Thursday, December 01, 2005

Justice, American Style

Moving from the politics of government to the politics of humanity...

999 - that's the number of inmates executed in the United States since the Supreme Court reaffirmed the death penalty in 1976. Texas, the big kahuna of lethal injection, has administered terminal justice to 355 people during this time. Like they say, everything is bigger in the Lone Star State.

I don't actually have a problem with the death penalty per se. However it seems to me we should exclude certain people from the pool of contenders, either by statute or by the trial and appeal process, and this is where the dispute begins. I say we should not be executing children, those with IQs under 80, or the innocent. The law of the land over the years has condoned all three.

Case in point - Ruben Cantu, 17 at the time, was arrested for the brutal robbery and murder of one man, in an act that left another severely injured. Identified by the survivor, he was put to death in 1993. Now, a decade later, new facts and witnesses have come to light, and it seems Ruben Cantu may have been wrongfully convicted and, oops, executed.

In his post Dead Wrong at Yellow Doggerel Democrat, Steve Bates provides several great links for more information on this case, other arguments against capital punishment (racist, ineffective deterrent, not cost effective) as well as to the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty. As Steve says, its the only way to be really sure you're not killing the wrong guy.

Case in point - Joseph Cannon, 17 at the time, was convicted of the murder of Anne Walsh and sentenced to death, this despite a personal history of sexual abuse, mental illness and substance abuse to substantiate a claim of extreme mental incompetence. It took two attempts to execute Cannon; after his vein collapsed, he alerted officials the needle had popped out. It was replaced and Cannon's execution was completed.

Both boys were seventeen at the time of their alleged crimes, they were both poor, minorities, and badly represented by counsel. They were also both in Texas, where 61% of people agree with the death penalty, according to the TCADP. When given to option to choose life without the possibility of parole, 41% still vote death.

43% of Texans would choose life without parole instead of the death penalty. This sounds like a good start for the people at TCADP, who favor such sentences over capital punishment. But in the case of juveniles, is it still going too far? What are we saying about the value of justice when children as young as 13 can be sentenced to spend the remainder of their lives in prison for a variety of crimes far short of killing.

In The Rest of Their Lives: Life Without Parole Human Rights Watch gives a glimpse into the lives of young offenders who will never know freedom, due to a choice they made well before they could truly appreciate the meaning of forever. Fourteen-year-old Stacy accompanied older cousins on a robbery. He left before any violence took place, did not know his cousin had grown frightened of leaving a witness and had murdered the victim, and had no previous record. He is serving life without parole for one bad choice.

We live in a violent world and our criminal justice system works to the best of it's ability, but it is as political as anything else in this country. Being born poor, dark and underrepresented in society means being at risk- less education, healthcare, jobs, more disease, drugs and crime. Our courts are filled with young people whose first crime was being born a have-not in America. Justice-thirsty voters empower tougher, stricter sentencing, without thought to the long term.

Like the War on Terror, justice in America is fought from a foundation of fear not fact. If there were more transparency to the root causes of our fears, we might be more willing and able to commit the time and resources needed to confront them successfully. Instead we have a society shrouded by our own willingness to stick a smiley face on everything and vote W four more years.