July 7, 2003

Not Making a Killing

The New York Times ran a story today about the penalty phase of a murder trial in which it was quite clear that the defendant was guilty of a heinous crime. The jurors all professed a belief in the death penalty, some going so far as to say that it wasn't used enough.

But when it came down to the wire, even having seen videotape footage of this senseless killing, all 12 finally voted against the death penalty. Why? Read this fascinating story for yourself.

Personally, I am against the state killing people. Yesterday, I had to explain to my amazed 6 year old daughter that the government sometimes kills its citizens. My answer to her not unexpected "why" was probably not very good. My wife explained to her that most other civilized countries did not follow this practice.

And now our governor, Mitt Romney, would like to have the death penalty here in MA. There is opposition, of course.

Let's look at some quotes from the NYT story:

The trial also had an unexpected effect on Gill, the young prosecutor. ''I was surprised by the feelings of sympathy I had for Jeremy,'' he told me. ''That caught me off guard. You don't learn in law school how to deal with the penalty phase. Nothing prepares you for that.'' I asked Gill whether he thought Gross deserved to die. He reclined in his chair and pondered the question for a minute or two. ''Yes,'' he said. Then he added, ''But I'm not dissatisfied with the jury's decision.''
I suppose that's the way I feel, in a way. Some people probably deserve to die, but I don't feel that the state ought to kill them. (That's not what this prosecutor is saying, but his words helped me to frame my feelings.)
A juror named Darlene Sue (she requested that her last name not be used), who had read the Bible every night searching for answers, believed Gross should die. She told her fellow jurors that over the course of the trial she'd come to believe that the Old Testament's notion of an eye for an eye made sense, and she read a short passage from the Bible she had with her. ''He wasn't so scarred by his childhood that he didn't know right from wrong,'' she told me. ''I remember his friends who he was living with in the trailer, saying that he talked them into staying in school. That told me he knew what he was doing. ''

The other juror who initially voted for death also quoted from the Bible, about not sitting in judgment of others. She soon switched her vote.

We sometimes pick and choose from our belief systems to justify our decisions. In the end isn't it what is in our hearts that guides us? These jurors were saying something about what was in their hearts after they heard the case of the defense.

The NYT story is 12 pages long, but well-worth the read. I am opposed to the death penalty, but the story impresses upon me how juries can really work. People are put in the actual position of deciding to kill this individual -- people who support the law that allows the retribution of killing, but suddenly talk is no longer cheap.

Something valuable came out of this trial; it was a real learning experience for the jurors. I wonder if they can communicate the lesson they learned to others. It sounds like they had some difficulty discussing the subject with their families and coworkers, many of whom disagreed with their decision.

You can look at this article and see it as support for the death penalty. The jury system works, you might conclude. And it's true in this case. However, not every defendant is going to have competent representation. I see it as 12 people reexamining what was previously a very facile support for a bad law. The crime was brutal, but the state does not have to be.

Posted by James at July 7, 2003 5:35 PM
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James--Tolkien said i best.

When Frodo opined to Gandalf that Gollum derserved to die, Gandalf replied that, yes, he supposed Gollum did deserve to die. But he went on to observe that there are many who are dead who deserve to live--can you bring them back? He then cautioned young Frodo to be hesitant about meting out death.

I've always seen it as a simple logical construction--the state's position is that killing one another is not an acceptable way to handle our differences, hence the laws against murder. So killing murderers cannot be an acceptable way to handle our differences with them.

I enjoy your blog.

Posted by: Mike Mahoney at July 10, 2003 12:47 PM

Thanks so much for reminding me of that great line from Tolkien. You're right -- he did say it best.

Posted by: JP at July 10, 2003 12:54 PM

I like the story. I like the blog entry. I like Mike's comment. Geeze, that's three things in a row I like - I'm on a roll. I'm gonna blog this. ;-)

Posted by: Greg at July 10, 2003 10:26 PM

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