(This piece originally ran on Decarcerate PA and is being shared with the permission of the author)
I want to open up a discussion. This discussion will lead into different facets of the same apparatus. Depending on what’s contributed to this discussion, this discussion could delve much more deeply than I even anticipate. But, in order for this discussion to have a chance at a meaningful resolution, all contributors have to be willing to look at everything objectively and believe that there’s a possibility that their own line of thinking could be wrong. I will assert right now that, in an effort to stay objective, I will attempt to be cognizant of the fact that my scenarios or thoughts are not necessarily truths that are etched in stone. Someone could offer a rebuttal that disproves my thoughts, and I am open to that possibility.
Two Different Men
Let’s begin this discussion with an analogy. Let’s start with two different men. One man, named “John,” has an “occupation” that requires depravity in order to be successful. He’s a hit man, and he’s committed a fair share of murders. There are no limits on how far he’ll go. Whomever he’s hired to execute, that job will be done, no questions asked. The second man is named “Blake.” While he doesn’t exhibit a penchant for murder, his environment and peer pressure sometimes goad individuals to believe they “have to do what has to be done.” One day, Blake finds out that his own mother was robbed and beaten by a man from around the corner. Needless to say, even though his mother survived, the “codes of the street” that he continually adhered to, compelled him to “take care of the situation.” Without the same stealth or clarity of mind as John, Blake takes the life of the man whom he considered to be a vile human for robbing and beating his mother.
Both of these men, John and Blake, committed abhorrent crimes against other individuals, and society as a whole. Neither actor can be reconciled without the proverbial pound of flesh. Absent the subjective beliefs of some as to whose crimes were worse, it’s safe to say that John’s accumulative demerits for homicide call for a more intense punishment. But, sadly, “justice” is not always sought. More often than not, an “outcome” is the desired result.
What Is Next In Their Lives?
There is hypocrisy in our judicial system. This hypocrisy is perpetuated by sanctioned individuals within the system. But the public endorses these actions; by doing nothing and accepting these actions as just. I’m apt to say the public only accepts some flawed concepts because they are not privy to the strategies, applied daily, in the judicial system. If the public were to see these actions more often, the public would probably be horrified. Oh, one of these hypocrisies, or flawed concepts, is “The Deal”.
As I stated before, John’s continual disregard for the sanctity of human life seems to be easy to categorize as heinous. Blake, while not free from blame, could possibly be seen as a person provoked by the assault of his mother. But now, the prosecutor uses “The Deal” to decide the fate of these two individuals (over 90% of cases have a deal offered). “The Deal” is not gauged on an individual’s particular crime; it’s arbitrarily decided by the perpetrator’s worth to the prosecution.
John is offered a deal that could have him out of jail in maybe 10- or 15-years. His deal entails him testifying on all those who hired him, and many of their cohorts as well. Blake, on the other hand, is offered a deal for 30- to 60-years. His deal is not for testimony but just to save the government the cost and time of a trial. Needless to say, with John’s unsavory compilation of crimes, he willingly relinquishes the beliefs he once held dear and he testifies against his former brethren; securing “The Deal” in the process. On the other hand, feeling as though proper vengeance was exacted, Blake doesn’t take “The Deal” and he winds up feeling the full weight of the law after his conviction: LIFE WITHOUT PAROLE. Do you think the two sentences are fair?
Who Orchestrates “The Deal”? What Does It Look Like?
The government propagates the notion that deals must be made in order to keep the system moving. They say that, without deals, the system would come to a “grinding halt”. But let’s examine the art of “The Deal” and see if it is feasible to our pursuit of justice.
First of all, there are no written standards for a deal. (I could’ve given you the real-life example of Marie Noe, from Philadelphia, who received no jail time for the smothering of over five of her own infants. She also violated her probation and still never saw the inside of a prison.) A prosecutor – two or three, at the most – has the authority to offer whatever deal they believe suitable. This means that one human being, who is not infallible – three, at the most – gets to determine a person’s worth based on a personal assessment of the case. The defendant is subject to a prosecutor’s proclivities, and possibly the prosecutor’s obduracy – one human being who is not infallible, as an agent of the government, with the power to decide an individual’s fate. Why aren’t prosecutors’ actions considered just as bad as the perpetrator, since he/she also, subjectively, decides what action is right and just?
Before you claim the prosecutor is the government, remember that “The Deal” is not law, nor is there uniformity (i.e. Marie Noe). Without established guidelines – and a seemingly unmitigated immunity for prosecutors – defendants are sometimes subject to the whims of a prosecutor. Many times, prosecutors’ actions can’t be construed as acts on behalf of the people because prosecutors use the system to gratify their own desires; therefore, their actions belie an entity that is supposed to be an example of fairness and justice.
Let’s also examine the aspect of “The Deal” that the government considers a necessary evil. Prosecutors have repeatedly asserted that they sometimes need to deal with criminals in order to catch criminals. That mindset has, at times, led to the proliferation of criminal enterprises. (We readily employ that mindset overseas, too, to usurp governments and we can see what that has got us.)
This action won’t be considered vigilantism because vigilantism is action taken outside of lawful procedures. But using criminal actions to prevent crime – actions taken outside of lawful procedures – almost, surely, is applicable to the same category as vigilantism. Wait a minute, I don’t want to further obfuscate this conversation with questions of whether the government can be vigilantes.
Consider the question: If you had a strong belief that your daughter was getting high, would you give the neighborhood dealer some type of incentive or consideration in an effort to catch your child red-handed? And, if you’re that desperate to catch your child in the act, and you do work with the dealer, are you content that a criminal has benefited off your desire? If your compensation was money, it probably could’ve contributed to the dealer’s expansion. Whatever your compensation was, would you be comfortable? This scenario is tantamount to the prosecution’s deal with a cooperating defendant. Is this Utilitarianism, and these actions the greatest good for the greatest amount of people?
Prosecutors secure testimony from a criminal who was in collusion with others but no longer sees a benefit for themselves by aligning and staying true to those others. Prosecutors give this criminal “The Deal” in order to secure convictions on the other defendants. Lots of times, the criminal who is given a deal is more dangerous than those whom he has to testify against (surely, people would be more afraid of John than they are of the ones who sent him).
This cooperating “witness” is only doing this for some type of incentive. Matter of fact, let’s look at some recent, real-life events. In 1997, Kelly Renee Gissendaner conspired with her boyfriend to have her husband murdered. The boyfriend, Gregory Owen, actually plunged the knife into the neck and back of Gissendaner’s husband. The prosecutors cut him a deal to testify against Gissendaner, and he will be eligible for parole in 2022. Kelly Renee Gissendaner was executed by the State of Georgia on September 30, 2015, for the murder of her husband. Even though the man who actually murdered her husband is eligible for parole, she was executed for her crime. Is there fairness in this case? Is Owen more redeemable that Gissendaner?
Another similar case is in Oklahoma. Richard Glossip is on death row, while his co-defendant, Justin Sneed, was spared the death penalty. Following the theme of the previous example, you can gather that Justin Sneed was the one that murdered the victim, but Sneed, conveniently, was offered the chance to testify against Glossip for a reduced sentence. So, the actual murderer, Sneed, was spared the death penalty, and the individual that Sneed testified against, Glossip, was given the death penalty, because it was alleged that he told Sneed to kill the victim. Is this fair?
Why Should We Care? What’s The Effect Of This?
I can’t tell you why you should care. Actually, this piece is being written to evoke some responses, mainly those that explain why others should care. I just want to present a side of the system that many don’t see and, with that information, you can decide what position you want to take. In the beginning, I said that this conversation would look at different aspects of the same apparatus, and now I want to explain how all of those analogies relate to another part of the system.
Is “The Deal” the problem? No. “The Deal” is just a concept. But the same as any concept, intent behind this concept must be examined. Investigating the intent of the concept will ultimately lead to its root – human intention. “The Deal” is not a problem, per se; how people see other people’s intrinsic value is the problem. Deals are offered on an arbitrary decision of who is redeemable and who is not. Knowing this, whether you look at the intent of the concept, or the anticipation of the concept, “The Deal” is reliant on the integrity of humans.
“The Deal” is just a mechanism that some use to exhibit a wanton disregard for a justice system that’s tempered with compassion and humanity. That disregard is exemplified in some other machinations that blatantly oppose mercy (one of these machinations being Life Without Parole, which we will explore shortly).
The agents of the government who employ “The Deal” perceive their actions to be benevolent and, sometimes, they are right. But, as you can see from some of the earlier examples, the seeming unfairness of some of those deals completely strips the prosecutor’s actions of any benevolence.
The human factor to “The Deal” is, at times, detrimental to it. Prosecutors take a position of defenders of “non-accused” citizens, instead of defenders of justice. Prosecutors are actually supposed to be defenders of the public, which also encompasses “accused” citizens. But prosecutors develop a callousness that inhibits the desire for justice, and encourages abuse. In some instances, the wishes of the victims for mercy are not even honored, indicative of the prosecutor’s dismissive attitude towards justice. At some point, you have to ask: Is the thirst for vengeance really the public’s thirst, or is it the desire of “armchair warriors,” who utilize the public’s fear to further their own agendas? A prosecutor’s partiality is evident when they show such exuberance to convict the accused, but lack the fervor when evidence is revealed to be contrary to their position. Oftentimes, they won’t even apologize for a wrongful conviction.
Is “The Deal” The Problem?
Just like most concepts that are intended to help others, a human with nefarious means can corrupt the good intentions of any concept. “The Deal” has been used, unjustly, for some time. When that is done, justice is not served. When justice is not served, the approval for injustice becomes stronger. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” and no human is immune to the possibility of an injustice being perpetrated against him or her.
The consequences of a deal can sometimes be dire – not only when a deal is taken, but sometimes when a deal in not taken. You can see from the examples earlier, unbalanced outcomes are prevalent in this system. The government has “legitimized” two forms of obliteration of human beings: the death penalty, and death by incarceration (DBI – also known as Life Without Parole). Acknowledging the finality of these sentences, why would we allow something as definitive as the destruction of a human being to be reliant on a system that is, oftentimes, unbalanced?
Death penalty and Life Without Parole sentences are levied on those whom the system deems incorrigible. (Before someone tries to insert the argument that jurors decide a person’s fate, it should be noted that juries only decide guilt. Juries are not even informed as to what sentences are applied to the charges they have to choose from.) The initial argument against these sentences is that neither sentence allows for redemption. Both sentences neglect the possibility that a human being could change for the better and become an asset to society. But, beyond the immorality of the sentence, let’s look at the process of deeming an individual unredeemable.
I just said that those terminal sentences “are levied on those whom the system deems incorrigible”. A more accurate depiction would be to substitute the word “system” for the word “prosecutor.” Prosecutors – maybe two, but definitely no more than three – are the deciders of a person’s fate. If an accused person refuses to fully cooperate, the prosecutor can maliciously try to attain the harshest penalty available. Does a refusal to cooperate with authorities somehow warrant annihilation? Actually, the Constitution guarantees the right to not incriminate one’s self. So, why would taking advantage of the rights the Constitution affords you be treated as if it’s subterfuge, and a terrorist act against the government? Is the system meant to be a propagator of vindictiveness?
So, Get Rid Of “The Deal” To Ensure Fairness, Right?
No. The conversation about “The Deal” was just a contrivance I used to illustrate a much larger issue: the absurdity of our justice system! These analogies were used to show the incongruity in the application of fairness. We are complicit in a system that gives an unearned chance at redemption to a person whose recompense is to be further dishonorable (note: I did not attribute “dishonorable” to cooperating defendants because of “snitching”; they are dishonorable because they have no ethical allegiance to anyone but themselves. They only cooperate when they are offered leniency, almost never because of their civic obligation).
Deals have become tools that are used in reprehensible ways, not as producers of honorable justice. I initially said that the public is unaware of these deals, but that might not be true. Who doesn’t know about Sammy The Bull, or one of the multitude of henchmen who eventually turned state’s evidence? I believe the public is aware, but there is such a cavalier attitude towards the situation. Our selfishness precludes us from looking at instances in a system that is imploding; blinding us to the fact that we can be affected by the blast.
The words “criminal justice system” seem to form a duplicitous term that only the favored would favor. Nobody is accentuating the fact that the cries for justice are not coming from the elitists. And, unfortunately, some outside of the elite standing cannot see the lack of justice that is apportioned to them; more than likely because they haven’t had to address it head-on. There is a clear dichotomy, but what’s not clear is if the have-nots understand that they are have-nots.
But there is a bigger problem in this system. There are quite a few irregularities in the application of fairness in our legal system. It seems as if the whole process indicts our unquenchable thirst for revenge and reluctance to forgive. So, I want to pose a question: If you find that most of the scenarios that I related to earlier implicate unfairness, how could you not be against a sentence that eradicates any possibility of redemption? How could you be an advocate – through lobbying or reticence – of sentences of such finality in the face of human fallibility and bias?
We implement punishments in our system that exact permanence, but none more than DBI and the death penalty (both death sentences). In light of a system prone to error, how could we be comfortable with that? Death sentences are not punishments to teach what was done wrong; they are human decrees of a person’s immaterial worth to the world.
The system has many instances of showing a disregard for certain individuals’ circumstances in life, but death sentences show an unmitigated disregard for life, period! The moment you decide another person is not worthy of life, you take part in a segment of society that imbues themselves with the right to decide life or death. The same act that you objurgate the “murderer” for, you plan to implement yourself. The mercy that you wish had been bestowed upon the victim, is the same mercy that you are unwilling to bestow; essentially adding fuel to a circuitous ring of fire that furthers the destruction of human life.
We don’t rob a person who has robbed someone. We don’t rape a person who has raped someone. We don’t kidnap a person who has kidnapped someone. Nor do we assault a person who has assaulted someone. So, why should we kill a person who has killed someone? Is there any curriculum in our country that teaches that it is okay to violate someone, if that person has violated you?
I have asked you to look at death sentences from a self-reflective point-of-view, comparing the sentence’s value to your own moral compass. Well, why don’t we just look at the sentence from a practical perspective.
There are plenty of states that use Life With Parole sentences, and some states do not use the death penalty. There has been no major uptick in murders because of the availability of parole. The recidivism rate for the class of individuals who were serving Life With Parole is extremely low. Keep in mind, parole is not immediately granted to an individual because his or her date is due. If a person shows transformation in thinking, and a renewed dedication to the community that is beneficial and not harmful, only then can that person be afforded a chance at parole.
Why not use parole? There are commutation and clemency processes that resemble parole, and allow a second chance. Commutation and clemency have not been protested as release valves, so why should parole? The problem with commutation and clemency are that these processes are lengthy and, more often than not, political. They are processes that also overlook those who are likely viable choices but who didn’t apply; an individual’s life should be worth being looked at without prerequisite paperwork. Parole accomplishes that. And, since there is no uproar about commutation or clemency, why not use parole, which is just a better alternative to those valves of release?
Again, Why Should We Care?
No one can make you care, but a lack of caring is what is weakening humanity now. But, if you don’t care, what makes you think that someone with more power and authority won’t feel the same – about you!
Please understand that, just because I railed against the unjust death sentences, I do not absolve the actions of any individual who has killed another human being. But we can’t censure one individual for an act and, in turn, perpetrate this same act and call it comeuppance – especially under the auspices of a clearly flawed system.
We utilize a system that spitefully negates the possibility of redemption. This system is in the hands of a few, and they willingly trample the rights and desires of the many. In a system of checks and balances, the many, who are not in the upper-rungs of the hierarchy, are not actually allowed to engage in the checks and balances – or, at least, are dissuaded from doing so.
Look, some states do not use death sentences. So, is there a difference in murder between states? What makes the people convicted of murder in those states more deserving of a second chance than people convicted in states with death sentences? Nothing. They all have the same capacity to become better people and, also, attempt to correct some of the harm they have caused.
We’ve got to a point where we let politicians and pundits tell us how to feel. The Supreme Court just determined that juveniles were not to be required to face mandatory death sentences. There was no massive uprising to combat this. The court said it, so it was so. Individuals, whom people had once considered incorrigible, were now considered able to contribute to society. We waited for decades for the “authorities” to tell us it was okay for kids to go home. Why wait more decades for the “authorities” to tell us what we can see now: many men and women are not incorrigible, and they should not be viewed as such.
Don’t be fooled, the authorities actually work for the people. You can ask for systemic change, or you can just sit back and watch the negative effects, hoping that they never touch you.
I once talked about this quote in one of my papers:
“If I had to choose between justice and disorder, on the one hand, and injustice and order, on the other, I would always choose the latter.”
- Goethe (1749-1832)
First of all, justice cannot be juxtaposed with disorder, nor can injustice be juxtaposed with order. Actual justice should be universal to all, and it should inspire order. But someone who wants to embrace injustice to have order – as Goethe intimates – has already decided that they will be the dispenser of injustice, so that they can achieve that “order”. That is an unfortunate mindset, and one that permeates our system today.
And that is why we should care.
Vernon Robinson is currently incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution Graterford in Pennsylvania. He specializes in editing and proofreading and has a few published works to his credit. He is also the secretary of the Lifers' Right to Redemption Committee - a committee dedicated to the eradication of Life Without Parole sentences and educating the public about the Life-sentenced individual's capacity to change and become an asset to society. Vernon considers his greatest accomplishment to be his beautiful daughter. His hope is that some of the things he does will somehow influence others positively.