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Family and Friends is my everyday journal. Captain's Log is where I pontificate on religion and politics.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Soul Searching

Governor Richardson signed the law making New Mexico the 15th state to put capital punishment in the history books. 

I've had many opinions concerning the death penalty over the years. 
  • It's easy to think in black and white when your young and life hasn't muddied the water for you. In high school when we'd debated this issue (yes my class had opinions and we voiced them at the top of our lungs) the argument I bought was that murderers and such were a cancer on society and society had the right to cut it out. Nice and tidy, good analogy, pure and simple.
  • In college, Jim Vanderbilt, a trainer for the men's basketball team, who I knew for two years, left to attend another college. My junior year the news was filled with a horrific story of a state senator's daughter murdered. Jim hit the news a few weeks later when he was arrested for the crime. It took the jury in Amarillo thirty minutes to convict him and thirty minutes to sentence him to death. My first experience with Texas assembly line capital punishment. It's also not as black and white when there's a face on the person sitting on death row. When your senior year as you leave a classroom and walk past this person's obviously distraught wife who is coming in, that returned to finish her degree. For a number of years I had no opinion either one way or the other on this issue. I was way too conflicted. 
  • When I became a father and looked in the crib of my son and later my daughter along with the love and pride came the realization that if someone did anything to harm them I'd be just like that father in Amarillo who'd move heaven and earth to see them punished. That kind of ended my conflict temporarily.
  • In the 1980's New Mexico had a death penalty melt down. 1. Four members of a biker gang who were on death row were let loose because the real killer found God and confessed to cleanse his soul. He had proof of his crime. 2. Tony Anaya was elected governor. As liberal as they come. He was morally opposed to the death penalty and announced that no one would be executed while he was in office. When he lost re-election in 1986, Gary Carruthers, the newly elected governor made it clear the four men on death row at that time would suffer their sentence. Tony Anaya then announced that he could not in good conscience leave office and let this happen. He commuted their sentences to Life. Every few years it hits the news that one or more of the men are up for parole. It is always denied. 
  •  Anaya commuted these sentences in Nov. of 1986. That same month a 9 year old girl was found raped and strangled in Artesia, her name was Dena Lynn Gore. The family of the killer turned him in, Terry Clark, who had been convicted of raping a 7 year old just months earlier in another town, but was out on bail pending appeal. We now have the Dena Lynn Gore law that stops violent criminals from being free on bond after conviction. Terry Clark was told by his attorney that if he pleaded guilty at his arraignment in early December, that should he be sentenced to death before the new governor took office, Anaya would commute the sentence. He pleaded guilty, the judge set sentencing for February and he was sentenced to die, too late for a commutation. At the time I was glad the judge held off on the sentencing and he got what he deserved. A part of me still does.
  • The next year a college student was abducted in front of her home, held for over a week, drugged and forced to make porno films. They found her body under a culvert. The outrage was palpable in the press. Three men were arrested for her murder. Two turned states evidence and testified against the person they say put them up to it. Johnny Zinn, who worked at his uncle's bakery not far from where we lived. Rage turned to complete shock. That bakery was a fixture of the whole town. Everyone had eaten either at the bakery or what they had baked. The family had money, though the bakery was quietly closed. He was convicted, but at sentencing was given life. *note, both Terry Clark and Johnny Zinn are white as were the victims, race was not an issue*. I was totally taken by surprise when the sentencing verdict came in. This should have been a slam dunk for the death penalty. I learned that money and good attorneys really do make a difference. 
  • In the 90's I started teaching law and decided to do a unit on the death penalty. With computers and the www it's been pretty easy getting material from both sides. Teaching in the following years at two high schools known for major gang problems it's not unusual that some of the students in my class have more first hand knowledge of the criminal justice system than I would ever want to know. These students may give their other teachers trouble, or sleep, but in my class -- at least for the criminal justice part -- they are full of questions. Most have family either in prison for murder, or have had family members murdered. No I don't come to school in an armored car and wear kevlar, they're just kids who've experienced more in fifteen or sixteen years than I have in over fifty. Surprisingly they all favor the death penalty, even if it would apply to their own family. I've not done a scientific study on it, wouldn't want to; it's a general observation from a raising of hands both before and after the unit and from reading their extended response questions.
  • In 2001 Terry Clark requested all further appeals on his behalf end. Fifteen years after he pleaded guilty, Millions in state dollars spent on the endless appeals plus the cost of all those years of incarceration, the state was finally going to see justice done. Most of the people in the state had to be reminded or informed about the crime. It was like ancient history. The newspapers ran numerous articles on the crime and the history of the death penalty in the state. With the exception of the five years I was exiled to Texas going to college and seminary, I've lived here since 1963. It never dawned on me that this was going to be the first execution to happen in all that time. The previous execution took place in 1960 by gas chamber. It was mentioned that we switched from hanging to the gas chamber in the early 1950's (to make good use of the nazi's preferred means of killing people), and that this was the only time it was ever used. Millions of dollars spent at tax payer expense in 1950's money to be used only one time. That boggled my mind. Terry Clark died by lethal injection. A much cheaper means of execution, not counting the cost of fifteen years of legal bills the state coughed up for both sides of the appeals.
  • That's when the math hit me. Why don't good fiscal conservatives do the math, at least for this state. Texas has it down to a science in cutting costs and railroading people to the gurney. It costs $35,000 dollars per year to house an inmate in maximum security. Life without parole, given the offender is in his late teens or early twenties, say thirty years before they die of natural causes on average. That comes to $1,050.000. Round it off to one mil. Now Terry Clark was costing taxpayers his room and board for 15 years so out of the one mil we still payed five hundred grand. In essence we spent millions of dollars to shorten his miserable life so we could save half a mil. Even if he lived another ten years we'd have only saved another 350 thousand. The state won't mention exactly how much we payed for all those legal appeals, but it would be a pretty safe bet at the going lawyers fees to be well over 5 possibly 10 million bucks. Did we get a lot of bang for it?
  • I'm not without pity or heartless concerning the pain the Gore family went through in all those years and still do. And as I said earlier when looking down on my children, now my grandchildren, I'd still want any and all things done to those who would hurt them in this way. But in my soul searching I've concluded locking the animals up in a pen for the rest of their lives to protect society from their crimes is more important than my need for revenge, and that society shouldn't have to foot the bill for whatever closure I might or might not feel in watching someone put to sleep like a rabid dog.

4 comments:

Michael Manning said...

I recall the Sharon Tate murders and the shock of our neighborhood the following morning after reading the headlines. So many tragic and senseless acts of viiolence I will never comprehend.

Anonymous said...

A long time ago I was asked that if any one took a loved one from me, Would I forgive them or let them rot, or die in prison? My answer has not changed: I would forgive them. I would always say that answer regardless of the crime. that reason is due to the way I was raised and the fact that I had been forgiven for a sin I had committed against another. To be shown such mercy as if I deserved it had moved me to the point of tears. that is why I choose my answer.

P M Prescott said...

Anon, thank you for your insight.

P M Prescott said...

Michael, Manson and his family are still in prison. Society was protected.