Tuesday, December 13, 2005


The execution of Stanley (Tookie) Williams last night was flawed in respect to timing. He was sentenced to death for murder 25 years ago, for a killing that occurred in 1979. A final indignity was the difficulty, or failure, to find a blood vessel for the needle for 15 minutes after Williams was strapped in a modified dentist chair.

With due respect to the United States Supreme Court: you are responsible for the quarter of a century delay in justice. How can you justify such criminal justice procedure? Why is this not “cruel and inhuman” in itself?

Executioners, how about stepping up, shooting Williams with a tranquilizer dart, and then start the procedure? Or offer him a tranquilizer pill if he wants to sit up and look at the audience and spend a few more minutes before the needle is injected; or skip the needle if he wants to do it by some cocktail. The idea is to end his life, not torture him.

Governor Tony Anaya is in the news today. We like and respect Governor Anaya, but he was wrong, and deserves no respect, by and for the way he handled the death penalty during his term. When he ran for Governor, he was forthright in saying he opposed the death penalty, but he misled us when he said that there would be no executions on his watch. The misleading was his omission of an intention to commute every death sentence in New Mexico while he had the power.

Governor Anaya commuted the death sentences of all on death row in New Mexico just before he left office (1984?). There were four or five. He said he would commute the death sentence of a child rape murderer, if the death sentence were imposed in December, but the Judge said I am in control of my calendar, and the sentencing hearing will be in January. That murderer was the first one executed since 1960, and the only to date, to die by lethal injection.

Makes us think of the “Red Light Bandit,” Caryl Chessman, who pretended to be a police officer (red light shining on top of car) and raped in California. One of the women he raped became insane. The jury said death. Twelve years later (yes, 12), Chessman went to the gas chamber. Later, the United States Supreme Court ruled that no one can be executed for any crime against a person except murder.

Perhaps we should give up on the death penalty. Nullification has set in. The juries are reluctant, the Courts are reluctant, the United States Supreme Court is woefully incompetent in this field. Congress is paralyzed, but the blame really lies with the Supreme Court, which affords a review (properly so) of the State’s procedures; but which then clouds and obscures and delays and drags its feet and the feet of the numerous federal Judges, until a quarter of a century goes by between the time that Cain slays Abel and Cain pays the price.

Most of the death penalty cases are not worthy death penalty cases, that is part of the problem. The idea that you take a life, you forfeit your life, sounds good in the Bible, but it does not work. People will not enforce that rule. They should not enforce that rule. The death penalty should be reserved for extraordinary cases, those in which the people, if all sat on a jury, would rise up and say, “Outrage! Kill him!”

Socrates had a jury of 500. Majority rules. After conviction, the jury, in a sentencing proceeding, imposed the punishment, choosing between two: the convict suggested one; the prosecutor suggested another (a glass of hemlock). We could at least have a jury of 1200, by use of video and on-line technology. The idea of leaving life or death decisions to a group of twelve persons who are called for jury duty and have no acceptable excuse (or who want to serve), is unreasonable in the 21st Century. How about a 12 person jury in Texas, handing out sentences of 900 years (murder) and 15 years (Candy Barr, stripper, for one pound of marijuana)?

Question: is it time for a complete review and overhaul of our criminal justice system, including the question of where the police power should reside? For example, in California and about a dozen other States, a doctor can prescribe, and a patient, especially the terminally ill, can take, smoked marijuana as medicine. Yet, the federal government has laws on the books that make the doctor and patient federal criminals. Is this not worthy of attention?


Eli Blake said...

A couple of minor answers/corrections and a comment:

1. Toney Anaya left office at the end of 1986. And, there were five. Also, the Supreme Court in its ruling on the death penalty also left open that it could be used for treason. No one has been executed for treason to our knowlege since the Rosenbergs, although there has been since 9/11 ongoing discussion of secret military tribunals (parts of the original Patriot Act are themselves secret) including the possibility of death sentences, so we can't say for sure that no one has been executed for treason since then.

I have some serious problems with the death penalty (although Tookie Williams was hardly the poster child for what is wrong with the system-- I believe it probably worked in his case as it was designed to).

One thing that is wrong with it is that we have seen a disturbing number of cases where people sent to death row have later been exhonerated of their crimes. Additionally, there is strong evidence that at least two people who have been executed, Ruben Cantu in Texas and Joseph O'Dell in Virginia, were very likely not guilty of the crimes for which they were executed. So, the argument can be made that the death penalty is 'just another government program that doesn't work very well.' There is more and more evidence all the time that this is true.

The second reason I don't like it is because the justice system itself allows those who can afford it (like Robert Blake and O.J. Simpson) to very likely get away with murder just because they can spend so much more on their defense than the prosecution can spend, with a correspondingly high probability of getting away with murder (OK, I don't know for a fact that either of them did, because they were found not guilty, but you get my drift here). On the other end, people who have to rely on public defenders often have an inferior defense, which allows for them to spend much less on it than the prosecutors can spend to convict them. So the point can be argued that how much people can afford to pay has almost as much to do with determining whether they will be found guilty as whether they are in fact guilty. In such a flawed system, I have a moral problem with sentencing someone to death.

Third, we have an adversarial system. Now, I think in general this works well. Both sides have a committed advocate. The problem comes when someone does have enough evidence to possibly overturn a sentence. Whether because the system requires it, or whether because it is politically damaging, we have seen for example cases in which prosecutors have argued (successfully in some cases) disallowing the introduction of, for example, DNA evidence that would exhonerate a suspect. We had a man here in Arizona named Ray Krone who was exhonerated by DNA for murder (he had at one point been on death row). He spent over eight years longer in prison than he had to simply because of delays caused by prosecutors. He did eventually walk free. But since both sides are prohibited by the nature of the system from simply pursuing a mutually unbiased inquiry to determine the truth, I question whether the death penalty is appropriate in such a system.

Fourth, we have certainly seen over time that any power that the state is given, is sooner or later pushed to or beyond its limits by those who want to abuse their power. So, I don't support giving the state the authority to kill anyone.

Jack L. Love said...

Eli Blake, thanks for the comment. I cannot argue with what you have said. Bottom line, has their ever been, or will there ever be, a case which calls for the death penalty. My view is that we do not execute the criminal because he is bad, norfor revenge; we execute him because we are morally certain he is guilty and that his execution will save innocent lives by deterring others and eleminating the condemned. JACK