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Years ago, when I was still young, and clinging to my conservative upbringing, I supported the death penalty. I figured, at the time, that some times people just couldn't be fixed, and it was the best way to protect society. If we were wrong, well, God would have to clean up the mess. I changed my tune as I started to actually question, to understand the price in dollars and time, to understand the preciousness of human life, and as I threw away my faith, to believe that there was no one to say sorry for us if we made a mistake. Then, this February, I learned something I'd never taken into consideration, when I was asked if I could put a man to death.

I had expected that the trial that I was called for jury duty would be civil, or perhaps a drug misdemeanor - If the 'Burgh was bigger and newer, my county would be called the exurbs, and we don't get much noise out here. Sure, there'd been some grisly stuff hitting the fan a few years ago, but that was done and gone, I'd thought. I hadn't paid too much attention. Then I got there, and I was asked to take part in the jury in trial of Ricky Smyrnes for the torture and murder of Jennifer Daugherty. The state was seeking the death penalty.

Continued past the Kossack Flower...

As they read us our pretrial questionnaire, and filled it in, the ghost of what I had heard in the media bubbled up, and I started to piece things together. With two co-conspirators already having been found or pled guilty, both of them testifying against the kid, plus the likely, I realized that as I filled in the zillion questions and listened to the judge that the defense didn't have a lot of hope, and most of it was pinned on finding Ricky mentally incapable, and escaping the death penalty that way.  This was a reasonable hope; the six defendants and their victim were all involved in various mental health programs across the county.

It was at about this time, also, that I re-recognized the address of the crime scene. I had grown up next door to the house where it had happened. I had gone to school in the building next to the parking lot where they dumped the corpse. This wasn't something you hear in the news, not anymore. It was home. I had known this intellectually, before, but it hadn't really sunk in, not down to the core of me. It really struck, then, the concreteness of both her death, and the death sentence the state was asking the 70+ of us in the courtroom to give them.  

At that moment, I knew I couldn't do it, and marked as such on my questionnaire. I sat there during my lunch break, turning what I'd been told, and what I remembered, and most of all, despite the fact that I would never be the one to hold the needle, that I was essentially being asked to kill a man in cold blood, over and over in my mind. Here, even one juror saying no is enough, the responsibility is not diluted. I just couldn't do it. In due course, I was tossed from the juror pool for refusal to kill Ricky Smyrnes. I was in on the first day, and it took them most of the month to assemble the jury.

As I understand it, the state had the evidence - There was little doubt to be had that Smyrnes was there and an active participant. Just a matter of degrees, and who was instigating. And the jury decided that he was important enough, and sane enough, and intelligent enough to die.

And now, I wonder, how much that weighs on them, each of them knowing that they sent a man to die, a man who's very ability to tell right from wrong was a matter of open debate. Some, I imagine, will be able to toss it aside. But for some of them, I expect, it's going to weigh on them, sit on their consciences that they, alone, had the power to stop a man from being sent to his death, and chose not to.

In 2012, we had 3,170 people on death row. It took over 38,000 people to sentence them to death. Every one of them has that weight on their shoulders - 38,000 people who have to deal with the fact that they participated in taking a life. Is that really worth the revenge of the death penalty?

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Comment Preferences

  •  Thank you. The other price of the (11+ / 0-)

    death penalty is to the people who actually have to carry it out. Death impacts the human psyche as much as birth. Phenomenal play that explores this is Coyote on a Fence.  The guards who know the prisoners and have been involved in their lives, appeals, etc. for years are affected, no matter how much they believe in the concept.

    Have a friend and former SO who has devoted his law practice to CA death row inmates for 2 decades. He explained that the one thing they have in common is 'layers of abuse, like an onion.'  One high profile case he is still working on is a guy whose mental capacity is very difficult to pinpoint. They have new evaluations and tests that may disqualify him for execution.

    Maybe a decade ago, when one lost his last appeal, he requested being allowed to go to the Native spiritual room at some point before the execution. This was denied because of the distance to where it had been built and potential for something to go wrong.

    The inmate was a paraplegic, confined to a wheel chair.

    Is that really worth the revenge of the death penalty?
    Spot on.

    "People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed and redeemed; never throw out anyone. " Audrey Hepburn "A Beautiful Woman"

    by Ginny in CO on Sun May 05, 2013 at 08:18:19 PM PDT

  •  I believe that government sponsored (10+ / 0-)

    violence, especially committed on a helpless person, encourages violence in society. Violence should be considered unthinkable in as many cases as possible.

    "The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now do you begin to understand me?" ~Orwell, "1984"

    by Lily O Lady on Sun May 05, 2013 at 08:28:12 PM PDT

  •  Jennifer Daugherty (13+ / 0-)

    i remember reading about her.  no human being should die as she did, or suffer as she did in the last hours of her life.

    that said, i despise the DP for anyone, under any circumstances.  

    even having the sentencing "option" of DP is abhorrent.

    thank you very much for writing this, and sharing your story.

  •  There's a good reason (7+ / 0-)

    that more soldiers kill themselves than die in firefights.

    •  Police officers vs line of duty deaths too. (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      Those stats are not made as public as soldiers. The death certificates are questioned on many. There is a group trying to get full disclosure for the stats.

      "People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed and redeemed; never throw out anyone. " Audrey Hepburn "A Beautiful Woman"

      by Ginny in CO on Mon May 06, 2013 at 08:01:29 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Well, if you let only people on the jury that (7+ / 0-)

    will kill, then you certainly increase the odds of a killing.  In a realistic sense, a person who gets off the jury because they won't kill enables the jury to kill.  Who knows whether you would have been seated on the jury anyway, but I've picked death penalty juries and seen what is left over when the good people beg off.

    . On ne gagne que les combats que l'on mène

    by NearlyNormal on Sun May 05, 2013 at 09:30:49 PM PDT

    •  The judicial system, itself, (6+ / 0-)

      of selecting death penalty juries makes a mockery of due process when good people are eliminated merely for speaking their consciences.  The result, as you say, is inevitably a jury composed of those who are attitudinally accepting of the death penalty as a punishment.

      From Trop v. Dulles: One of the most important functions any jury can perform in making selection of punishment is to maintain a link between contemporary community values and the penal system, a link without which the determination of punishment could hardly reflect the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.
      How is a society to progress when the judicial system, itself, inhibits that progress and tilts the jury to its own desired outcome?

      It's a relief to see many state legislatures considering abolition of the death penalty these days, even if their primary motive is to eliminate expense.  It's an advantageous time to support state legislatures in those efforts.  The judicial system is stuck, spinning its wheels.

    •  I agree with dharmafarmer. (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      hnichols, Orakio, Avila

      When you go into the jury selection process, the onus of telling the truth becomes very real. It isn't 'begging off' as far as I am concerned. When you morally object to the death penalty, lying is probably another choice you rarely make. Getting the kind of questionnaire Orakio describes is intimidating.

      I have wondered how to respond honestly to a questionnaire without lying or getting kicked off. Having been open and vocal about my objection to the DP since the 80's, lying is not an option for that reason as well. Remember when you were taught as a child the difference between 'can I' and 'may I'.? If the word is could you, my answer is yes. Would you is no.

      The other piece of this is the issue of a juror's mental health. Given the lousy state of our mental health care, plenty of people who need it aren't getting any. My mother in law, very frail in her 70's, could not get off being a juror in an ugly murder trial, even for medical conditions cited by her physician. I've been an RN (BSN) since '77 and also have a BS in Sociology. Very familiar with the elderly and aging. I will always be convinced that experience contributed significantly to the decline in her quality of life for the rest of it.

      "People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed and redeemed; never throw out anyone. " Audrey Hepburn "A Beautiful Woman"

      by Ginny in CO on Mon May 06, 2013 at 07:54:57 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Intimidating isn't really the right word (3+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        hnichols, Ginny in CO, Avila

        The questionnaire was, for lack of a better word, awe-inspiring. It was the mental equivalent of a blow to the solar plexus, not a mere promise of danger. It was entirely too real to process, except in little chunks and circling passes of thought, until I got to the ugly, nasty core of it: I was being asked to command the murder of someone.

        •  Well, in defense of my early and life long (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:

          love of words and definitions.

          in·tim·i·date  (n-tm-dt)
          1. To make timid; fill with fear.
          2. To coerce or inhibit by or as if by threats.

          Synonyms: intimidate, browbeat, bulldoze, cow2, bully1, bludgeon
          These verbs all mean to frighten into submission, compliance, or acquiescence. Intimidate implies the presence or operation of a fear-inspiring force: "It [atomic energy] may intimidate the human race into bringing order into its international affairs" (Albert Einstein).
          Browbeat suggests the persistent application of highhanded, disdainful, or imperious tactics: browbeating a witness.
          Bulldoze connotes the leveling of all spirit of opposition: was bulldozed into hiring an unacceptable candidate.
          Cow implies bringing out an abject state of timorousness and often demoralization: a dog that was cowed by abuse.
          To bully is to intimidate through blustering, domineering, or threatening behavior: workers who were bullied into accepting a poor contract.
          Bludgeon suggests the use of grossly aggressive or combative methods: had to be bludgeoned into fulfilling his duties.

          This illustrates what I like to throw at folks who want the definition of marriage to be cast in titanium. Definitions change and I think intimidation has been diluted. Since I tend to be wary of overstatement, that may have been why I chose it. Blow to the solar plexus is metaphorically better, immediately brought to mind my experiences with it. The case I had a questionnaire for was robbery with no physical injuries. After filling it all out, I was dismissed before even getting to the court room. Intimidating.

          Cedwyn's comment below is exactly what I have suggested.

          i love asking death penalty supporters if they could flip the switch themselves.  most of them say no
          Every juror who votes yes for the DP should have to answer the question "Would you be willing to volunteer"? Even people who live in states that use injection have found the experience a blow to the solar plexus.

          PS, you're very welcome.

          "People, even more than things, have to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed and redeemed; never throw out anyone. " Audrey Hepburn "A Beautiful Woman"

          by Ginny in CO on Mon May 06, 2013 at 10:00:27 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

      •  I pretty deliberately wrote that as tamely as I (0+ / 0-)

        could.  If you don't believe in the death penalty being on the jury is a way to stop, or at least delay, it and spare one person's life.  If one's conscience is too tender for that, then so be it.

        . On ne gagne que les combats que l'on mène

        by NearlyNormal on Mon May 06, 2013 at 12:16:02 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  You say you've picked death penalty juries, so you (1+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Ginny in CO

          know that jurors who say they can't even consider the death penalty are automatically struck for cause.  We may not agree with that, but that's how it is.  Are you saying that potential jurors who oppose the death penalty (as I do) should lie when asked if they can consider it?

          I could make a case for lying as a form of civil disobedience, but I don't really believe it.  The legal and moral implications of saying you will consider it when that is not true are pretty serious.

          •  No, I'm not saying they should lie (0+ / 0-)

            If your conscience is too tender to consider the death penalty when someone's life is at stake, then you should pat yourself on the back for the firmness of your convictions and leave others to kill the guy.  That way you won't have any moral problems.  Death Penalty cases are fraught with moral problems for everyone involved and it is no doubt comforting to be so sure of yourself that you can walk away with your head held high while the State kills someone in your name.

            See, its not the opposition to the DP that strikes you from the jury, its the failure be able to force yourself to consider it in the particular case.

            . On ne gagne que les combats que l'on mène

            by NearlyNormal on Mon May 06, 2013 at 12:54:59 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

  •  No one has a right to kill someone (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Avila, Ginny in CO, Cedwyn, hnichols, Orakio

    who can't defend themselves.  There is no argument that strapping someone down and then taking their life is not murder.  None.  And if someone is truly serious about getting revenge, let them do it themselves and accept the consequences if they're so sure that life in prison is no big deal for a murderer.  Let them become one by taking personal revenge and find out, but don't cover the hands of a nation in blood.

    "False advertising" is redundant.

    by Troubadour on Mon May 06, 2013 at 01:27:15 AM PDT

  •  for our sake. (5+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ginny in CO, Cedwyn, Kimbeaux, MaikeH, hnichols

    Naturally eliminating the death penalty is good for defendants.  But more importantly it is good for us, the public.  We are more humane, more civilized when we move beyond revenge justice.

  •  yup...state-sanctioned, cold-blooded killing (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Ginny in CO, hnichols, Orakio

    and srsly...i love asking death penalty supporters if they could flip the switch themselves.  most of them say no.  "well then, you don't really support the death penalty, do you?"

    Please don't dominate the rap, Jack, if you got nothin' new to say - Grateful Dead

    by Cedwyn on Mon May 06, 2013 at 06:51:52 AM PDT

  •  Hi there! (0+ / 0-)

    Glad to see you writing here!

    You said the air was singing / it's calling you, you don't believe / These things you've never seen / Never heard, never dreamed.

    by CayceP on Tue May 07, 2013 at 05:56:43 PM PDT

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