I may be so bold, I would ask you to please also note:

  • Blatant endorsement of slavery, including the willful separation of families as a result of them being property (v. 3-4).
  • Unabashed sexism (v. 7)
  • Anyone who assaults their parents should be executed (v. 15)
  • Kidnappers are also to be executed (v. 16)
  • People who curse their parents shall be put to death (v. 17)
  • Some very silly notions about assault (v. 18-19)
  • Permission to beat a slave, so long as they aren't hurt too badly (v. 21). ("Since the slave is their property...")
  • Don't miss the "eye for an eye" bit in (v. 24), we will come back to this in a bit.
Well, guys? If you want to "stand for the literal word of God", why aren't you out there calling for kidnappers and assaulters to be stoned to death? How about slavery? If you truly believe that an "eye for an eye" is to be the standard for our Justice system, why aren't you calling for all rapists to be raped and torturers to be tortured? I'm sorry, I couldn't quite hear your response, what with all of the hypocrisy flying about. Get this into your thick skulls: The Ten Commandments may have come from God, but all the rules that the Jews set down for governance were man-made. They were trying to keep more than 2 million unruly peasants from killing each other as they wandered about in a desert for forty years. 3500 years of human history should have made us progress a little as a species, shouldn't it? If God truly wanted death to be the solution for all manner of crimes, then why didn't He follow his own commands when he permitted Cain to scamper off to Nod after killing his brother Abel (Genesis 4)? Look, you can't parcel out pieces of the Bible to suit your needs of the moment. You have to read and understand the whole thing to see the progression of the answers. Most importantly: You Baptists (or whoever) are NOT Jews, you are CHRISTIANS. And Christ was a game-changer. He fulfilled the old law (Matt 5:17), and then it was taken away (Col 2:14). Paul wrote, "For he is our peace, who made both one, and broke down the middle wall of partition, having abolished in the flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances." (Eph 2:14-15).

I have said it once before, and I will say it again: You get no points for ignorance. Not with me, and not with God. If you are a Christian, you follow Christ. If you don't, you aren't. I don't even need to write anything to the Humanists or the Buddhists because-and this is sad-both of these groups often put us Christians to shame in morality contests.

A few comments from news clippings (names omitted):

- On the execution of Derrick Sonnier:

"This isn't about Justice. It's not about him dying. That doesn't change anything."

Um, I'm pretty sure it changed something for Derrick, and his family. Later in the article the same person displayed displeasure that Sonnier had been given a stay the previous month. I agree with you madam. This has nothing to do with Justice. I couldn't have said it better myself.

- On the execution of Larry Davis:

"I'm happy and thankful we do have the death penalty...it's the first thing on your mind in the morning and the last thing at night. It doesn't ever escape you mind...I didn't come here to see a man die, I came for my own personal satisfaction..."

I wonder if this man actually found "closure" after watching a man die? I have serious doubts that when you internalize your pain, as this man very apparently did, it ever really goes away. Unless you do what my Dad did, and what God commands us. In a civilized society, the emotional impulse for revenge cannot be a sufficient justification for invoking the death of another human being. It only extends the chains of violence. Want to guess who our buddies are on this issue? Iran, Saudi Arabia, China, and North Korea. Pleasant company we keep these days.

So...I think we have established that revenge is bad. Punishment, however is needed. We build prisons, and nobody has ever been able to explain to me why sending men to prison for life is a bad response for murder. It fills the need for society to remain safe from potentially dangerous people. It exacts a heavy punishment on the convicted. Most importantly, it allows us as a society to retain our moral high ground, and not act like ignorant sheepherders. In addition, life in prison is a reversible punishment, while death most certainly is not. And this is important, because innocent me are living on DR's all over this nation. Justice Sandra Day O'Conner: "More often than we want to recognize, some innocent defendants have been convicted and sentenced to death." Over 120 people have been exonerated from the Row in recent years. Some stuff you probably don't know: It is not the appellate system which rescues these innocent men. They are found, IN SPITE OF THE SYSTEM, by external groups like the Texas Defenders Service and the Innocence Network, or by small, independent groups of law students. The system actively battles them every step of the way. Usually, it is DNA which frees them. Sadly, I know of 8 men in my pod alone who have been waiting for DNA testing in their cases, some as long as 12 years. The state simply won't pay for it. But they will happily pay for the Pavulon. Try getting them to test the DNA AFTER a man has been executed...won't ever happen. Welcome to Texas, please check your good sense at the courtroom door. A study from Columbia University concluded that 68% of DP cases were marred by serious errors. Sam Milsep, former DA of Bexar County, Texas (San Antonio): "I've come to the conclusion that the system as it relates to capital murder is simply broken. It's my view in fact that because it's driven by human beings and decisions that are made by human beings, it can't be fixed, and that as a result what has to happen is the option to put people to death has to end."

Former Virginia Attorney General William Broaddus:
"There's just no way I could conclude that the way we do this makes any sense. I have come to conclude that, in fact, we apply the death penalty in a very arbitrary manner."

Why is this arbitrariness important?

The US Supreme Court has said that if the death penalty is applied arbitrarily, it should not be applied at all. This is the reason it was abolished in 1976. And yet, I would submit to you that the system is just as arbitrary today as it was then , maybe more so. I received a letter from an ADA in California last year after the 48 Hours special. He said: "I in no way condone...your actions, Mr. Whitaker...you deserve to be punished harshly, which you yourself admit...it is an unfortunate situation for you and your father and your potential as a teacher within the prison system that your (crime) was committed in one of the most conservative counties in the country...and in an election year...For this you will die, not for any other reason...I am content to work in a county that has only used the ultimate punishment twice in seven years..." It is common knowledge that the state of Texas kills far more inmates than any other state in this country. We have six dates in November alone. While we do in fact have a very high murder rate in this state, it is not so high that it justifies this disparity. It is a very simple truth that if I had lived in any one of the other states in this nation, or even in all but a few counties in this state, you would have never even heard of me, because my trial never would have happened. And so I die, arbitrarily.

I could go on, but I think I have made my case. (And besides, I've been typing for something like three hours now...it's now 6:00AM.) Very quickly, I want to touch on something else. I have an extremely unique position as a DR inmate, in that I have constant contact with the victims of my crime. I see the results of what happens when forgiveness is not offered: people carry wounds for the rest of their lives, both the perpetrators and the victims. Nothing gets solved. Only new victims are created. In contrast to this, I see my Dad, and what he has done with all of this. There is no comparison. I am a very results oriented person, so for me there are definite lessons to be learned from my situation. Ultimately, the end result of any justice system should be the maintenance of law and order, and the just punishment of the offender. I submit that we should also make the restoration of both the victim and the perpetrator a major priority. Obviously, in murder this cannot be done for the victim, but we can do some things to prevent the victims' family and friends from immersing themselves in a never-ending cycle of anger and hatred. We can also try to fix the men who committed the crimes, rather than sticking them in a 6X10 foot cage to rot. We used to have a Victims Reconciliation Program here. I had a friend who went through it years ago. He was able to meet and pray with the mother of the woman he killed (she held his handcuffed hands in hers.) There is no doubt about something: he was remade. Want to guess what happened? The mother wrote him for months, and eventually became a true friend. Her pain was remade into something beautiful. He would tear up whenever he would talk about his "second mother". He is gone now, serving a life sentence she helped him get. Because she did this, TDC killed the program here. It made them lose, you see. This state is like an angry child, fuming about having lost a toy. So, who pays for their reprehensible behavior? Countless families whose goal is not to be angry forever. Ultimately, the greater good suffers.


South Carolina Prison Officials Allegedly Forced to be Executioners

I hope this hasn't been overkill. I have left out so much. I have a tendency to be a touch long-winded when I hop on my soapbox. This is serious stuff, though. Check my data. Prove me wrong. If you can't, you have to decide whether you are going to do something about it. I leave that choice up to you.

"A fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject."

"You can always count on Americans to do the right thing - after they have tried everything else."
- Sir Winston Churchill

© Copyright 2008 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.