Monday, September 10, 2007

Reopening the wound

Reliving the tragedy -- the death penalty's unintended consequence

Blogger's Note: The rare commutation of a death sentence in Texas at the end
of August received widespread media attention. Less noticed was the
profound anti-death penalty significance of the statement of the mother of
the victim. The following essay is authored by Michael Kroll, editor of Beat Within and founding director of the Death Penalty Information Center in Washington, D.C.

"I will mourn my son till I die, but Im not forced any more to relive his
death." These are the words of a mother grieving for her son, Michael
LaHood Jr., murdered in a Texas robbery in 1996 after one of the
co-defendants had his death sentence commuted to life in prison.

Her son's killer, Mauriceo Brown, was executed for the crime in 2006, but
co-defendant, Kenneth Foster, Jr., who did not directly participate in the
robbery/murder was also sentenced to death for the same crime under a
controversial Texas statute called the "law of parties" under which anyone
involved in any way in a capital crime is subject to the penalty of death.
Foster, who was 19 years old at the time of the crime, was scheduled to be
lethally injected on August 30, but received that rarest of interventions
at the 11th hour a commutation to life in prison by Governor Rick Perry
following international protests and a near-unanimous recommendation for
clemency by the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles.

While world-wide attention has understandably been focused on what would
have been the 403rd execution in Texas in the modern era by far the
country's most prolific killer of killers (and non-killers like Mr.
Foster) few will recognize the profoundly anti-death penalty significance
of Mrs. LaHoods lament, "I will mourn my son till I die, but Im not forced
any more to relive his death."

Reliving that death is one of the unintended consequences of the death
penalty. At each stage, the wound is reopened and probed by the media
("How do you feel?") and the prosecutor, who has an interest in keeping
the brutal facts before the voters who put him/her in office. (And, can
any murder be described as anything other than brutal?) While prosecutors
never tire of promoting the death penalty as a means to bring about
"closure," that is a concept that no mother, destroyed by the murder of a
child, can truly embrace. In truth, there is no real closure for the kind
of wound that murder creates.

But, though the hole left behind will never be fully closed, the death
penalty makes any healing that much more difficult by forcing families of
the dead to focus on the brutality of their loss at every legal turning
point. And, because the U.S. Supreme Court has rightly declared that, as
punishment, "Death is different," it requires far more legal turning
points than any other criminal penalty, including years of state appeals
followed by years of federal appeals. "Death is different" because any
errors in the process cannot be undone once the sentence is carried out.

And errors do occur, even in a system with so many built-in safeguards.
According to a report by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Civil &
Constitutional Rights, more than 120 people have been released from death
row since 1973, most with evidence of their innocence.

Some family survivors, recognizing how the death penalty only serves to
increase their pain and postpone the process of healing, have formed an
organization, Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation, which seeks
alternatives to the punishment of death, not because they have sympathy
for those who took the lives of their children or other family members,
but because they have a need to heal and rebuild their shattered lives. In
states which provide alternative penalties, such as Life in Prison Without
Parole (LWOP), support for capital punishment plummets, one reason being
that the legal process comes to end dramatically sooner. The sentence does
not require multiple reviews by countless judges.

The mother of Michael LaHood Jr. understood this instinctively. Because
the media attention will now move from her sons murder to other endless
and senseless acts of violence, she will be able to move on. Because the
prosecutor no longer has an interest in keeping her pain front and center,
she will be able to start the difficult process of calming the emotional
turmoil she has suffered for 11 years. Or, in her own eloquent but simple
words, she will not be "forced any more to relive his death."

(source: Commentary, Michael A. Kroll, New California Media)

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