Sunday, September 25, 2011

'A Kind of Wild Justice'

Like most capital cases, the recent execution of Troy Davis has polarized people along political lines, the liberal left finding reasonable grounds for a stay of the sentence, the hard right suddenly become uncharacteristically sensitive to the emotions of real middle class people - the victim's family - chronicling their horrific "ordeal" and their need for "closure."

A couple of things interest me in the after-chatter about this sad episode. First (and not to minimize the sufferings of the McPhails over more than two decades), the idea that a human being ought to be executed so that a family can have "closure." Closure is available upon the execution of any number of innocent people, so long as the victim's family is convinced the culprit is actually in custody. But the idea that "closure" is somehow a right or a basic human necessity seems wrongheaded.

Closure is one of those 20th-century notions lifted from the psychobabble promoted by the psychotherapy industry as 1) a right or necessity every healthy person must attain following any sort of trauma whatsoever, and 2) a handy notional benchmark whereby the clinical practitioner can demonstrably claim to have earned $175 per hour. "Closure" may have a place in a therapist's womb-like office (you might need to come to terms with the fact that that snazzy used '94 Coupe de Ville you just bought has been repossessed, or your mother-in-law poisoned the family cat, or you didn't get laid on your vacation).

But closure is a psychic luxury. You can pay $175 per hour for it, but it has no corresponding place in the judicial system, particularly when lives hang in the balance and it becomes just one more reason to lethally inject a person who may or may not have done something. Closure, in a court of law, is a pseudo-scientific, basely sentimental pretext for revenge. It is for just this reason that a victim's friends, family members or creditors are not acceptable as members of any jury trying their case.

The second thing I find noteworthy is the religious fealty the right wing blindly places in a governmental justice system - Government, "the Beast," the Great Evil - broken and pernicious in every way except when a state sets its sights on some poor bastard who's become the overnight darling of the liberal left. "Why," asks one blogger, "do liberals have a soft spot for cop killers like Troy Davis?"

"Liberals," he continues, "don’t like the death penalty; so they are desperate to find proof that innocent men have been executed . . . . In truth, even if an innocent man were executed, it wouldn’t change anything. We already have a system that’s slanted in favor of the defendants in criminal trials and heavily against the death penalty." Apparently the rules of evidence are a liberal problem that can be overcome with a central government strong  enough to slant the system so that capital defendants are expeditiously slid off the tilt?

But mark this - "even if an innocent man were executed, it wouldn’t change anything." In fact, notwithstanding the implication to the contrary, innocent people have been executed, will be executed in future, and certainly nothing has changed. Not yet, in any case. Troy Davis's life may be a breach in that particular wall of idiocy.

A blogger on Tea Party Nation testifies his own fervent zeal for government mandated executions: "Troy Davis was on death row for twenty years. He was given a trial by a jury of his peers and then had countless opportunities to relitigate his death penalty. The justice system was not broken."

Ah, not so fast, Bubba: "On second thought, may be it was. For twenty years, he sat on death row while Mark McPhail’s family had to endure all of the appeals. Perhaps the question we should be asking is why does it take twenty years and an untold amount of taxpayer money for justice to be delivered?" So in the end it all comes back to the same old hymn: the government spent "an untold amount of taxpayer money" and very nearly screwed it up.

"The justice system was not broken." That a government has never erred when meting out capital punishment belies a zealous faith in those very circles that decry the ineptitude, the growth, the inefficiency, the corruption, the godless liberal secularism, the constitutional overreaching they see in every aspect of "Government." Due diligence be damned, they tell us, it only costs taxpayers more money and the government will get it right in any case.

But without due diligence about the evidence, all we have is "the need for closure." Without it, there is only revenge, "a kind of wild justice." The purpose of a system of laws is to enact justice, not to offer psychic healing to the bereaved. In all of this sorry episode, the legal fiction of the "reasonable person" has remained just a fiction.

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