Hannah Scribbles

Pondering: Justice and Capital Punishment

In Liberty on May 24, 2011 at 8:32 am

Mark Fuhrman is a former LAPD homicide detective and true crime writer who is a death penalty abolitionist.  But his stance on capital punishment was not always the case; it was during the course of investigating the death penalty (especially cases in Oklahoma City where DA Bob Macy overlooked mishandling of cases and evidence because he was such a firm supporter of the death penalty) that he moved from being a death penalty retentionist.

Fuhrman is not opposed to the idea of capital punishment, but he thinks that its use as justice is flawed while politics are still involved in the courtroom.  Though my own opinions go much further than Fuhrman’s stance, I do agree with him that there is no guarantee of justice as long as politicians can campaign on the pulpit of being tough on crime.

In his book, “Death and Justice,” Fuhrman stated that he thought at the beginning of his research that death penalty cases were investigated thoroughly and professionally because they carried the most severe penalty out there.  Despite evidence that this was false, he tried to hold onto his rigid belief in capital punishment for much of his research, only realizing toward the end that “the problem was the death penalty itself.”

People are affronted by murder.  They do not like it.  They want “justice” for the murder victim.  When discussing justice and capital punishment, however, we oftentimes discover that justice is simply revenge in disguise; the public clamors for “justice” with voices tinged in hatred and anger, not reason, and so death penalty cases enter the system with a mob in the wing.

Justice implies a fairness or reasonableness, especially in the way people are treated or decisions are made.  Justice is neither partial nor irrational.  If it is, then it crosses the line into revenge mentality, which can best be summed up as an effort to “get even” with someone who has caused you harm or offense.  When the public shouts for “justice” for the victim (and this justice usually involves capital punishment), they are actually thirsting for blood and revenge; the shame that Fuhrman sees is that the people – voters – sweep up the legal system into the furor.

The pressure to make a strong case and get a capital conviction, according to “Death and Justice,” is the cause of catastrophic errors in many death penalty cases and “once a prosecutor announces the death penalty will be sought, anything less than a capital punishment is seen as a failure.”  In search of re-election or simple public support, an ambitious prosecutor can sweep the case into a wave of hysteria that puts unspeakable pressure on detectives and forensic scientists to not only obtain a conviction but secure the capital conviction.

The first place that pressure causes errors is with the detectives, who “hide mistakes and holes in their cases” that could mean the difference between “beyond reasonable doubt” and innocence – all because, being the foundation of the case, they feel the need to help get “justice” for the victim despite the fact that such cover-ups of shoddy investigating may lead to the conviction of an innocent person.

Fuhrman writes that it is likely innocent people have been executed in the death penalty machine, especially in Oklahoma County where Bob Macy sought (and obtained) the death penalty in over 50 cases, including two who were innocent and subsequently released.  When asked if he thought the sacrifice of executing an innocent person was worth keeping the death penalty, however, Macy responded with a solid “yes.”

But, if capital punishment is sincerely interested in justice rather than revenge, the fact that no justice was served to the victim’s family, the public or the innocent suspect’s family should be unsettling.  Personally, I cannot understand how executing an innocent person could ever benefit society or dissuade the real criminal from striking again.  Human life should never just be tossed aside, especially in the name of something as honorable as justice.

“In order to execute people, we have to demonize them, deny their humanity and mark them with the stigma of evil so great that there is no choice but to kill them,” wrote Fuhrman.  Police officers have to speak of the suspect with contempt from the beginning, using casual phrases like “fry the fucker” as they speak of something as serious as the execution of a human who has not yet been proven guilty.  This is the process of capital punishment, which creates a drive so strong that not even the United States Supreme Court can see past the stigma to engage in honest justice.

“We all want Justice to be blind,” wrote Fuhrman, “but we all know it’s not and never will be.”  Death penalty justice is the one thing that humanity cannot accept as a product of its fundamentally flawed society.  Until human nature can be changed, there will be no way to put “justice” and “death penalty” in the same sentence.


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