2016-03-25

Progress. So slow.

Just Mercy, part 3

The hopeful news is that, since that peak year of 98 executions in 1999 , executions have been declining most years. Last year, 2015, there were 28 executions. That’s bad news for those 28, for their families, for their communities, for all our nation whose spirit is shrunk by killing people – but it is only 2/7ths the number executed in 1999.

In the last 15 years the most egregious, most unfair punishments have been ruled unconstitutional. Fifteen years ago, states could and did sentence to death people with severe intellectual disabilities and children as young as 13. We don’t let them drive or buy alcohol or smoke or vote or give blood because we know their judgment is not well formed, but we have held them responsible for crimes as if they were adults.

In his TED talk, Bryan Stevenson speaks of this as a magical power. The Court can wave a magical wand and suddenly a 15-year-old, or a 13-year-old is an adult for purposes of the trial. Reflecting on this magical power late one night, Stevenson began drafting a motion suggesting that this magical power be used, instead, to try his juvenile client as a 75-year-old white corporate executive. If he can be magically transformed into an adult, why not also transformed into a privileged white adult?
"I put in my motion that there was prosecutorial misconduct, and police misconduct, and judicial misconduct. There was a crazy line in there about how there is no conduct in this county, it's all misconduct. The next morning I woke up, and I thought,'did I dream that crazy motion or did I actually write it?' To my horror, not only had I written it, but I had sent it to court. A couple months went by, and I had forgotten all about it. Finally, I was going to court to do this crazy case....I went into the courtroom, and as soon as I walked inside, the judge saw me and said, 'Mr. Stevenson, did you write this crazy motion?' I said, 'Yes, sir, I did,' and we started arguing. People started coming in because they were outraged that I had written these crazy things. Police officers were coming in, and assistant prosecutors, and clerk workers. Before I knew it, the courtroom was filled with people angry that we were talking about race, that we were talking about poverty, that we were talking about inequality." (Bryan Stevenson, TED Talk)



On the hopeful side, in this century, a series of Supreme Court rulings started to make some changes.
  • 2002: Atkins v. Virginia: The Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that capital punishment for people with intellectual disability is unconstitutional.
  • 2005: Roper v. Simmons: Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that capital punishment for juvenile offenders is unconstitutional.
  • 2010: Graham v. Florida. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that life-without-parole for children convicted of any nonhomicide crime is unconstitutional.
  • 2012: Miller v. Alabama. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that life-without-parole for children convicted of homicide is unconstitutional.
It feels like a slow, painfully slow, dawning of humane awareness.

There are now 19 states and the District of Columbia that ban the death penalty. Seven of those 19 enacted their ban within the last 10 years
  • New York and New Jersey in 2007,
  • New Mexico in 2009,
  • Illinois in 2011,
  • Connecticut in 2012,
  • Maryland in 2013, and
  • Nebraska in 2015.
Nebraska. Can you feel a shifting tide?

Still, our criminal justice system is deeply, deeply broken. Since the 1970s, there have been 156 exonerations of death row inmates. For every nine people that have been executed, there’s one the state had to admit they were wrong about.

And it is no easy thing to get a state to admit an error in convicting or sentencing. While 156 were exonerated, we have no idea how many others were actually innocent but not quite so blatantly obviously innocent, or didn’t have lawyers with enough competence and hours in the day to provide a meaningful defense or appeal.

For every nine executed, one has been exonerated. Would you get on an airplane if one crashed for every 9 uneventful flights?

Bryan Stevenson’s book deals very concretely with specific cases and stories. I want you to read it, if you haven’t. I really only ask you to read one book a year, and this is the book I’m asking you to read this year because it is the book that has been selected for all Unitarian Universalists to read this year -- it’s the denomination’s “Common Read” for 2015-16 -- because it is a heartrending book describing a reality we all need to know about and responding to, because reading it provides a shared experience helping to connect the members of this congregation with our fellow Unitarian Universalists across the country, and because it will grow your soul.

Stevenson relates the stories of the way our criminal justice system mistreats people. He only occasionally goes in for statistics and dates – most of the statistics and dates I’ve given in this series of posts are ones I looked up separately from this book. Many of the stories take place in Alabama, including the main story of the book, the case of Walter McMillian who spent six years on death row for a crime he didn’t commit.

Walter simply attracted the rage of the racist Sheriff of Monroeville apparently for being a black man and having a romantic relationship with a white woman. So when Rhonda Morrison was murdered in 1986, and the Sheriff’s office was facing growing public pressure to make an arrest – present somebody that the community could get behind in blaming – said Sheriff coerced witnesses to lie and implicate Walter.

We all have a tendency to get caught up in our own stories. Sheriff Tate of Monroesville, Alabama illustrates how that universal tendency can go so horribly wrong. Tate and other law enforcement have a story in their heads. It’s a story about how black people are untrustworthy, a threat. Their story has no acknowledgment of their white privilege, and yet it is the sense of their privilege slipping away that arouses the fear and anxiety which they then direct toward the African American community in an desperate attempt to cling to a way of life that worked for them, or that, in their romanticizing of the past, they believe worked for their parents and grandparents. Stevenson’s narrative shows the power that our guiding narratives can have.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of 'Just Mercy'
See also
Part 1: 'Just Mercy' Reading
Part 2: Death Penalty and Race
Part 4: In the Light of the True Narrative

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