To the editors:
Here are a few comments to an otherwise outstanding article on the death penalty (Reader, Nov. 30).
One of the least publicized and best kept secrets is the effect the death penalty has on juries and judges. The Reader gives an example of how one jury was in a hurry to find a man guilty so they could get to a “happy hour” at a local bar. The sad facts are that a number of death penalty jurors will spend a good portion of the rest of their life in bars trying to wash away feelings of remorse over participating in the killing of a fellow man or woman. One researcher found a juror still “ripped to pieces” more than fifteen years later. A juror in another case still broke down and cried thirteen years after participating as a juror in a state killing. Others are reported to have committed suicide after sitting on a death penalty jury because they could no longer live with their guilt. Courts all over the country are finding it harder and harder to select a jury for capital crime cases and prosecutors and judges are finding it increasingly difficult to “brain wash” juries into thinking that a vote for death is all part of a day’s work.
Some of your readers may recall a turn of the century case in which a Chicago judge lost his mind after he found he had sentenced three innocent men for a crime they did not commit. The judge was Henry Varnum Freeman, dean of Chicago judges. The cases which shattered his health and brought about his resignation almost twenty years later were those of Thomas McNally and Charles Kurth, whom together with Edward Warren, the judge sentenced to life in April 1894 for the November 15, 1893 murder of James Prunty and his son Peter.
The Pruntys were killed in their home and the three were said to have been identified by Mrs. Prunty. Six years after sentencing, Judge Freeman obtained evidence which he believed to be a police frame-up, in that the Chicago police had virtually forced Mrs. Prunty to swear that they were the murderers. For many years thereafter, Judge Freeman made strenuous efforts to obtain their release. The fact that no Illinois governor would take responsibility for setting them free preyed on his mind until it finally broke.
In the fall of 1911, Judge Freeman was picked up unconscious on a Chicago street after having been struck down in a mysterious fashion by a fleeing car. Two years later the judge suffered a mental breakdown and shortly after his 1915 resignation, McNally and Kurth were finally paroled. Warren had died in prison.
There are some who will argue that with all the safeguards built into today’s judicial system, conviction of the innocent can’t occur as it did in 1894. But the Reader gives several examples of convicting the innocent today, indicating that not much has changed in a hundred years. So much for the advance of civilization.
There are two reasons why it is so difficult to abolish this horrible relic of the past. One reason is that the general public generally does not recognize that the death penalty is nothing more than a weapon used by the power structure–the elite–of our society to terrorize the people. Public opinion polls showing widespread support for the death penalty, arguments that it deters crime, that some behavior deserves the extreme punishment, etc., are all arguments that are nothing more than a cruel hoax and a delusion to keep people from understanding that the death penalty is nothing more than a weapon to terrorize them. There are many examples in our history where similar feats of political trickery have been used to either put down dissent or whip up public opinion to favor some questionable cause. In the 1890s, for example, a time of deep depression, the Populist revolt, widespread discontent among workers and farmers, more than one U.S. political leader expressed a desire to get into a war with Spain to “swallow up civil dissension” and “lance the boil of Populism.” Today we see the frantic efforts of President Bush to rally the public behind dubious concerns of the U.S. in the Middle East.
But the real root of the difficulty in abolishing the death penalty is a lack of political leadership. Most of the political leaders who favor abolishing the death penalty in Illinois and elsewhere are standing around wringing their hands over public opinion that seems to favor its retention, fearing that a firm stand against it might harm their political future. They fail to recognize that public opinion favoring death was probably about as high in those fourteen U.S. states that did abolish it as it is in Illinois today. It might also be noted that there is nothing to indicate that public opinion favoring the death penalty is less in those states that do not have it than in states that do. Moreover, there is substantial evidence that public opinion favoring the death penalty was high in Canada and all of the European countries that abolished it. Even more striking, there is no evidence of any political leader anywhere having lost an election because of a strong back and a firm conviction that gave the strength and courage to take a stand against the death penalty.
Erling N. Sannes
Bismarck, North Dakota