A convergence of random occurrences has me thinking about the death penalty lately.
I have always though that crime is committed primarily by young people or emotionally immature people who had no understanding of right or wrong or, more precisely, no fear of consequences.
And when it comes to violent acts, I have often found that the acts were committed by people who had no appreciation for the value of life. And their lack of appreciation stemmed from no concept of, much less fear of, death.
And then there was that feeling one gets in a ride to a cemetery trailing a body in a coffin — an impatience with the dead, a longing to be back home where one could get on with the illusion that not death but daily life is the permanent condition.
In many respects, this last line sums up much of the problem in youth crime and violence. When they are committing it, they think that life is eternal. In turn, they obviously lack the moral compass to understand the permanence of their action.
This then brings me to my second convergence. Last week I attended a three day death penalty seminar; it was also my first death penalty seminar. And being someone who considers himself somewhat of a trial hawk, I was at first put back by the tenor of the seminar, which focused primarily on the penalty phase (this presupposes you lost the actual trial).
But as I listened more, I understood why the seminar was so penalty phase focused. It was attended by people (defense lawyers) who not only understood the value of life, they witnessed the raw capriciousness by which the State attempts to take the life, that the law and sentiment is in their favor, and this leads to a rush to judgment in death penalty cases by jurors. So, attorneys must be prepared, with the relaxed evidentiary rules in the penalty phase, to humanize their client and calm the passion that has been created.
And in many ways, I realized that the same immaturity and “nothing to lose mentality” the state exhibits is no different that many youthful offenders. And so, comes the mantra of death penalty lawyers that Death is Different – and it must be defended as such.
And this brings me to the final convergence, about what true punishment is, specifically death – but not a quick painless death, not a death without human suffering. No, you see I do believe in the death penalty, but not state sponsored death. No the true death penalty is a natural death, a natural death in a small cell, watching your life waste away.
I can not think of anything more demoralizing, more painful, than to sit in a cell and come to the realization that life as a permanent condition is nothing more than an illusion. That there will be no escape and your existence is nothing more to sit in a solitary cell and watch your body waste away, to count the seconds, to never know when the death will come. The diseases of age will sit in, the ravages of cancers, strokes, heart attacks. To me, that is punishment, that is an eye for an eye.
And this brings me to my final convergence, but also the first one. Last April i was president of the Central Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and at our annual banquet we honored one of Florida’s most respected trial judges and death penalty experts, the Honorable O.H. Eaton. I suspect that few people understand the true value of life and death as he does.
But he said something very simple, that I think I would adopt as my approach when the day comes I am in the penalty phase of a death penalty trial. He told me that the fundamental thing lawyers fail to make jurors understand is that – Life means Life.
Specifically, there is no parole in Florida anymore. If someone is not sentenced to death – or more aptly, to die early at the state’s hands; they will instead spend the rest of their natural existences in a prison, a maximum security prison, for their entire life until God decides it is time for them to die – until God has determined that they have suffered enough.
And to even the most conservative juror, I think that would be true punishment…