Thursday, April 11, 2013

There But for the Grace of . . . . Ah, the Hell with It

Of course they said Steven Smith should be killed.  He had after all, viciously raped a child, a baby not yet six months old.  Raped her anally and vaginally.  And he killed her.

He acknowledges raping Autumn Carter.  He acknowledges killing her, too, though he says that was an accident, an unintended consequence of the rape.

The state disagrees.  He intentionally murdered Autumn said the prosecutors, he made a conscious decision to kill her.  He shook her violently. He smashed her face into the couch hard enough to leave a fabric pattern imprinted on her face. He banged her head around.  And the rape.  Her vagina was stretched to some 10 times normal size.  The assault went on for at least 10 minutes, perhaps as long as a half hour.

He now claims to be remorseful, now claims to have acted when he was out of control, in an alcoholic blackout, to have not known what he was doing.  But really, the prosecutors say, he knew.  He turned up the volume on the TV to cover her screams.  He tried to clean up before the cops arrived. He denied it all at trial.

And anyway, he chose to be an alcoholic - or at least chose to be an alcoholic who didn't get treatment, who didn't acknowledge his problem even when courts ordered him to admit he was an alcoholic and get treatment.

And sure, he claims to be good with kids.  Other people said he was.  Not this one.  Not this time.

And so, they said he should be killed.  The jury said so in 1998.  No court has disagreed.  And now the Parole Board says so.  They issued their opinion today.  To the surprise of nobody much, they say he should be killed.

His arguments?  Nope. They write
  • The Board rejects the argument
  • Even if he was 
  • The Board finds counsel's suggestion absurd
  • The Board rejects the argument
  • The Board rejects the argument
  • The Board rejects the argument
  • The Board rejects the argument
So kill him. Because, see, it was awful. And the jury got it right.
The dearth of mitigation in Smith's case contrasts sharply with the appalling facts and
circumstances of his crime. Smith took the life of an innocent six-month-old infant
while using the baby to sexually gratify himself. It is hard to fathom a crime more
repulsive or reprehensible in character. It is clearly among the worst of the worst.
Shrub, back in the days when he was signing off on Texas executions without actually knowing the arguments made in clemency petitions, used to explain that he had two questions.
  1. Is the guy guilty?
  2. Did he have access to courts to ask for relief?
It wasn't his job, you see, to second guess what the jury said.  Nothing about mercy or justice.  His job as the executive was to, well, execute.

The Ohio Parole Board has proved itself less consistent.  What moves them one time doesn't the next.  They'd claim, I'm sure, that they're making reasoned and individualized decisions, though they look a lot like arbitrary ones.  Regardless, their focus is never on mercy.  As juries are told they may not consider mercy, the Parole Board simply refuses to.

Clemency, from their point of view, isn't an act of grace, it's a matter of error correction.  If the jury got it right . . . .
  • If he's guilty.
  • And if no court has overturned the death sentence.
Steven Smith's is a particularly tough case.  Whether he intentionally murdered Autumn Carter or it happened accidentally, negligently, while he was viciously raping her, the crime was horrific.  Of course, if he didn't intend to kill her, then he wasn't technically eligible for death.  But the jury said he did.  And the Board believes he did.  

And since there was no mistake, no error to correct.

Which as I've said before is just wrong.  Oh, executive clemency is certainly available to correct errors.  But it's more, or it should be.  It's about mercy, about grace, about the spontaneous not-because-you-deserve-it-but exactly-because-you-don't.

Because there but for the grace of God.

Which Governor Kasich seems sometimes to understand even if the Parole Board can't imagine why.

Steven Smith's execution is scheduled for May 1. 


  1. My thought is that the crime is sufficiently horrific so as to preclude anything except the death penalty, Smith's intentions aside.

    This may not be the way the system is supposed to work, but it is the way it does work - as any student of human nature will tell you.

    I suppose the question each juror should ask themselves is this: If I sentence this person to death, would I willingly serve as the sole executioner and would it trouble me to do so?

    1. Or as a judge I know later explained (off the record, which is why this is without attribution; also, I have it not from the judge him/her bself ) his vote against death in a case tried not to a jury but to a three-judge panel, "I just couldn't look at him and say, 'Fuck you.'"

  2. Here's my thing about the whole "Did he intend to kill the baby?" question. Now, if you rape a 14 year old, it's still a horrific crime, but, a female of that age can usually physically accomodate the action without major damage. Not the case with a baby of that size/age at all. I would question if it's possible to do what he did *without* major and/or mortal injury to the baby. So, to me, intent to rape more or less *is* intent to kill in this case. Ignorance of that not a defense in this circumstance, imo.

    I do understand your opinion on the death penalty, especially in light of the people who have been killed by it that may not (or definitely were not) guilty. Obviously, this isn't a case with much doubt about who did it, unlike many that have been pardoned after the fact, and rightly so. We're not going to find out in ten years that someone else did this, I don't think. This is one of the few cases that I *do* think execution is completely justified. As Mad Jack said, this is one guy that I could serve as the executioner, and still sleep at night. I'd rather not pay tax dollars to feed him for life, or ever let him out on the streets again.

    YMMV, and you have the right to think your own thoughts. It's not an easy issue, nor should it be.

  3. Morally, I think he should be executed. But legally, apparently in your state an intent is required even in this case. It sounds dubious whether he intended to kill the baby. What would have been the motive? It would have been much easier to let her live. It's not like she was going to report him to the police.