Law and Conversation

September 22, 2011

Davis executed

Last night I posted about two executions in the US yesterday, one of which, Lawrence Brewer’s, had happened at the time I posted and the other of which, Troy Davis’s, had been postponed. I now see that Davis’s execution did take place late last night after the U.S. Supreme Court denied his application for a stay. (Hat tip: Ava George Stewart.)

George Stewart also posted on Davis’s execution last night on her Chicago Criminal Law Blog. She concluded by asking “Is this the America that makes you proud?” Her question reminded me of an occasion a long time ago on which I expressed a sentiment that was petty and maybe also a bit vengeful to a good friend. To my surprise, my friend responded not with agreement, but with “Aren’t you better than that?”

As Amnesty International reports, the world is moving toward abolition. But 58 or so countries, including the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, Nigeria, and North Korea, retain the death penalty, with the US ranking toward the top of countries who actually carry out the sentences. Though that list also includes the first-world country of Japan, the general tilt of the list is backwardness and repression. To the questions posed by my other friends – does this make us proud? are we not better than that? – I add “Is this the sort of company we want to keep?”

The death penalty is a pretty uncomfortable topic, and, as I wrote a while back, I spent quite a bit of time thinking I supported it while preferring not to think about it too much. The crimes for which people are executed in the US are horrible – just read the background on the Brewer and the Davis cases – and those convicted, assuming no mistakes (and guilty verdict mistakes do happen), probably aren’t nice people. Certainly, there are lots more pleasant things to spend your time thinking about.

I finally did start taking apart the issue in my own mind after reading Robert Hughes’s “The Fatal Shore,” a history of the settlement of Australia, in which he described a public execution in 18th century England. The barbarity of crowds turning out to cheer and jeer the condemned man on his way to the gallows revolted me.

Then I started wondering whether it’s any better for a government to kill a person in private. Is it okay to do something behind closed doors, or in secret, that you think is so horrible or shameful that it can’t be done out in public, in the light of day? So if we’re going to continue to have executions, why should we not make them public, so that all can see? If you buy the argument that killing the person who killed someone else will provide comfort, or “closure” (whatever that is) to the victim’s family members – which I do not – then wouldn’t it be a good idea to let the entire world witness the execution, so as to provide that comfort to even more people, along with whatever deterrent or moral lesson we think capital punishment provides? And shouldn’t we bring the kids?

Those are all really uncomfortable questions, as was my friend’s to me so many years ago. And I’ve hardly even touched on the serious issue of mistaken guilty verdicts. But shouldn’t we be asking ourselves those questions and more, as long as we have state-sanctioned killing?

September 21, 2011

Executions today

As I write this post, absent an eleventh-hour stay from the U.S. Supreme Court, Troy Davis awaits execution in Georgia.  You can read about the many issues with Davis’s conviction on Amnesty International’s site, among many others. In a far more clear-cut case, Texas executed Lawrence Brewer this evening. (Hat tip: Mike Cane.)

I recently posted about the death penalty and what I see as its barbaric quality, even in such a repugnant case as Lawrence Brewer’s. A classic novel about a man found guilty of murder and executed that’s not read so much these days is Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy.” I read it more than thirty years ago, but it’s stuck with me, and I’d recommend it to anyone.

August 3, 2011

Making executions public

As I wrote earlier this week, David Lat and Zachary Shemtob had a thoughtful editorial in The New York Times this weekend advocating for televising executions.

Some years ago, my reaction to this idea would have been that televising executions, or otherwise making public spectacles of executions as was routinely done not so many years ago, would be revolting and barbaric. At that time, I was a supporter of capital punishment, reasoning that some crimes are so awful that they deserve death. But I didn’t like to think about it–the idea of killing someone, premeditated and approved by law, made me too uncomfortable.

Then I read an historian’s account of public executions in 18th century England (Robert Hughes’s “The Fatal Shore,” a history of Australia). Hughes wrote of the crowds that turned out to see convicts taken to the gallows and the pervasive carnival-like atmosphere. His vivid description, which I have no doubt was completely accurate, disgusted me and started me thinking: if you wouldn’t want someone to see what you’re doing because it’s so awful, why would you want to do it at all? And why would you approve of your government doing something so horrible that it can’t be allowed to be shown in public–even though national security (which I agree would be a compelling reason, as in the execution of Osama bin Laden and in the photos of his body) is not an issue?

Lat and Shemtob are careful to say that they, like many citizens, are deeply conflicted over capital punishment and are not urging their point as a means of turning public opinion against it (though they recognize that others have). Their argument for bringing sunshine into the execution chamber is strong and convincingly written.

In the meantime, I’ve reconciled my own conflict on the issue, following reading Hughes, as follows: though some criminals may deserve death, it doesn’t follow that the government should mete it out. So my reaction to Lat’s and Shemtob’s argument remains that public executions would be revolting and barbaric–but I also believe that executions that are not open to the public are revolting and barbaric. So, if we’re going to impose the death penalty and kill people, let’s adopt Lat’s and Shemtob’s proposal, and let everyone see exactly what happens during an execution.

And that highlights a compelling reason for reading (and telling) stories: they can help you think about and see things differently, whether personal matters, current events, or what have you. I wouldn’t have expected a story about events in 18th century England, contained in a history of Australia, to lead me to change my mind about the death penalty in the modern USA, but it did.

Has a story ever helped you to see another matter in a different light?

August 1, 2011

Family conflict and the law

Referring to the review of James Scudamore’s “Heliopolis” that I posted on The Europa Challenge Blog, I wrote Friday that family pressure on young people to follow a certain personal or professional path can produce enormous conflict when the path isn’t a good fit. Scudamore’s story reminded me of some advice from Penelope Trunk that struck me as enormously insightful: “The job of families is to keep you in line with the rest of the family, in a predestined path that is good for the family. And your job is to create your own path.”

When I wrote my post, I was thinking of family pressure to enter a certain profession or business (as, in Scudamore’s novel, Ludo’s adoptive father pressed him first to change his course of study and then to take a job with one of his associates) or to make an acceptable marriage, usually based on ethnicity, religion, property, and/or social class. Though those exerting the pressure may feel it’s benign and in the best interests of the young people, it seems to me that it often results in enormously hurt feelings and, in the worst cases, unhappy lives spent pursuing unsatisfying careers or unsatisfactory marriages that often end in divorce.

I presented litigation as the worst-case scenario from the conflicts that can arise from such family pressures. But over the weekend, in the pages of The New York Times, an even worse scenario presented itself: two young Afghanis of different ethnic groups are now in prison for daring to try to elope.

Awful as prison sounds, far worse is the fate that appears to await the teenaged lovers once they’re released: death–probably at the hands of the woman’s male relatives, with the approval of her father, who says he wants the government to kill both of them. The only possible escape for the young woman seems to be that the family of a man killed in a riot by the lynch mob that tried to kill her and her boyfriend says she’s responsible for his death, but she can expiate her sin by marrying one of his brothers.

This story is discouraging on many levels, perhaps most for those of us who love and respect both the law and other cultures.

Speaking of government executions, also in the pages of The New York Times this weekend was a thoughtful editorial by David Lat and Zachary Shemtob advocating for televising executions. Please join me later this week, when I’ll have more thoughts on what Lat and Shemtob say.

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