Saturday, March 12, 2005

Death for the Atlanta Killer?

My friend Esther, who runs a great blog at Outside the Blogway, left a comment that Brian Nichols, who murdered a judge and others in Atlanta, should get the death penalty. She has stated before, here and elsewhere, that those guilty of particularly heinous crimes, to include serial killers, should be put to death.

I'm against the death penalty, as I explained in another post. That's still my position, even in the context of the vile crimes of Brian Nichols. According to the press, there's apparently no question that he did, in fact, commit the murders he'll be charged with. He would also be eligible for the death penalty if convicted, and there seems to be little doubt that prosecutors will ask for it.

My principal objections to the death penalty center on these issues:

It's applied unevenly and sometimes inaccurately. Your chances of getting the death penalty for a capital crime depend too much on having enough money to buy good lawyers. O.J. Simpson is the perfect example. It also matters where you commit the offense and who you are. The system also makes mistakes, as we've learned in case after case where DNA proved that people on death row were innocent.

I don't believe we should empower the state to kill us under any circumstances. In political theory, we enter into a social contract among ourselves to form a government. The purpose of that government is to protect us from internal and external threats and to govern our interactions so as to establish a civil society in which all can prosper. How does executing citizens square with that concept?

In this context, it doesn't matter that Brian Nichols murdered several people in cold blood. Personally, it wouldn't have bothered me at all if he had been killed resisting arrest. In fact, I think it speaks volumes about our society that he survived the arrest after having killed a judge, a court reporter, a sheriff's deputy, and probably a federal customs officer. In most countries he would have died immediately at the hands of law enforcement officers.

However, public policy can't be made on the basis of individual examples of extreme cases. It also can't be made as an emotional response to personal circumstances. A good example is when Dan Quayle, as a candidate for Vice President, was asked by a reporter if he would still be against abortion if his daughter became pregnant as a result of rape. Quayle, never the brightest bulb on the tree, tried to struggle through an answer to the question. He should have responded that in addition to being stupid and insulting, the question missed the point, which is that public policy must transcend the visceral feelings of an aggreived individual.

I'll close with what I said in the earlier post on the death penalty:

Finally, there's the morality of it. From my first days in basic training in the Army, I was taught that soldiers don't kill prisoners who do not present a threat. If that's morally correct, and it is, then how can we permit the state to kill its prisoners? The question is not whether captured enemy soldiers should have a right to live, while convicted murderers should not. The question is whether the state, acting through its soldiers or its courts, should have the authority to kill people in its custody.


Blogger Esther said...

Wow, thanks Tom. I think. :) Great post. And I do admire your stance. I don't necessarily agree but I do appreciate it.

"I was taught that soldiers don't kill prisoners who do not present a threat."

And that's a good thing as long as you know that to be true. But Brian Nichols, in my mind, is a constant threat. For shooting the judge alone -- that's a line that is mind blowing (oops, no pun intended, honest) to see crossed. If all he wanted to do was escape, he could have waved the gun and threatened to shoot anyone who stopped him but that is not what he did. The mayhem he caused... my friend lives half a mile from where that customs agent was killed! She couldn't leave her house. I know you don't like a case by case basis but that is exactly what I like because I don't think you can do a blanket law for this.

More importantly, I think we need to screw the PC thinking of not having prisoners in orange jumpsuits and chains when they're in court. I don't care if they look like criminals! Something like this can not happen again. It jeopardizes our entire judicial system. Every person brought up for jury duty can probably get out of it now by saying they're scared that the court can't guarantee their safety sitting in that jury box. And they'd be right.

7:49 PM, March 12, 2005  
Blogger Tom Carter said...

Esther, there's no question that Nichols is personally and individually responsible for his crimes.

However, some degree of responsibility rests with the local Sheriff, who is responsible for protecting the courts and handling prisoners. If he and his department had done their job competently, none of this would have happened. Nichols was a very big man and a talented athlete. He made threats against various people, and he already had been caught trying to sneak two "shivs," homemade prison knives, into the courtroom. The Sheriff's department still put him in a changing room alone with a female deputy, reportedly a 51-year-old grandmother who was barely over five feet tall. If a stronger male deputy had been with him, it might not have happened. If two deputies had been there, it almost certainly wouldn't have happened. And, if the murdered judge's request for greater security had been honored, it also most likely wouldn't have happened.

This Sheriff's department has been under incompetent leadership for a long time, and the new Sheriff obviously isn't doing any better. He should be held to account.

9:33 PM, March 12, 2005  
Blogger truth addict said...

Hey Tom I agree with your stance on the Death penelty. Killing someone for Killing someone else is counter produtive. It does not deter crime. It does not help the victems families, most of the time. Nice site I just got started with my blog. I wil put a link to yours. Oh and thanks for the Tom Paine link. My favorite patriot.

11:30 PM, March 12, 2005  
Anonymous uao said...

This is a well thought out and presented argument against the death penalty. I'm most moved by your second argument, about empowering the state to kill. It's not a power I'd like to see abused in the hands of the wrong persons. One could say it is already abused.

5:37 AM, March 13, 2005  
Blogger Esther said...

Tom, the judge had asked for more security and didn't get it? That is just horrible! I hadn't heard that. That poor man. And I'm with you that a lot of blame lies with law enforcement in this case.

You know that for the most part I don't support the death penalty (mostly for serial killers who can't stop themselves from killing again) but I do think certain killings, like of a judge sitting on the bench at the time or a cop of any kind, deserve special circumstances. I think these people put themselves in harm's way to help society and therefore deserve this little bit we can do for them after they're murdered on the job.

If it's any solace, I'm far more giving on this than my boyfriend, who thinks death penalty is fine for rapists, home invasion robbers, muggers and of course the worst -- computer hackers. ;)

1:23 PM, March 13, 2005  
Blogger RomanWanderer said...

While reading these comments a thought bothered me- is a life sentence worse than the death penalty? Not in today's prisons.
Not that I'm an expert in the workings of an American prison, or any prison for that matter, but I do get the impression that life is not that terrible behind those walls (they certainly get better medical treatment than I do :) ).
Both sentences serve to extradicate a killer from the general society. But shouldn't he be made to recognize his wrongdoings? As in, shouldn't he be thrown into a 3x3 cell for a few months, you know, just so he could get to 'think' about what he did? I would be against the death penalty if I knew that life in prison equaled the KGB prisons of our fathers- that would have been punishment enough. But living in prison now, with a library, a TV, a doctor....bah, some free people have it worse.

2:46 PM, March 13, 2005  
Blogger MaxedOutMama said...

Well argued, Tom.

Life imprisonment is cruel enough. GA prisons are pretty bad, I can tell you. No AC for the most part. Do you know how hot it gets here in the summer?

Besides, I think shooting the customs agent might be tried as a federal crime, and then he'll do time in the federal pen.

6:59 PM, March 13, 2005  
Blogger Tom Carter said...

Thanks to all for your comments!

Esther, I hadn't thought about it, but I might consider an exception for computer hackers!

RW, most state prisons in the U.S. are bleak, violent places. Federal prisons are somewhat better. In either case, it may be true that a sentence of life without the possibility of parole is worse than death. And that's fine with me. I'm not looking at it from the standpoint of the prisoners' preferences, though. To me it's an issue of the propriety of the state killing it's citizens, in addition to the capricious and uneven manner in which the death penalty is handed out, plus the frequency of error.

MOM, Nichols could get the death penalty under Georgia law or federal law or, presumably, both. Depends on which authority tries him. In any case, I would think it's inevitable that he'll be sentenced to death.

9:06 PM, March 13, 2005  
Blogger Ms. Lori said...

Nichols should die. Serial killers and child killers should die. Not for revenge, and not only for the victims’ families’ peace of mind and sense of justice, but for the good of society. These animals have escaped prison before, and they will continue to escape prison, be it through a hole in the wall, shoddy lawmaking or loopholes.

Remember Ted Bundy? Yeah, he was finally fried, but only after murdering four more human beings during his escape, including a precious twelve-year-old girl. How about Joel Steinberg, the former New York lawyer who beat his 6-year-old illegally adopted daughter to death in 1987? Released from jail after serving two-thirds of his 25-year sentence. I hear he’s planning on hosting a news show.

Two examples out of hundreds, thousands.

Feral beasts, whether they walk on four legs or two, must be destroyed in order to protect our children, our mothers, sisters, fathers and brothers.

A rabid dog can't be rehabilitated, reasoned with, and it sure as hell shouldn't be given a warm place to sleep, three meals a day and television (on OUR dime) on top of possible reemergence into society.

9:06 AM, March 14, 2005  
Blogger Esther said...

Great post, ms. lori. You've convincedme -- I'm willing to add child killers to my list of exceptions. But I'm with you about escapes, loopholes, etc...even pardons by insane politicians... if a person has shown they are all about killing, then for our own safety, they deserve the death penalty.

12:39 PM, March 14, 2005  
Blogger Holly Desimone said...

Hi everyone,
I live in Canada, we do not have the death penalty. I am personally against the death penalty, based on several reasons, but given the number of wrongful convictions in both countries, I have to state my point! I also would like others to consider Brian Nichols should be assessed on what he has done in Altanta! I only can say at this point no matter what the outcome his killing four individuals, has changed the courtrooms across the two countries! We are not safe in courts, but we are not safe in the streets either! Sincerely Holly D

10:11 PM, March 17, 2005  

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