Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Rain Should Fall Tonight

round midnight

It's late. I'm tired. My brain is swirling. The sky is heavy. The air is wet. Pendant clouds are sulking.

And, it seems, people everywhere are very sure about many things.

Me? Not so much.

Lately I've been enjoying a new (to me) blog by an old friend. The writer strives to be a primary, unedited source, to - well - just tell. Her clarity and tone refresh me every visit.

On the not-so-refreshing side, I've been following local coverage of a capital murder trial. I started watching because another friend is involved with the defense, someone whose intellect and intentions I respect. I kept watching and reading, however, for an additional reason: the varied media perspectives. Every channel, every paper featured individuals intent on the same things: a guilty verdict and a lethal sentence.

The case was nasty. Lots of violence, blood, ironclad forensic evidence, tragedy, and grief. Media websites drew comments so vitriolic I felt ill. People with no connection to the victim and with no knowledge of the case other than what they read or heard were fervently hoping for the defendant's death, as soon as possible. The jury reflected local sentiment. The guilty verdict was returned in less than an hour, the unanimous death sentence in about three. Such certainty. Such knowing.

And that knowing is why I feel so unsettled.

We can truly know so little, and a big chunk of that is ultimately subjective. I know I like Thai food. Does that make it good? I know I don't like licorice. Does that make it bad? Of course not.

Such false certainty matters not a jot when all that's at stake is menu planning. But it's driving our society in directions that make me squirm. From a recent Supreme Court decision restricting reproductive rights because women need to be protected from the consequences of their choices to a municipality disguising an anti-immigration agenda in residential painting restrictions , policy makers impose their certainty on our lives, often in very personal ways. Activists are comfortable with those who “know” a patient in a vegetative state would want invasive measures such as ventilators and feeding tubes, yet deny others who “know” a patient would not want to live via machine the right to remove mechanical support. In the latter case, only the activists’ knowledge matters.

This arrogance of presumption is rampant in our country. It permeates the air like the humidity I wipe from my face each day. Such selective, politically driven certainty isn’t knowledge. It’s an agenda.

When did we stop being willing to say, "I don't know"? To say "I believe" rather than "it is"?

I am not a lawyer, and I hope someone will correct me if I'm wrong about this; generic murder (please don't flame me...I know every murder is tragic and sick) alone does not qualify a case for the death penalty. The state must prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, some kind of special circumstances that justify such an extreme punishment. In the case I mentioned above, that special circumstance was robbery.

The victim was seen earlier in the day wearing expensive jewelry, jewelry that was missing when her body was found. The property has never been recovered. The defendant was never seen in possession of the property. Yet the state claimed that a missing Rolex was proof of robbery by the individual it had charged. And the jury agreed.

Logical? Yes. Circumstantial? Yes. Downright Likely? Yes. But proven beyond a reasonable doubt, to the degree that a man will be put to death by lethal injection, a process whose constitutionality is even now under consideration? Arguably, no.

The defense came before the jury with humility and honesty. It did not deny its client's guilt or seek acquittal via technicalities or tricks. It called no witnesses in the initial phase of the trial, choosing to focus on questions of punishment. Instead, it asked the jury to put personal, visceral feelings of justice and vengeance aside and act not as individuals but as citizens charged with insuring that law rather than emotion was honored. I feared such an approach, ethical and rational, would be far too subtle and contingent for our certainty-drunk, answer-loving society. My fears were confirmed this afternoon.

Our laws don't always make us happy. Sometimes they protect us in ways that are counterintuitive. Despite our personal feelings of disgust toward such a violent crime, we MUST remember that such safeguards as "standard of proof" exist to protect us all. I'm glad to know some attorneys will, for the low sums court-appointed lawyers receive, work tirelessly to insure that our laws take precedence over our emotions. I’m proud to count one as a friend.

Constitutional democracy requires us to rise above "eye for an eye" thinking and, sometimes, put aside personal preferences. I presume none of us wants to live in a nation where the fact that the government says "it is so" makes it true.

Earlier today, a case went to a jury. Out of twelve citizens, none could or would say, "I'm not sure" or "I just don’t know."

And their certainty, stoked by emotion rather than proof, has condemned a man to death.

I wish it would rain.

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