Friday, September 10, 2010

Four Dead - With Clarifying Update

I've been reading Ted Kennedy's memoir, True Compass.  

Martin Luther King, Jr.
In writing about his brother Bobby's campaign for President, he recalls that on the night Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Bobby spoke in the Indianapolis ghetto and quoted from Aeschylus' Agamemnon (not quite exactly, but close enough).  Here's Bobby's version with the addition, in brackets, of the line that comes before.
[He who learns must suffer]
And even in our sleep pain which cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
Until, in our own despair, against our will,
Comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.
Last night, we murdered two men.  
In Alabama, it was Holly Wood.  In Washington it was Cal Coburn Brown.
Holly Wood
Cal Coburn Brown
The details don't matter.  You're tired of me writing about this or that injustice.  Let it just lie.  
No, let Brown, as reported by Isabelle Zehnder at speak for both of them.  And for others. 
He said criminals who had killed many more people, such as Green River Killer Gary Ridgway, were serving life sentences. He didn’t understand why he received a death sentence.
“I only killed one victim,” he said.
“I cannot really see that there is true justice. Hopefully, sometime in the future that gets straightened out."
Bobby Kennedy was murdered, too, though by an assassin rather than by the state acting in our name.  As, of course, was Jack Kennedy.  Ted, who certainly understood something about grief and anger and the pain of losing ones you love, tells this story about a time after Bobby's killer was found guilty but before he was sentenced.
Robert F. Kennedy
In my hotel room at Los Angeles, I wrote a letter in longhand to the Los Angeles district attorney, requesting that the life of Bobby's assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, be spared.  Sirhan was then awaiting sentencing for his act, and the gas chamber appeared to be his fate.  I told the presiding judge that Bobby would not approve the taking of a life in retribution for the taking of his own.  The sentence, I argued, should be decided with respect for compassion, mercy, and God's gift of life.  The next day I had copies of the letter made and sent them to Ethel Kennedy, to our mother, and to Eunice, Pat, and Jean.  All of them agreed with me.  I mailed the original letter to the judge, Herbert V. Walker, a week or so after returning from Los Angeles.
Walker disregarded the letter and sentenced Sirhan to the chamber.
Sirhan wasn't executed, of course.  He was spared by the California Supreme Court, as he would have been by the US Supreme Court's ruling in Furman.
He's still in prison.  He's 66 now.  Older than either of the Kennedy brothers were when they were killed.  Living out the common alternative to state murder: Death in prison.
Which just sort of makes Cal Coburn Brown's point all over again.
I cannot really see that there is true justice.
I just looked at this post and realized that the end can be remarkably, and horribly, misleading.  It can be read so that I seem to be suggesting that there's some injustice in Sirhan  Sirhan's not getting executed, that I think he should have been.  No, no no!!! I don't think that.
What I was trying to say, perhaps too quickly and carelessly, is that Sirhan's death sentence, and then its reformation to life, while Brown and Wood are actually killed is absurd.  One of the problems with the death penalty, as I've pointed out over and over in these posts, is that it's wildly arbitrary.  The idea is that it's reserved for the worst of the worst people who do the worst of the worst things.  In practice, it's celebrity and newspapers and the publicly perceived value of the victim and the quality of legal counsel and random facts of geography and bunches of other things that have no relationship to the actual crime or the criminal.
Too often, death sentences are driven by the retributive demands of the families of those who were killed.  And yet, in Sirhan's case, the family favored life.  But no.  And then the happenstance of timing.
What these cases demonstrate is the arbitrary, random nature of the death penalty and of state killing.  
That's what I was trying to say.
If you, any of you, were confused, I deeply regret it.

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