Well, at least my day started out funny- I was participating in jury selection down at the Superior Court, and as I walked into the Department and saw the small swinging wooden door I actually heard the People's Court theme in my head. Fun day, right? Even funnier when you consider that I have a law degree and almost a decade of legal experience under my belt. And yet my first association is still Judge Wapner. I'm the pride of my profession, I'm sure.
On a much heavier note, today was also the day that Troy Davis was waiting to hear whether he would be granted a stay of execution for a crime he is convicted of having committed in Georgia-- in 1989. I only learned about this case recently, but it's one you can quickly become passionate about. Some witnesses recanted their testimony, there were contradictions, other suspects were repeatedly named, etc. Beyond a reasonable doubt became "not so much". But the Board didn't stay the execution and in Georgia apparently the Governor doesn't have that power.
Tonight people are holding vigils outside the Supreme Court, the last stop for a stay of execution. The news stations couldn't figure out if their sound was out or if the crowd was possibly just that quiet. It's like America suddenly woke up and remembered the ugly law it conveniently forgot about until it was too late.
As a kid raised more conservatively, I was probably for the death penalty at one point -- I'm sure I was (right around the same time I was excited my dad had a picture of Reagan in his office). But during college I studied the justice system more. I was exposed to prisoners and at one point interacted with death row inmates (via camera, mom, don't worry).
During that time in college when I was learning about the corrections system, the socio-economics of crime, and re-examining my beliefs about the potential for rehabilitation, it really began to consume me. Eventually one night I dreamed that I was on death row. I didn't know what I was being executed for, but I was on the phone pleading, begging my mom to come quickly so I could say goodbye. I remember saying (this is 15 years later, so obviously it was traumatic) "Mom, come quickly. They are going to EXTINGUISH me." I woke up in a sweat and have never once since wavered in my opinion that the death penalty is barbaric, and the type of decision we should not burden ourselves with making.
Yet, in various pockets of the country, this is what we do. We extinguish people. Forever. It's one of the completely irreversible things we do- the MOST irreversible thing. In some cases, including the Texan convict executed in Texas today for dragging a black man behind a truck, trust me, every bone in my body WANTS to support capital punishment. But another part of me is willing to give up that revenge if others will give up theirs. Because we are more civilized than that, and especially because we're not always right.
Tonight a friend asked me how I propose we make victims' families feel better. And that's just the thing- do you think you really can? I know that if God forbid something happened to one of my family members, I would want the killer dead. I *get* it. But killing someone doesn't bring someone else back, and it certainly doesn't fix a much bigger problematic system. And many victims even agree with me - read about this amazing anti-DP organization run by victims and their families, for one.
And our system is a mess. If we run the risk of killing even one innocent person (and the numbers of wrongly convicted people popping up through Innocence Projects is rising), we owe it to ourselves to revisit what we are trying to accomplish and if we're really accomplishing it. We are failing ourselves if we stop short. What the death penalty does is satisfy some people's need for revenge, while creating a new generation of suffering in the convict's family. We're shifting where the anger and the anguish reside, but we're not getting rid of it.
OH, and not sure if you heard, but we're in a recession, and the death penalty is pricey. Do we really think we have the extra change to pay for this little habit of ours? To give one example, in my state, California, the current system costs $137 million per year; it would cost $11.5 million for a system without the death penalty. (California Commission for the Fair Administration of Justice, July 2008)
Do you know what I would do with that extra $125M? A hell of a lot. I would infuse it into our education system for one thing. (You can use the Common Good Forecaster tool to examine the impact a rise of education would have in your way- a drop in crime, for one thing.)
If we're tightening our belts, America, maybe we can stop pouring our time, attention, and resources into controversy and anger, and put our money, for once, where the returns are guaranteed? Just a thought.
And in the meantime, all of you who raise a fuss (or ignore) the one time a year a jury summons shows up at your door (and I can tell you off, because I used to be one of you): Go. Sit. Listen. Participate. Do not take our system for granted. And definitely don't waste my time venting about verdicts you don't care for when you can't be troubled to take the day off work to give a verdict yourself.
The justice system is a living, breathing thing, and is powered by people in the community. So tap into your inner Judge Judy or Judge Wapner, or hell, Judge Harry Stone -- and get yourself there. People's lives actually do depend on you.
Troy Davis died at 11:08 ET this evening.