I seem to be on a ghost tangent lately. And as a side note, Mrs. Surratt requested that I spell her name correctly as opposed to the French-ified way I spelled it in this piece originally. I think I’ve corrected all mentions of her, if not, tell her I’m sorry.
When I was 11 years old we lived in Chicago. Upstairs in our house, my father had turned one room into what he called his bar. The liquor was kept there on shelves behind a rectangular bar, a chair for reading, an easel usually with an in-progress painting on it, and a noose hanging from the light fixture in the middle of the room. The room sat at the end of a large upstairs area that was the TV room. My brave sister’s bedroom was also up there to the left if facing the “bar.” That noose, tied perfectly, a joke to my dad, scared me to death. During that period Life Magazine had done a photo spread of the Lincoln assassination conspirators’ hanging. A photo of Mary Surratt in her black bonnet was followed by a photo of her hooded head and tied skirt dangling from the gallows. Every time my dad asked me to go upstairs to get the bottle of Cutty Sark, I saw Mary dangling there and scurried with shaking hands up then quickly down the staircase. I was the fastest bar back in the country in my terror.
Although I’d certainly heard of hangings, electric chairs and gas chambers by the age of 11 having seen lots of TV and movies, I think it was Mary Surratt that really cemented my understanding of the death penalty. I also remember that the article said that there had been uncertainty about her guilt and that she was the first woman executed by the Federal Government. This hadn’t been some movie with a righteous Sheriff and a bad ass outlaw drawing down on each other at High Noon. This hadn’t been some romanticized good guy/bad guy Elliot Ness vs. Al Capone scene in which a director would soon shout “Cut.” Someone had made a decision to execute this woman in the name of the government, and thus the citizens of that government, questions about her guilt or innocence notwithstanding. Abe was dead, the Civil War over, the Yankees were pissed, someone had to pay. The ghost of Mary Surratt hanging from my father’s noose over the Cutty Sark led directly to my initial thoughts about the death penalty. At 11 years old I thought it was wrong. Forty six years later I haven’t changed my mind.
Before you start in on me about laws, justice, and remind me of the victims and their families, please know that I believe in laws and justice and have great empathy for the victims and their families. I was told as a child that two wrongs don’t make a right, and regardless of the fact that that’s a trite statement to us now, I believed it then and believe it now. You can thank my probably pro-death penalty mother’s training for that. (Funny that I can’t definitively answer whether she is or isn’t in favor of it.) I am not a person who feels that murderers should go free. My problem with the death penalty is a moral issue, and from my point of view, a justice issue. Justice. As currently practiced it seems to be societal revenge not justice, like the Yankees stringing up a possibly innocent Surratt and calling it good.
Two nights ago we executed two men: Troy Davis, black man, convicted cop killer, white victim, much doubt about his guilt; and Lawrence Russell Brewer, white man, convicted of racist hate crime murder, victim black, no doubt about his guilt. Davis maintained his innocence in the last moments of his life. Brewer said he had no regrets and would “do it all over again.”
There were no crowds in the streets clamoring for clemency or commutation of sentence for Brewer. Forensics in his trial showed that James Byrd, Jr.’s body parts were found in 75 places ripped off of him as he was dragged. There is no sympathy for Mr. Brewer and his White Supremacist views. An unrepentant sociopath, he and his friends went to a barbecue after dumping what was left of Mr. Byrd in front of an African American cemetery. There was no doubt that Brewer had committed that heinous crime. Mr. Byrd’s son, Ross Byrd, issued a statement against Brewer’s execution, saying, “You can’t fight murder with murder. Life in prison would have been fine. I know he can’t hurt my daddy anymore. I wish the state would take in mind that this isn’t what we want.” Of course the state of Texas did not consider his wishes.
Meanwhile, in Jackson, Georgia and across the globe, people stood up and shouted their opposition to the execution of Troy Davis. Convicted of having shot one man, pistol whipping another, then killing Mark Macphail, an off duty police officer who tried to intervene in the pistol whipping, Davis’ trial had no forensic evidence, the murder weapon disappeared, and multiple witnesses recanted their testimony, leaving a great deal of doubt as to Mr. Davis’ guilt. The Reverend who had driven Davis from Atlanta to turn himself in was never interviewed about what was said during that long ride to Savannah. A woman came forward claiming that another man had confessed to the murder at a party and had threatened her if she said anything about it. She was so terrified she subsequently moved her entire family out of Savannah. Where is that gun? Why wasn’t the Reverend questioned at the time and why was the woman who came forward disregarded so completely? A lot of unanswered questions that raise too much doubt. Thousands of people called, emailed, signed petitions to various officials asking for a stop to his execution to no avail. Officer Macphail’s family said that with Davis’ death healing could begin and in response to Davis’ proclamation of innocence, Joan MacPhail-Harris, the slain officer’s wife said, “I will grieve for the Davis family because now they’re going to understand our pain and our hurt. He’s (Davis) been telling himself that for 22 years. You know how it is, he can talk himself into anything.”
So now you’ll ask me if I think Brewer should have been executed. Or maybe you’ll ask me if Davis should have been set free. The answer is no to both questions. I saw very few “Free Troy Davis” signs. Most said “Save Troy Davis” which is a very different thing. I cannot fathom killing someone in retribution. I absolutely cannot fathom killing someone who’s conviction is so fraught with doubt. I am intrigued by the differences in the victim families’ views. I am baffled by the concept that healing from one killing begins with the killing of yet another person. I can’t make sense of that.
I have tons of links to articles and research done in the last few days. I’m not putting them in this piece. I figure if you want the info you’ll ask me or you’ll look it up, besides if I put them all in here it will look like an aggregator piece. I will, however, tell you some of what I’ve found, and some of these by themselves should give us pause. Frontier justice. Southern justice. Institutionalized justice. We’ve got lots of words for killing, and we’re pretty good at it, we’re just not all that great at being sure, absolutely sure that the person we’re killing isn’t innocent. Until and unless we can be absolutely sure, we need to stop it. (Of course, even then I’d be against it, but then you probably knew that if you’ve read this far.)
~George Stinney, black male, 14 years old, executed by electrocution in South Carolina 1944. No transcript of his trial was found. At 5’1”, 90 lbs, he was too small for the electric chair, they had to try to position him properly for the electrodes to do their job. Evidence of his guilt nil.
~Willie Francis, black male, 18 years old, executed by electrocution in Louisiana 1947. Evidence confusing and not ironclad. Electrocuted twice. The electric chair malfunctioned the first time, May 3, 1947. An appeal was heard in which it was argued that executing someone twice was cruel and unusual. Appeal denied. Executed May 9, 1947.
~A letter signed by Dr. Allen Ault, retired warden at the Jackson prison in which the execution of Troy Davis took place along with five other retired wardens and directors (Ohio and San Quentin) published at the Southern Center for Human Rights website, cited the toll executions take on the corrections officers and wardens charged with fulfillment of the death penalty. A moving letter, it was followed by a statement of solidarity with the retired wardens signed by Georgia State Senator Vincent Fort exhorting the prison staff to strike and refuse to carry out the execution.
~September 22, 2011, the day after Davis’ execution, Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles commutes the sentence of Samuel David Crowe, 47, convicted of murdering his former boss. Crowe plead guilty at trial. No doubt there at all. His sentence was commuted to life without parole.~CORRECTION: THE CORRECT DATE OF THIS ARTICLE IS 9.22.2008 NOT 2011. STILL IT SHOWS THAT GA’S BOARD OF PARDONS CAN AND HAS COMMUTED SENTENCES OF ADMITTED CONVICTED MURDERERS. SORRY FOR THE WRONG DATE. WAS READING TOO FAST.
~Take a look at a world map that delineates which countries still use capital punishment. Then ask yourself if you really want to keep such company.
I could go on. I won’t. We’ve executed kids, we’ve executed adults, men, women, black and white (and the facts actually show that more whites are executed than blacks although if a crime is committed by a black man against a white victim the death penalty is more likely). We’ve executed many who were convicted on the basis of dubious facts, inadequate or downright negligent defense attorney behavior, missing or non-existent evidence. We’ve executed people whose IQ’s were so low that there was no chance they could take part in their own defense or even understand what was happening to them, like Ricky Ray Rector in Arkansas who decided to save his pecan pie to eat after his execution.
If these arguments don’t matter to you, then think about your pocketbook. It’s cheaper to give a convicted murderer life without parole than it is to execute him, and it saves the victim’s families from having to endure the lengthy appeals process. To my mind, that’s a better way to start healing from a trauma like the loss of a loved one to murder. I think Ross Byrd is right about it not being possible to fix murder with murder. I can’t find justice in that equation, only revenge.
But that’s me. I cannot find the morality in the death penalty no matter how hard I try, and I’ve tried to find common ground on this issue. For me it’s impossible. Maybe it’s the ghost of Mary Surratt tapping on my shoulder, her skirts still tied around her ankles.
Nice piece, Sam. Well done.