Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Life and death in San Quentin

This morning "Tookie" Williams was executed by the State of California for the crime of multiple murder. Some insisted that he was innocent, though
[w]itnesses at [his] trial said he boasted about the killings, stating "You should have heard the way he sounded when I shot him." Williams then made a growling noise and laughed for five to six minutes, according to the transcript that the governor referenced in his denial of clemency.

Evidence against him included "testimony from two of Williams' accomplices, ballistics evidence linking Williams' shotgun to the murders and testimony from four people that Williams had at different times confessed to one or both murders."

I am, as anyone reading this blog at the time of Terry Schindler Schiavo's death can see, a proponent of life even if the life in question has little or no apparent objective value. Life is precious and irreplaceable. That said, it does not follow that all life must be preserved at all costs. There are reasons to give up one's own life; there are reasons to take a life. My belief in the value of human life wouldn't make me hesitate for one second to kill (or, more likely, to try to kill - it's not something I have practice in) someone threatening my kids, for instance. It's also why I remain reluctantly on the side of maintaining a limited legal status for abortion, though I would like to see its limitations include (a) state-by-state decisions (that is, a rollback of Roe v. Wade) and (b) first-trimester legality only, except in cases where multiple, independent, "blind" reviews indicate that the mother's life, not simply her "health," are in danger if the pregnancy is allowed to continue. This is my personal wish list. I'm not at all satisfied with it, but there it stands for the moment.

Similarly, I recognize that the death penalty opens the door for innocent people to die. More broadly, any reasonable system of jurisprudence - that is, any system that allows evidence other than multiple unambivalent eye-witness accounts coupled with incontrovertible forensic evidence, for instance - opens the door for innocent people to be punished for crimes they didn't commit. The death penalty is more a symptom of that fact than a cause in itself. Such Has It Always Been. I believe there should be a very high standard of evidence for capital cases - of evidence rather than of legal argument; I don't like the thought of clearly guilty murderers "getting off on a technicality" (who does?). Mr. Williams, having been convicted on strong evidence of four cold-blooded murders, died today because his life is forfeit for those innocent lives, regardless of his later redemption (which did not include remorse, since he maintained all along that he was innocent himself).

All right. I have heard the argument that since Williams was a cofounder of the Crips, even if he was innocent of these four murders, he was certainly guilty of conspiracy to murder, that being one of the Crips' hobbies, and therefore deserved to die anyway. I can't buy that. What I do buy is that his original trial, with fresh and clear evidence including his own boasts, came to a just conclusion, and he deserved to die because he was guilty of what he was accused of.

A life has been ended at the hands of society. That life had intrinsic worth from beginning to end, but its owner freely chose to set his life in trade for some momentary pleasure or gratification or perceived need that resulted in four violent deaths at his hands. We have soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan who are setting their lives in trade for a chance at freedom and prosperity for millions of strangers abroad, and for the long-term safety of millions of strangers and a smaller number of loved ones at home. Their trade is a generous act; his was a selfish one. Their trade preserves and defends other lives; his ended at least four. Just as these soldiers choose their course with their eyes wide open, he apparently made that choice years ago, and just as some of these soldiers will have to give their lives in the trade they endorsed, he has given his. Life is precious, but it is not always paramount.

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