Saturday, October 31, 2009


I’m from Texas, the death penalty capital of the United States. I’ve always embraced the mentality/mantra and the warning to all would-be perps that if you commit a capital crime in Texas including murder then you are going to get the “express lane to the electric chair.” OK, we don’t electrocute convicted murders who receive the death penalty anymore. Rather, we administer it by the supposedly more humane lethal injection, a process that we hear has been botched more than just a few times. Credible or not, we in Texas execute more people than any other state in the U.S.

Again, the idea was that the aggressive administration of justice to include capital punishment (the death penalty) would deter crime and set the moral tone for what is mostly a very no nonsense, conservative state. Yep, that was me when it came to the death penalty and to this day I do not find any offense with capital punishment on moral or religious grounds. I guess an “eye for an eye” and retribution mind set seems a sensible and logical payment though statistics seem to bear out that the death penalty has little deterrent effect. Does the death penalty bring closure to the families of loved ones? Don’t know as I haven’t been there though I suspect that it would offer me little consolation save that a murderer was off the streets.

But, and this is a big but, if one person is wrongfully convicted and executed for a crime they didn’t commit - where’s the justice? I don’t embrace a good for the many, there will be mistakes or a cost of doing business rationale when it comes to the execution of an innocent party.

Let’s put all this in perspective.
The Death Penalty Information Center reports that, “Since 1973, 135 people have been exonerated and freed from death row, including 5 people already in 2009. Some were only freed because of extraordinary work by individuals outside the criminal justice system.” The top three exonerating states include Florida with 23, Illinois with 20 and Texas with 10 exonerations.

With all these exonerations we wonder out loud, how many innocents have been executed? The answer is elusive though several high profile cases including one in North Carolina, two in Texas and many more validate that reality. I have seen some studies that claim numbers in the hundreds though the credibility of those statistics remain suspect. The American Bar Association (ABA) strongly supports a moratorium on capital punishment and acknowledges that innocents have been executed. Remember our magic number is ONE.

Seems that in Texas the ever growing number of exonerations of convicted people including Claude Simmons Jr. and Christopher Scott, in Dallas County as recently as last week who were in the twelfth year of their life sentences for murder is but the tip of the iceberg. Consistent with their initial declarations, they didn’t do it. This wasn’t a case of DNA revealing their innocence, rather the work of local college students at the University of Texas at Arlington and UT Austin's law school who brought the case to the Dallas District Attorney's office last year. Another individual finally admitted to the crime after reevaluation of the evidence. The motivation for a lot of this effort can be attributed to the very aggressive and innovative approach by Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins. Well done!

And as far as DNA exonerating innocents, it would appear that we are now starting to run out of those older DNA cases, so the work of motivated volunteers and students like those with UT Arlington’s Innocence Network will be critical in securing justice for those wrongfully convicted. At least modern technologies and procedures like DNA analysis will allow us to engage yet another effective tool that will assist in determining ultimate guilt or innocence.

The cases and statistics we have cited may just be the tip of the iceberg. While our justice system might not be broken, it surely is in need of a tune up. So, what do we do? First, maybe we just need to come up with some innovative ways to dispense justice that will be a real deterrent when we are thoroughly assured of guilt to include caught in the act, conclusive videotape, DNA and other technologies not known or yet invented.

With our tongues in our cheeks perhaps we should entertain the dispensation of justice in a very public venue. Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia continue to publicly execute via beheadings, firing squads and even stoning. We could always revert to a Salem motivated (as in Witch Trials) public hangings or we can implore the counsel of the English who for centuries were known for their brutality and the very public execution of the death penalty which was administered for a whole cacophony of “crimes” including petty theft, cutting down a tree and, of course was used as a tool of political oppression. Perhaps we should resurrect drawing and quartering ala William Wallace or just the perfunctory beheading ala the opportunistic and devious eighty year old Simon Fraser, the 11th Lord Lovat, Chief of the Clan Fraser aka The Fox (1667-1747). Lovat had his head lopped off on April 9, 1747 for his part in the ’45 Jacobite Uprising and has the distinction of being the last person beheaded in Britain.

So why do I bring this up? Well, with the imposition of public execution we could expect some interesting repartee and situations worthy of our current reality TV phenomenon. As in Lovat’s case we have already enriched history with the lurid details of his final day. For example, though it probably offered Lovat little consolation (though some delight), one of the overcrowded stands overlooking the executioner’s scaffold collapsed, resulting in the death of twenty spectators (we hope all English) whereupon Lovat quipped, "The more the mischief, the better the sport."

Lovat was well educated and had the gift of the gab, witness his reaction to an old woman who poked her head into his coach whilst he was on the road well traveled to his place of execution. She tauntingly quipped something like, "You ugly old Scottish dog, don't you think you will have that frightful head cut off?" to which he is reputed to have replied, "You damned ugly old English bitch, I do believe I shall."

But that bon mot wasn’t Lovat’s famous last words for just before his execution Lovat exonerated himself by stating, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori a line from Horace's Odes which roughly translates as, "It is noble and glorious to die for one's country."

With the return of these very public executions we could at least expect from the better educated of the lot some horrific entertainment and theater worthy of Shakespeare but hopefully (let’s get serious) some affect from the revulsion of actually viewing the execution, perhaps even a deterrent? Maybe then we would get it right. Not so, say Friends who offer this would become the basest of entertainment and, yes, another degrading reality dimension.

That said, this doesn’t help us from executing innocents. Perhaps we could engage a form of suspended animation/cryostasis for those sentenced turning them into human popsicles (a la Demolition Man and Spoiler) for the duration of their sentences or until sufficient science exists to either validate the sentences or exonerate them. No Ted Williams jokes, please.

The reality is that as human beings we will never get it completely right and some innocents will pay the ultimate price for our failure to adequately address this issue. The text of State of Texas District Judge Robert Burns remarks to Claude Simmons Jr. and Christopher Scott as they were released after almost 13 years of prison for a capital crime they did not commit follows.

"I want to extend to each of you, on behalf of the state of Texas ... my most sincere apologies for the miscarriage of justice that each of you've experienced," Burns said. "Just speaking as a human being, I hope that you are able to put these 12 or 13 years behind you and enjoy the freedom ... that you are about to experience and not be bitter."

Right. Thank God they weren’t executed… In a surprisingly enlightened move the Republic of Texas enacted a law in 2009 allowing for compensation for wrongly convicted people which is the most generous in the nation. Claude Simmons Jr. and Christopher Scott will apparently each receive $80,000 US for each year of incarceration, plus a lifetime annuity.

Last Word: If one man/woman has been wrongfully convicted of a capital crime, did not receive adequate due process sufficient to prove their guilt/innocence and was then executed for that crime - then we need to rethink our whole system. Methinks I need to seriously reflect my whole approach to capital punishment… Count my vote as “Yes” for the moratorium on capital punishment.


Ned Buxton

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