EYE-FOR-EYE JUSTICE IS BLINDING

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Subject: (phadp.org) EYE-FOR-EYE JUSTICE IS BLINDING

Eye-for-eye justice is blinding

Birmingham News, 2/28/03
By Robin DeMonia

The story might have escaped your notice. But it shouldn't have. Five Christian ministers and one rabbi called for Alabama leaders to reconsider executing juveniles kids deemed too irresponsible to buy cigarettes or vote, but responsible enough to face the death penalty. I could almost hear some of our leaders scoff. If you're old enough to kill, shouldn't you be old enough to be put to death?

I hear these voices just as I have heard them argue that it's OK to execute people who are mentally retarded, who are mentally ill, who got a rotten legal defense. It's even OK to execute people who might be able to prove their innocence, given a fighting chance.

For those whose loved ones were victims of violent crimes, I acknowledge this: I'm not sure most of us in your shoes would make a lot of moral distinctions based on the alleged killer's age or IQ.  I sure doubt most of us would lose too much sleep worrying over the killer's constitutional rights.

Raw emotions:

But raw emotions can't rule on the death penalty. It might be neater if we could keep it that simple. In Alabama, however, it's too dangerous to take an eye for an eye and leave it at that. We're a state that's long on punishment, but frighteningly short on justice.  Few states allow the death penalty in so many situations,
and few states do less to try to ensure proper legal representation. Even with recent improvements, our system of capital defense is considered one of the worst, if not the worst, in the country.

Moreover, many awaiting execution now were convicted before any improvements were made. Some on Death Row today weren't adequately represented. And some on Death Row today don't have a lawyer at all and time for appeals is running out.

It's not hard to imagine an innocent person ending up on Death Row. If DNA testing has shown us anything, it's that eyewitnesses who are 100 percent certain can be dead wrong, seemingly persuasive evidence can fall apart, and even confessions aren't necessarily proof of guilt.

This is where the execute-'em-all logic loses traction. Because for every innocent condemned to die, a killer walks free.

But there are disturbing signs that Alabama values toughness over fairness.  We were one of the last states to abandon the electric chair. We're the only state that allows elected judges to regularly sentence defendants to death even when a jury recommends life. Until the U.S. Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional, we executed the mentally retarded. We have also executed the clearly psychotic, and we will execute people for crimes they committed as young as 16 the lowest age allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

And why not? These are killers, people we can't identify with, people we don't want to identify with. Yet as a reporter covering death penalty cases and issues, what struck me most about many people on Death Row was their humanity. That's not to say there But there were also people not monsters who once did a monstrous thing.

The Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that represents many on Death Row, has a printed creed in its office: "EJI believes that each of us is more than the worst thing we've ever done." But what if an inmate's worst had come at the expense of a member of my family?

Mercy's power:

I'd like to think I could be like the family of Bettie Long.  Mrs. Long was robbed and gunned down in 1995 in front of her teenage daughter at their Kingston laundry. The killer, Taurus Carroll, just 17 at the time, said the gun went off in a moment of nervousness. A jury recommended life. A judge sentenced Carroll to death. The
Alabama Supreme Court later overturned the sentence, calling it "excessive."

What makes the case memorable, though, was the sentence recommended by the victim's husband, Raymond Long, and her mother.  "It's the life that I live, and the God that I serve, (that) will not let me hate this young man," Katie Wright said at Carroll's sentencing hearing. "I, as a mother of a child of a life that he took, do not want to see him dead."

Mercy. It can be a more powerful show of strength than condemnation. But it's a lesson that's missed if we're blinded by the simplistic appeal of eye-for-an-eye justice.

[The author is an editorial writer & letters editor for The News.]


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