Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Thinking: Why Do Some People Get Killed?

Does one life count more than another?

I was thinking about this while looking back at accounts of the testimony given during the penalty phase of the Scott and Lacy Peterson trial. Lacy's mother wept and screamed at her daughter's convicted killer, while Scot's father poured out his soul for his son.

The prosecution's argument seemed to follow this line: "Lacy was good and loved by many; therefore her killer deserves to die". Scott's father's reply was that he loved his son too, and so he didn't deserve to die. This makes we wonder how deeply do you need to be loved for your killer to deserve death? The prosecution's argument seems to assume that there is a line of sufficient love and loss, which when crossed merits death. But what happens when the victim is not missed, or not loved? Is that person's killer somehow less deserving of death? And how on earth can twelve people ever really measure this?

I raised this issue at the time of the trial in a class I was teaching at church. As it turned out, one of the women in the class had just finished serving on the jury of a murder trial. Like the Peterson case, the woman was killed by her partner (a boyfriend instead of her husband), but the response was incredibly different. The victim was poor and semi-homeless, living in a SRO in LA's Skid Row. The murder was incredibly brutal, and the murderer was easy enough to find, but initially, the DA declined to charge him with murder. After all, they were just two Skid Row dwellers who were not worth the resources of the DA's office. It would be easier for everyone to just plead the guy out.

The case didn't end this way because one of the investigating LAPD detectives lobbied the DA's office. He had been shaken by the brutality of the crime, but more importantly, he was empowered by the humanity of the victim. He was unwilling to let her suffering go unnoticed.

At trial, the man was quickly convicted. The penalty phase was a sad mirror image of the Peterson case. There were no media trucks, no waiting crowds, and the jury result was not carried live on TV and radio. But like the Peterson trial, people spoke for the victim and the murderer. The public defender had to search hard, but he was able to find two distant relatives who were able to say that, yes, it would make them sad if this man were executed, and that they had vague memories of him being "a good boy" when he was young.

The only person to speak for the victim was a religious social worker who knew her a little. The victim had been a drug user and had lost contact with her family. The social worker was left to answer short questions affirming that yes, despite all of her troubles, the victim had been a "good person".

Again, how can twelve people determine if the victim is "good enough" or the perpetrator is "bad enough"? We empower juries to determine guilt or innocence on the basis of evidence, but then turn around and determined their punishment on almost purely emotional and ephemeral grounds. What would have happened if the social worker had been unavailable to speak for the woman? Would she have "mattered" enough? Is this any way to decide matters of life and death?

This is the central injustice at the heart of our country's application of the death penalty. Neither killers nor victims are equal before the law. This woman killed in her room in LA was merely one conscientious detective away from being forgotten and filed away, because for most people, most of the time, her life did not matter as much as Lacy Peterson's. It seems to me, then, that until we can figure out a way to make everyone matter, we have no business killing anyone. The death penalty is supposed to establish justice - but there can be no justice until everyone matters.

1 comment:

Bob Ramsey said...

Seeing how this looks