Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Considering the Monster

Judge Kopf is conflicted about the death penalty.  He's told us that, in various ways and at various times, most recently and explicitly (where he uses the actual word conflicted here.

This morning, he offers "one side of that conflict" - the case of Michael Ryan.
Ryan was a white supremacist. He and his group of followers had loose ties to the Posse Comitatus and links to the Christian Identity movement. His teachings included the supremacy of the white race, the inherent evil of Jews, and a distrust of all established earthly authority, including governments.
And he, specifically, committed a perfectly monstrous act.  Twelve years ago, he wrote (in his judge rather than his blogger role):

Michael Ryan (Ryan or the petitioner) was sentenced to death for torturing and then killing James Thimm. Ostensibly in the name of his God, and over a period of two days, Ryan and others at his direction tied and chained Thimm in a hog confinement shed; on several occasions sodomized Thimm with a shovel handle or a pick handle to the point that the man’s guts ruptured; whipped and beat Thimm; shot off some of the victim’s finger tips; partially skinned Thimm alive; and caused the man’s bones to be broken, once using a piece of lumber and a block of wood to complete the fracture of a leg with one blow. After that, Ryan stomped Thimm to death. Although a five-year-old child, Luke Stice, was also killed a month or so earlier as the events culminating in Thimm’s death boiled up, Ryan did not receive the death penalty for that crime [but was sentenced to life in prison].
As he noted then,
If any man deserves to be put to death, that man is Michael Ryan.
Which may well be true.
Scott Greenfield calls it out as a rhetorical ploy.
That’s the trick. Hold out the absolutely worst among us, and then pose the question: why is capital punishment of this man wrong?
How is it, Scott rightly asks, that Ryan became the monster.  How does
[H]ow [does] a young boy, much like any other young boy, ended up so twisted that he would do such things
And he runs through a litany of possibilities.  None are excuses.  There is no excuse for what Ryan did.  

And Scott asks, too, how even if you can justify killing Ryan, you live with the collateral damage, the oopsie killing of, for instance, Cameron Todd Willingham. 

There's more, of course.  For all the monstrous acts and the lunatic beliefs, there may (or may not, what do I know) have been a softer, even a noble side to Ryan.  It may seem unlikely, but he might have been a warm, kind, and loving father.  He might have saved lives of fellow soldiers in Vietnam. As Helen Prejean likes to remind us, we're all better than the worst thing we've done.

Or, as I said, maybe not.  Maybe he's just a terrible guy who did terrible things, whatever drove him to that.

But see, there's a question still outstanding.  Not whether Michael Ryan deserved killin'.  I'll give the judge that.  But whether we ought to have killed him.

Which is a question about us rather than about him.

It's not entirely a rhetorical question, either.  There was always a choice.  Indeed, the choice ended up being life.  Michael Ryan wasn't executed.  He spent 30 years on death row in Nebraska - a state where the unicameral legislature just voted to abolish the death penalty and has, at least if they hold together, enough votes to override promised gubernatorial veto - and then died on his own, without human intervention.*

And Richard Kopf is happy.  Even without an execution.  Which raises another question, I guess.  
If you're just as happy with the result being LWOP, then why is that an argument for execution?
*And yes, that Ryan spent 30 years on the row points to pragmatic questions that I'll write about another time.   

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