Monday, November 15, 2004

Cognitive Dissonance

Some Texans don't care if the state kills innocent people.

Seventy percent of Texans think the state has executed innocent people, the Texas Poll found (registration required for Houston Chronicle). The same poll found 75 percent of Texans still support the death penalty, and 52 percent opposed a temporary moratorium to fix the system.

If any Grits reader thinks Texas kills innocent people but that we should continue executing them, I wish you'd share your reasoning. I don't get it.

If you want to know how innocent people get indicted in the first place, Kuff has the story of how Harris County stacks grand juries with police and pro-prosecutor courthouse employees. From the Houston Chronicle (registration required).


Scott Chaffin said...

1) Your first link to the Texas Poll doesn't work.

2) Give me something I can hang my hat on here, chief. How do we "fix it"?

Here's my thinking, though:
It's probably ineveitable that in 170+ years of statehood we've killed innocent people at the hand of the state. On the other hand, I think it's exceedingly unlikely we have done so in the last, say, 30 years. I'm perfectly willing to be corrected on that.

I do support the death penalty because it's the one sure way to keep stone killers off the streets. Some people don't deserve to live. It might not deter any other killers, but it deters at least one from walking the streets ever again.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The link works for me, Scott. And I think it's naive to believe we haven't executed innocents recently. Gary Graham comes to mind, for starters. Dominique Green insisted unto death he didn't pull the trigger, and he was killed even though the Houston police chief and the victim's family objected. Cases like these make me think the problem is ongoing. Given the Houston crime lab fiascos and the callous disregard of the Court of Criminal Appeals, the point is we can't know if we're executing innocents or not. If you don't back a moratorium under those circumstances, I don't know what to give you to "hang your hat on," just like I don't know what to do with people who think Saddam Hussein sponsored 9/11. People believe things that are untrue or contradictory, regardless of reason. Texas sponsors one third of executions in the country, but has among the highest murder rates, so I don't buy that it's deterring anything. No person is as good as their best act or as bad as their worst one.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Scott, my bad, there were two Chronicle links and one was bad. Fixed now. Thanks, sir.

Scott Chaffin said...

I've personally got no problem with a moratorium on Harris Cty. death cases. I haven't followed the story at all, but the blogs I read indicate it's pretty severe. Having gone through our own little scandal with the fake drugs here in Dallas, I'm aware there are problems out there. But -- the moratorium does not necessarily need to be Texas-wide.

Also, note that I said I don't necessarily consider it a deterrent, except for at least one killer. I wouldn't defend the death penalty on those grounds.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

If we know Dallas and Houston courts convict innocent people, then that's enough for me to stop executions until the system is fixed.

I don't think the death penalty deters even for the individual we kill, because it's unlikely most will kill again. The link above re: high murder rates includes this from Josh Marshall:

"In the North, where murder rates are higher in urban centers, they tend to track with the commission of felonies. In other words, people get killed by people who are in the process of committing felonies --- whether those be drug sales, muggings, robberies gone bad, organized crime, or something else. But in the Southern states, where murder rates are higher in small towns and rural areas, this isn’t the case. Rather than happening in the process of committing other crimes, these murders tend to be rooted in what are best described as violations of honor, personal slights that escalate into violence or in the simplest sense, rage."

If that's true, then the death penalty won't discourage those types of murders. Since murders here tend to be crimes of passion, we're usually not talking about "stone cold killers" but young people who made the worst mistake of their life in the heat of the moment. Again, no one is as good as their best act or as bad as their worst one. It's also the case that we only execute people who can't afford good lawyers, which raises equal protection concerns. But even if you support the death penalty conceptually, I don't see how you can look at the Houston crime lab or the Dallas sheetrock cases, or for that matter Austin's yogurt shop convictions, and think the state should be killing people with a system that flawed.

Scott Chaffin said...

Well, you've got an advantage on me here in that you know all these cases inside out. I'd have to bring in a consultant to make a decent point. This reminds me (again) never to argue with lawyers.

But I'll do it anyway, since we're talking concepts here. I haven't parsed it out to passion killers vs. mass/multiple/serial killers vs. the commission of a felony killer (not in a looooong time, anyway). Is there any point on this continuum where you think the state has the right (or even duty) to kill someone?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I'm not a lawyer, BTW. I work on the political end of all this mess.

But as to your question, I have no doubt that people do things for which they deserve to die, and I'm not so squeamish as to shed tears for true "stone cold killers." My problem is threefold: 1) I've witnessed the flaws in the system to such an extent I find it unimaginable that we're performing justice, or even in all cases killing the actual murderer, 2)the equal protection problems with killing mostly poor and black people, while anyone with money gets a prison sentence, and 3) on a more esoteric level, once citizens grant government the right to kill them, for whatever cause, you've surpassed what I think reasonably constitutes the consent of the governed. Plus, since all government tends to expand its authority, once the death penalty is established, there's always somebody wanting to expand its scope, like Sen. Todd Staples who wants to use it for drug dealers. My own concerns, and I speak only for myself, not any group, are only partly moral, but just as much because I think it's empirically a crappy, discriminatory and unworkable policy.

One more thing, I'm not arguing murderers should get off or not be held responsible. Compared to 40 years in a Texas prison, death is the easy way out.