A Closer Look: The Death Penalty is Murder

Like many New Englanders, I waited to see what the Boston federal court jury would determine would be an appropriate sentence for Dzhokar Tsarnaev, the  Kyrgyzstan native who, along with his brother, built and planted two bombs at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon. The bombs killed three people, including an 8-year-old boy, and injured scores more on a perfect Spring day in the Massachusetts capital city.

I wondered if the Boston jury would show mercy. If they would realize that science shows that teen brains are still developing at 19, the age Dzhokar was when he appeared to casually drop next to a little boy a backpack filled with a bomb designed for maximum destruction. Dzhokhar was a child himself, really, at the time. A college freshman, he was apparently very bright and somewhat popular in high school. But something went terribly wrong, somewhere, and his young life was essentially over the moment that he was caught by Boston police.

I had hoped that decency and common sense would prevail in that jury room. That the men and women who had the opportunity to impose a reasonable sentence of life without the possibility of release would do just that. They did not. Instead, they sentenced this man-boychild to die. He is now the sixty-first person on federal death row.

It made me sick. Physically ill. What does the United States government hope to achieve by putting to death someone who admitted what he did was wrong?

The death penalty has been abolished in all but one of the New England states– Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island, and Vermont, with New Hampshire as the lone exception–meaning state prosecutors cannot seek the death penalty. Connecticut abolished the death penalty in 2012 for all future murders.

But federal crimes are governed by federal statutes and, under several 1976 Supreme Court rulings, including Gregg vs. Georgia, the death penalty is allowable.

It is also a travesty. According to Amnesty International, more than two-thirds of the world’s countries have banished the death penalty. By allowing executions, the United States remains in the horrid company of countries with brutal human rights records: North Korea. China. Iraq. Afghanistan. Iran. Saudi Arabia.

The death penalty is barbaric, brutal, and unnecessary. It is not a deterrent. It is state-sanctioned murder.

In this country, at least, it also seems to feed a certain Biblical-based bloodlust: An eye for an eye, cry those who support it. That base reaction to something so complex reveals a level of ignorance that is hard to fathom. It was also on full display on Twitter on Friday, where the #Tsarnaev hashtag was trending as it was announced a penalty phase verdict was imminent.

I learned of the death sentence from a tweet posted by prominent criminal defense attorney Norman Pattis. “Tsarnaev sentenced to death. A disgusting result,” @Norm_Pattis wrote. Brevity, defined.

I’ve long admired Norm’s work as an attorney, and as a brilliant blogger and author of columns and books. I don’t always agree with him, but I respect Norm tremendously and what he does as a fierce advocate on behalf of his clients. I watched his Twitter feed. “#Bloodlust in Beantown. Shame of the feds,” he tweeted.

Noose as scalesI reached out to Norm to ask a simple question: Why does he find the death penalty so repellent? Not surprisingly, his answer was direct and spot-on. “No one is the sum of their worst moments. The death penalty reduces a complex life to simple hatred,” he said.

A complex life. Yes. It matters. Jurors in Dzhokar’s case didn’t care about his upbringing and the influence of his parents and older brother. That much was clear when they rejected each of the defense team’s mitigating factors.

In our system, prosecutors must prove aggravating factors exist to warrant the death penalty such as, with Dzhokar, multiple killings, intentional cruelty; especially cruel, heinous and depraved conduct resulting in death, and others . Defense attorneys in turn present mitigating factors: evidence that while acknowledging the conduct may be abominable, it does not warrant the death penalty. Such factors often include the age of the defendant, the mental health status of the person at the time of the crime; organic brain disease or damage; education level; IQ; and a family history of abuse, among others.

Jurors are then required to determine whether the mitigating factors outweigh the aggravating factors. If they vote in the affirmative, the person is spared execution. If not, the death penalty is imposed. This seems absurd to me. How is any human being capable of judging the sum components of a person’s life and determining that person should die?

I wrestled with that question in my former life, as a newspaper reporter who covered the criminal court system for many years, covering everything from routine police work and arrests, to death penalty trials. It was then that I saw two men sentenced to death. Those sentencings changed my life.

Jessie Campbell was guilty of killing two women, of that there was no doubt. He reached into his pants, pulled out a cheap gun, aimed it at LaTaysha Logan, the mother of his little boy, and pulled the trigger, killing her instantly. He then raised the weapon and aimed it at LaTaysha’s friend, Desiree Privette, and shot the recent high school graduate in the chest. Just 18 years old, the much-loved, only child likely was dead before she hit the ground. Jessie wasn’t done. LaTaysha’s aunt, Caroline Privette, witnessed the murders and she scrambled to get away, falling down on the front porch of the Hartford, Connecticut, apartment where LaTaysha lived. Jessie stood over Caroline, aimed at her head, and pulled the trigger. Caroline did not die; she survived with bullet fragments in her skull.

After shooting the three women, Jessie, who was 20, fled the area, where he made his home with his mother, to the Midwest. He was captured a week later, alive, and returned to Connecticut in August 2000.

I covered the shootings and his return to the state for the small daily newspaper where I spent nearly a decade. At the time, Connecticut was a death penalty state. Under certain circumstances, state’s attorneys could seek execution for the ‘worst of the worst,’ killers whose actions were so depraved that they should pay for it with their own lives.

Jessie’s journey to death row was arduous. He was convicted in 2004 in the guilt phase of his trial of capital felony, murder and other charges. Prosecutors said that the ‘grave risk of death’ Jessie created by shooting Caroline, who lived, was the aggravating factor. The capital conviction triggered a second trial: the penalty phase. I sat through every day of both trials. It was excruciating.

In Connecticut, jurors are selected after individual voir dire; that is, each venire person is questioned individually by both sides. Because of the severity of the penalty, it was decided that in addition to the required 12 members, another four jurors should be selected as alternates in the event a juror could not finish the trial or, if necessary, penalty phase. For weeks, the attorneys and trial judge listened to responses from those called for jury service. Opposition to the death penalty was essentially a guaranteed out: a person who could not, because of faith or conscience, deliberately sentence someone to die at the state’s behest would be excused. In other words, if you could not do the state’s dirty work, and vote in favor of killing a murderer, you would not be selected.

As a reporter, I struggled to be emotionally detached from what I heard and saw every single day in court. People do terrible things to one another. I knew this: child rape, shootings that not only killed but maimed people; brutal sex assaults and beatings. The worst of human behavior was on display like cheap theatre. Choose your poison: someone has done it.

During Jessie’s trial, I tried but often failed to keep my emotions in check when autopsy pictures and crime scene photos of the two young dead women were shown. I could not nor did I want to imagine the pain that LaTaysha and Desiree’s parents were going through as they listened to a detached medical examiner describing their children’s fatal wounds. I often wondered what Caroline was feeling; reliving the terror of those few minutes in which her niece was murdered and another young innocent was killed in cold blood.

But there was the other side of the trial; the part in which Jessie’s defense team presented witnesses and evidence of his young life. A father who was a functioning drug addict. A zealously religious mother who testified that she became pregnant with Jessie after prayer caused her to levitate. From teachers of Jessie’s who talked about his low IQ–it measured in the 70s, just enough, under U.S. law, for him to be considered competent enough for execution. From those who testified to the jealous and volatile relationship between Jessie and LaTaysha, who was a student with Jessie at a high school for kids with issues.

LaTaysha’s father, a kind, bighearted man, befriended me during the trial. He told me again and again, that he knew with certainty that their relationship with each other would end exactly as he’d predicted: with one of them dead. Indeed, the day before Jessie murdered LaTaysha, she’d obtained a court protective order barring Jessie from coming near her or their child, because he’d beaten her, again.

Despite the state’s best effort, it could not convince the jury to sentence Jessie to death: After two weeks, the jurors pronounced themselves hopelessly deadlocked, 10-2 in favor of execution, and the trial judge declared a mistrial in the penalty trial. Jessie’s convictions stood, but the state would have to retry him if they chose to seek the death penalty.

They did. And the second time, the state was successful. An entirely new panel heard the aggravating and mitigating factor evidence and voted to sentence Jessie to death. This, despite the fact that Jessie himself took the stand–a rare occurrence in a capital case. Watching Jessie testify–over the on-the-record objections by his lawyers–was painful at times. It was clear that he was not intelligent. He testified that he had been forgiven by God, and that he couldn’t take back what he’d done.

Frankly, his testimony alone would have convinced me that he was not someone who should be put to death. He simply did not appear in any fashion to have a grasp on reality. But I was not a juror. I was attempting to be an impartial reporter. It was difficult. On the one hand, as a mother of one daughter, my only child, I could understand the need for revenge. To want to take away what has been taken from you: the life of the person who killed your child. I understood as much as I could. I saw and heard the physical and emotional damage that Jessie Campbell inflicted on three women and their families.

But the death penalty does not change the fact that the dead are not coming back. It does not restore a person’s emotional health or well-being. It does not make time go backward, to the ‘before’ part: before, when the victim was still alive. And it most certainly does not do justice. It is not a deterrent to any crime.

Further, the death penalty is too often sought in cases involving people of color, and people of limited means. Finally, one need only look at the work of the Innocence Project and the Death Penalty Information Center to see evil the death penalty is. As of this writing, 151 men have been exonerated and freed from death row in this country. One. Hundred. Fifty. One. People.

At Jessie’s sentencing in late 2007, LaTaysha’s father turned to the Privette family and apologized. Their daughter, he said, their only beloved child, was murdered because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Desiree’s mother could not hold back her rage at Jessie; the death penalty was too good for him.

I’d spent hours on the phone with Desiree’s mother during the trial and my heart broke for her. Desiree’s name was chosen very deliberately, she had told me, because it meant “most wanted, most loved child.” She was an only child raised in a loving home. A home much different than Jessie’s.

It has been nearly eight years since the Judge imposed the death sentence on Jessie, and I can still recall exactly where I sat and how it felt to watch a man, a fellow human being, be sentenced to die. The judge ordered Jessie’s hands to be uncuffed. It was a moment of humanity: There was not one single person in that courtroom for Jessie. Not his mother. Not the aunt. Not his brother. His hands freed, he slipped one in the hand of each of his lawyers, the two men who fought hardest for him. He looked at the judge and received his sentence. And I cried. I couldn’t help it. It was a terrible thing to see. Because what I witnessed was the state sanctioning murder. And the irony seemed to be utterly lost on almost everyone in that room.