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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Sun Does Shine

I used to be very pro death penalty.  Even today, I don't have a philosophical problem with putting someone to death based on their commission of certain crimes if we can be sure they committed those crimes and the penalty can be carried out humanely.  I'm going to put our ability to humanely carry out a death sentence to one side, though if you haven't watched the John Oliver segment on it, you should.  It's horrifying.

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One would like to think that our system of justice is fair and works.  The fact is that it doesn't.  I've seen this conveyed in lots of different charts and anecdotes, but I don't think that anything has portrayed this lesson to me in a way that was a eloquent, accessible, and compelling as Anthony Ray Hinton telling his own story in The Sun Does Shine.  Hinton was convicted of two murders on the basis of a third murder the state claimed he committed, despite the fact that he was in a locked warehouse across town when it happened.  He was convicted because he was black and poor and convenient.  He was kept in prison for over 30 years because the people who lied to put him there were willing to do or say anything to keep him there.  The only reason he's alive today is that the Supreme Court took action on his case, something they do for less than 3% of the cases they receive.  The State of Alabama was content sending a man to the electric chair with basically no reason to believe he had committed the crimes he was accused of.

I don't think we should kill people based on findings in our current justice system.  I don't think there's any standard that could be applied that would prevent more cases like Hinton's.  But I also think vilification of the death penalty misses the point, to some extent.  There is undoubtedly something uniquely horrible and irreversible about learning the government killed someone unjustly.  What we shouldn't lose sight of is that the government can irreversibly damage people in a variety of profoundly disturbing ways.  Anthony Ray Hinton was robbed of 30 years of his life.  He missed being there to support his mother as she struggled and ultimately lost her battle with cancer.  He had to live in a tiny cage with hardly any time elsewhere and virtually nothing to stimulate his mind, waiting the entire time for the government to tell him it was his turn to die.

I have little doubt that Hinton would still be in prison if he had been sentenced to life in prison rather than death.  The Supreme Court pays special attention to death penalty appeals.  Even if they wanted to, they don't have the resources to do the same for the many, many more people sentenced to life terms.  In a very real way, these people are losing their lives just as much as those who have been sentenced to death.

I highly recommend this book.  I think it should be read by anyone who wants to defend our justice system or its use of the death penalty.

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