On that chilly October morning, in 1995, I happened to be in the midst of one of my many bicoastal incarnations, this time as an advertising sales representative for a Queens newspaper, and was between appointments. While walking down Bell Boulevard, I passed a packed coffee shop with about a dozen people glued to a television screen, and even more folks congregating outside.
I poked my head in, and asked a guy sitting at the counter, "what's going on?" "Shhhhhhh," he admonished me, "they're about to read the verdict in the O.J. trial;" "How do you find on the charge of first degree murder: "Not guilty, your honor, "and so on, and after each verdict was read, there would be this gut wrenching a cappella scream from the peanut gallery "Oh my gawd, no!" One woman literally went so far as to rush out onto the street, and I ran after her. She was downright hysterical. "Oh my gawd, oh my gawd, this is America, how can they let this happen? He's guilty as sin, he's guilty as sin. How can they let him walk?" Trying to calm her down, I explained that this is the criminal justice system we have, a person must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, the burden must be on the prosecutor to establish guilt, and that if it takes one guilty man walking free to keep an innocent man from being put to death, then so be it. I believed that then, I believe that now.
Oh what a difference a decade makes. So-called "victim's rights" have, in some cases, changed the equation such that the presumption of innocence has gone the way of Grimm's fairy tales. As a society, we have become so adept at compartmentalizing that we think of torture as something confined to prisons and detention centers, in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Cuba, and not as a systemic ingredient in everyday incarceration in our own country. The media has become so hyperfocused on foreign affairs that it often ignores, or understates, denials of due process, sloppy Miranda, and wrongful conviction. Make no mistake, the face of wrongful conviction is as inescapable on death row as smog, in L.A., on a hot summer day. It is your face, it is my face, it is the face of the boy next door, or that of his sister.
If you shone a light in my eyes, and pulled a rope tight around my feet, so tight I could feel it cut my skin, started to mess around with your belt like you were preparing to sock me with it, promised to keep me up for weeks, and deprive me of all but water and burnt toast for days on end, kept interrogating me for hours and hours, not even letting me get up to use the bathroom, I suppose I'd confess, too. Given enough sleep and food deprivation and, given you're convincing enough, I might even begin to believe my confession myself, that's the scary part.
Better still, think about this, capital punishment means never having to say you're sorry, never having to admit that maybe, just maybe there was a mistake. As the Chicago Tribune reported recently, in the past 19 months alone, we've had news of not 1 but 4 convicts who were wrongfully executed over the past dozen years or so, a number that is bound to grow. Putting a man to death means never having to admit that maybe, just maybe, he is capable of change, that perhaps the system does work, and he has learned how to serve in a positive way, and maybe make up for all his senseless killing. Just last year, the state of California put Stanley Tookie Williams to death, and by doing so, denied the possibility of redemption not just for a one-time gangster killer, but for the community that survives him. To me, this is flagrant deprivation of civil liberties and, for a society to be free, the same due process must be guaranteed to all those we detain, citizens and non-citizens, not just those who are privileged to get to stand before the Supreme Court.
Why don't we hear a cappella shrieks when innocent men are administered lethal injections, given the electric chair, or die by their own hand in our nation's penitentiaries? If we demand that a person be proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt before we convict them, now that we have DNA, a scientific way to establish culpability, shouldn't the same standard apply for capital punishment as for criminal conviction; don't we have it backwards? How about this--instead of using DNA for ex post facto, and posthumous vindication, isn't it only logical that we demand DNA proof before even considering state-sanctioned murder?
Yes, yes, we're all on overload, and have yet to digest those horrific, and gothic, photographs from Haditha, and Abu Ghraib, but if we want to look for human rights abuse, and tragedies, we needn't look as far as Iraq, or even Guantanamo Bay, we have only to look in our own backyards, at those serving 20 year sentences for murders the evidence overwhelmingly fails to support; some of whom have, over the years, been cause celebres, others who were cause celebres with a short shelf life, and still others who have transformed their own confinement, and pain, into a vehicle to win release for those around them.
One such gentleman falls in the latter category, a fellow by the name of Joe Giarratano, who was convicted of capital murder, more than 25 years ago, and who is now pushing 50, whose life was spared by then Virginia governor, L. Douglas Wilder, only two days before he was scheduled for execution. Mr. Giarratano who is, by all accounts, an extraordinary fellow was spared death only to be condemned to a "supermax" facility, Red Onion Prison where, to the best of my knowledge, he now spends his days reading, writing, studying criminal law,and trying to do the right thing despite serious liver problems, and abundant evidence pointing in the direction that he was wronged by a conviction for which he is serving the better part of his life. When boxes of evidence some of which, no doubt, contain all important DNA, somehow disappear during an investigation following attempts, by counsel, to have that evidence examined, it's clear that somebody has an investment in maintaining the status quo at the expense of fact.
As a young man, Giarratano was tried, and convicted of the murder of a woman friend with whom he was staying, and the rape and murder of her teenage daughter. Evidently, after a self-induced stupor of drugs and alcohol, he awoke in the morning to find both women dead, didn't recall how they got that way, and assumed it had something to do with him. It was Joe who called the police, and confessed to the crime. asking to be put to death, even attempting to do himself in, believing in his guilt. His own mother believed he was guilty, and would have been comfortable with his execution.
It was through the efforts of Giarratano that fellow inmate, Earl Washington, was vindicated. Joe drew an immense amount of public attention himself, both here and abroad, but when the spotlights dim, there he sits, to this day, a man who, by all accounts, is completely, and utterly, clean of the charges against him in a maximum security prison in Virginia where, from some perverse, and twisted sense of justice, more than likely he will finish his days, unjustifiably, and this should make us all GODDAMN ANGRY... yes, folks, this should make us at least as angry as on that bone chilling fall day, in 1998, when a man who, doubtless, slaughtered his wife, and her lover in Brentwood, got to walk out of the courtroom with every pearly white in place, a free man, to play golf, eat pasta, and raise his children. It should infuriate us at least as much that, due to an obscure, and obscurantist, "21 day rule" in the state of Virginia, which prohibits any new evidence from being introduced in trial once three weeks have passed since a verdict was reached, a man who would be cleared by any reasonable judge, by any rational jury, is condemned to suffer the indignity of a life sentence in a maximum security prison, with no thought given to his health.
Somehow, I keep coming back to that moment, on Bell Boulevard, and a screaming woman who was livid that a guilty man got to go free, and I think, if only there was half as much rage for every person who is forced to confess a crime he didn't commit, for every inmate on death row who is put to death for something he had no part in, for every honorable convict, like Joe Giarratano, who is innocent, yet forced to suffer, in silence, in Red Onions, across the country, based on legal technicalities, or a stubborn criminal justice system that is unprepared, for whatever reason, to admit that it is wrong.
This is not about making Mr. Giarratano, or any convict in any of our nation's prisons, a poster child for human frailty, or an asymmetric symbol of the American coda for crime and punishment. To do so would be an even graver injustice than has already been done. Instead, it is my purpose, and that of every thinking human being on the planet, to show that reason cannot coexist, side by side, with the kind of contempt for life that posits a universe in which a capital crime is ever righted by the death sentence.
It would seem in a sane, and just, world, whether innocent or not, a man with pressing health issues deserves to be released, if only on humanitarian grounds, but in the era of Abu Ghraib, I guess expecting anything humanitarian to happen is a stretch. Still, there are men like Joe who survive because they not only believe in humanity, they count on it, and because, in their hearts, there is room for compassion, as well as the truth.
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