Crime and Punishment
By Bruce McKinney
Fyoder Dostoevsky had it right. Crime and punishment are inextricably linked. These links are not entirely mechanical however. They are also emotional and as emotions change so do punishments. The mechanics call for an "eye for an eye" while pragmatists look to understand. To the person who says "He's a murderer. There's nothing to understand" the pragmatist asks "Why did he kill" and "Is the responsibility his alone?" Perhaps the question is "Are we more than the sum of our crimes?"
Recently the mechanics executed Stanley Tookie Williams at San Quentin in northern California. Some pragmatists objected. In the weeks leading up to the scheduled execution there was a showing at the Victoria in San Francisco of a movie about Mr. Williams' life, "Redemption" starring Jamie Fox. The theatre was sold out and Danny Glover spoke hopefully of the upcoming clemency hearing with Governor Schwarzenegger. Ten days later Mr. Williams was dead. He outlived predictions but only by 15 minutes and this only because the "nurse" couldn't quickly enough find a vein for the court mandated poison.
"An eye for an eye" is dumb policy. It assumes the individual is entirely and exclusively responsible and that background, neighborhood, family, timing and luck are not integral aspects. It also tries hard to ignore differences in intelligence. If these aren't important factors we need to get the news out because almost everyone in America treats them as important, even essential. Families that can are always moving out of problem neighborhoods. Many believe where we live will affect who we are, what we become and what we do. Every human being on the planet knows these factors are as much a part of us as our DNA. In court the standards are more black and white and the grays come into play only when competent defenses introduce and judges allow them.
Prejudice has been around for a while and one of the easiest ways to act on prejudice is to impose inflexible standards on those we don't like. People who speak non-native English and others of color often fit the bill. We do this by separating the crime from circumstances, background and color. We provide everyone with a "fair" trial but assume each defendant has sufficient capability and money to engage appropriate defense even when we know this is not the case. In fact in the United States it is expensive to mount a good defense so poor people have the least access to it.
The first trial is crucial because all subsequent judicial processes are simply reviews. Highly material errors are the requirement to overturn and courts reluctant to overrule. And new information is rarely accepted. Repeated allegations that prosecutors withhold information suggest a truly adversarial relationship between prosecutor and defense. Somewhere in this justice becomes an innocent bystander to over-reaching on both sides. That prosecutors do not always feel an obligation to both sides is shameful. Nancy Grace, a former prosecutor whose lair today is CNN, is the poster child of aggressive prosecutorial tactics and prima facie evidence of the failure of today's judicial system. Where the goal is truth viciousness can not reside.