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?