Sunday, March 13, 2011

Who Are Those Guys?

This began as a comment in response to a question from Atticus that was itself a commentpost that I wrote right after Johnnie Baston was murdered on Thursday.  But I was going to write too much, and frankly it deserved to stand by itself. to this 
Here's the substantive part of the comment.
“For a long time I didn’t see a lot of value in myself,’’ Baston said Thursday in the death chamber, the Toledo Blade reported. “It wasn’t until this moment, till I had to go through this ordeal, that I have seen so much love from so many people, letters from people all over the world, and even Ohio.’’

This is out of a CNN article about the execution; apparently the event was newsworthy only because of the one drug thing.

Aside from the tragicomic reference (...even Ohio), do you see any larger meaning here? Is there a flip side to the death penalty that undercuts the abolitionist position, which I should state again I have some sympathy for even if I'm not entirely in agreement?
I omitted from this the part where Atticus says that he's not being an arrogant jackass (my words, not his) but really wants to know what I think.
First of all, I won't talk about Baston.  His words and death occasioned the question, but it isn't about him.  And, frankly, lots of people on the row can say the same thing.  Which is sort of the point of the question and also its answer.
The vast majority of the men and women on the row (and around the country, not just in Ohio) are damaged.  They are products of chaos and abuse.  To call their backgrounds dysfunctional is to suggest backgrounds far more coherent, stable, beneficial even than can fairly be allowed.
They are victims of abuse - physical/sexual/psychological/social/all of the aboval.  The abuse they experienced was personal.  But they also saw abuse - of siblings, of parents and grandparents.  They are, often, third and fourth generation victims (and probably more, but it gets very tough to track it back further) of not just abuse but serious mental illness.  Their homes were not merely broken, they were shattered.  Here's what the late Chief Justice of the Ohio Supreme Court, in dissent alas, said of Joey Murphy (execution scheduled for October 18).
In fact, in all of the death penalty cases I have reviewed, I know of no other case in which the defendant, clearly guilty of the crime as defendant is here, was as destined for disaster as was Joseph Murphy as a direct result of the conditions to which he was exposed by his family.
There's no excuse in this.  The horrific background doesn't make the crime OK.  But if it's not an excuse, it's an explanation.  Sure, some people survive appalling chaos and abuse and become productive members of society.  But not all that many.  Damage comes back and haunts.
Another of the things about damage, though, is that it destroys any concept of self worth.  Self-esteem can be (and routinely is) overrated as something to impart to our kids.  But they never thrive when convinced they're worthless.  There has to be a spark somewhere, some hint of a Stuart Smalley moment.  That doesn't guarantee anything, but it raises a possibility.
The problem (a problem) is that if you study the folks on death row, you'll find that too often the only affirmation they ever got was from gangs.  The gang was the family they didn't have, the working support system.  And often there wasn't even that.
Sometimes it looked good.  There might have been a seemingly stable home but psychological trauma and physical abuse are often hidden - and denied.  Or there's brain injury - intentionally or accidentally inflicted.
None of this is always.  And there are folks on the row to whom none of this applies.  But it's common. Hell, it's the norm.
For some, prison provides the first comparatively stable environment they ever experience.
Except, of course, prison is itself chaotic and abusive.  And the inmates are, too often, altogether lost.  They have nobody on the outside who cares for them, who visits, who writes or waits.  They are mistreated by guards, by other inmates, by the system itself.
Here's the single way that, for some, death row is different:
Somebody is paying attention.
Not for everyone, but for many.  There are lawyers and investigators.  There are maybe teams of people working the case.  Interested in you, the guy the state wants to kill.  Life's still shit, but there's someone out there.  
Death row is pretty much uniformly worse than life in general population.  But for some, it's the first time that anyone gave a damn about them.  And so you'll sometimes see a blossoming of artistic talent or some interpersonal skill or redemtion.  Because there's room for at least a hint of affirmation.
And there's the irony.
For some, not for everyone, probably not for most, but for some, the sentence of death generates the virtues of life.
And then we snuff it out.
Because - and I've said this before - we have to make them monsters in order to kill them.  And if they somehow stopped being monsters, we need to do our damnedest to turn them back.  
Into the thing we can feel good about hating.


  1. The choices seem to be that the death penalty, by confronting the condemned with the imminence of death, may thereby occasion some inner appreciation for meaning and life, which I guess is ironic. The other choice - life in prison - entails a natural lifespan of languishing, waiting for the end to come on its own, never bringing anything to a head.

    Which of these is the better of a terrible situation?

    I'm not sure either choice can claim the "humane" label for itself alone. I'm leaning in the abolitionist direction, not that I think you should care. I'm not really sure why. Something to do with a categorical repudiation of killing except in imminent life saving situations.

    You know, in that comment I was just trying to make it clear that I wasn't being argumentative. I don't know when I've given the impression of being an "arrogant jerk", which you are kind of implying I am. In any case, it's not a gracious response to a request for an honest opinion on a subject I am genuinely struggling with.

  2. Didn't mean to be ungracious.

    And I appreciate your struggling with the issue.

    I suppose there are probably some cases where the confrontation with death generates an appreciation for life. (A variation on Dr. Johnson's observation that the knowledge one is to be hanged in a fortnight concentrates the mind wonderfully.) But that isn't really what I was getting at.

    My point was that for some people, being sentenced to death leads to them getting emotional and moral support that they before received in their lives. That can lead to some positive change in their lives, although if they're executed, that might be short lived.

    For others, of course, extensive time in prison becomes a time of reflection and understanding (and sometimes sobering up). There are many many instances of prisoners (not necessarily, or even mostly, capital prisoners) getting educated behind bars and turning their lives around. You might take a like at Wilber Rideau's "In the Place of Justice."

    Prison is no hotbed of humaneness. And a sentence of death in prison is for some far more horrifying than a quicker death at the hands of the state.

    I don't advocate it in the abstract. But the criminally accused and convicted, those on death row and otherwise in prison, they aren't abstractions.

    In any case, death in prison is different from death at the hands of the state as a sentence. And that difference matters in a variety of ways.