Monday, August 07, 2006

Three Cheers for the Remorseful, Well-Adjusted Inmates of Death Row!

It was a veritable anti-death penalty hootenanny in Sunday’s Houston Chronicle, which devoted a remarkable amount of space to the promotion of a new book by Joan M. Cheever, a former managing editor of the National Law Journal and daughter of a prominent San Antonio banking family who, in what is surely just a coincidence, graduated from St. Mary’s Law School a few years before Kathryn Kase, the wife of Chronicle editor Jeff Cohen and herself an anti-death penalty activist.

In what must surely be a further coincidence, the Chronicle
accorded (1.) the lead review in its books section to Cheever’s Back from the Dead: One woman’s search for the men who walked off America’s death row. The reviewer was none other than David Dow, who was identified by the newspaper only as a distinguished professor at the University of Houston law school and not as the director of the Texas Innocence Project or as a vigorous promoter of the innocence of convicted killer Max Soffar, who was unsuccessfully defended in his recent retrial by none other the above-named Chronicle editor’s wife (and sent back to death row, despite the punishment-phase testimony from would-be governor K. Friedman).

Needless to say, Dow’s review was on the favorable side.

In fact, there wasn’t a questioning word or detectable arched eyebrow in all the many inches of space that the Chronicle dedicated to Cheever’s book, which included (2.) a piece by the author on the front of the paper’s Outlook section (with the unfortunate overline “Random Acts of Killing”) and (3.) a full page inside the op-ed section of excerpts from the book (with the helpful notation “This book is available in all bookstores.”), not to mention (4.) an audio interview with Cheever “plus a photo gallery” and a death penalty forum available on the paper’s online version.

This must be one hell of an important book, right?


Cheever’s book explores the post-death row lives of some of the 589 Americans who were spared by the Supreme Court’s 1972 decision declaring capital punishment unconstitutional. According to Dow, the book is “extraordinary” in two ways: (1.) “Most people, I suspect, tend to think that murderers will surely murder again,” he writes. “Cheever’s story demonstrates the contrary.” (That is, of the 322 of the 589 “lottery winners,” as Cheever calls them, who were spared state-sanctioned deaths by the Supreme Court’s soon-to-be-reversed decision and were eventually released on parole or after serving out their sentences, 111 ended up back in confinement or eligible to be returned to prison [we don’t necessarily find this a comforting percentage], but only two were convicted of attempted murder, two of manslaughter and three of murder, including notorious badass Kenneth McDuff [how come nobody ever takes up that fucker’s case as an argument against the death penalty?])

The “second astonishing aspect” of Cheever’s book, according to Dow, is (2.) “how remorseful and well-adjusted” the author finds so many members what she also calls “the class of ’72” (ohhhh …) to be.

This all leads Dow to conclude that Cheever has shown that “somewhere between most and almost all residents of death row are capable of reform, and that somewhere between almost all and all are capable of living law-abiding lives outside of prison [emphasis added] or nonviolent lines inside an institution.”

Dow is deploying the straw man that intellectually dishonest foes of the death penalty (which is not all foes of the death penalty, but lots of them) usually strap to the gurney. The argument goes like this: A justification for capital punishmen supposedly put forth by its supporters is deterrence, that is, ensuring that killers are never free to kill again and that would-be killers are deterred from killing because of the possibility they could wind up on the receiving end of a lethal chemical cocktail (which even death-penalty advocates must admit is a dubious proposition). But as Dow sees it, there’s really no need for deterrence because capital murderers are sorry they were bad and probably won’t kill again. So there’s no moral justification for capital punishment. There’s not even much need to keep capital murderers locked up for too long …

We’re not sure whether this is a view that Cheever endorses, since from the excerpts the Chronicle presented it’s unclear what conclusions she’s drawn or what she proposes, other than noting her desire that Texas do what it finally got around to doing last year and grant juries the option of assessing a life without parole sentence.

According to what the author wrote in the blurb for her book at
Writing Back From the Dead was my way of answering a question that troubles many of us: if convicted killers are released from prison, will they kill again?
This is a question Cheever found bothersome after witnessing the 1994 execution of Texas inmate Walter Williams, who Cheever represented on appeals (in what was her only stab at practicing law, at least according to Dow’s review).

We can’t speak for the “many” or the “most,” but we can say that this is not a question that in any way has troubled us.

What we do find troubling is the illogical notion that the death penalty is somehow rendered morally indefensible because a man convicted of capital murder can be “rehabilitated,” or pretend to be rehabilitated, and shows “remorse” for his crime, or pretends to show remorse … after years of failed appeals and near-solitary confinement. Equally troubling is the notion that because the posted odds are so slim that a convicted killer will kill again---and Cheever quantifies this conclusion based on a narrow subset of killers (most of whom were long past their prime killing years when cut loose)---he or she is deserving of a pass back to the free world.

We suspect the true nature of Cheever’s endeavor is summed up by her book’s subtitle: “One woman’s search … “ The self-infatuation doesn't escape Dow's notice:
I learned more than I really wanted to about what Cheever ate for breakfast at a diner in South Carolina and for dinner at a McDonald's in Texas. I was not terribly interested in the quality of the motel rooms where she slept, or about how nervous she was in the presence of some of the murderers she tracked down to interview. She goes on for too long about the stressfulness of representing a murderer, the difficulty of juggling a demanding job with a new marriage and new baby, and her mother's incomprehension of Cheever's determination to pursue the story.
Yeah, we see.

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