Any fool can take care of a dog

When I was about 9-10 years old I constantly badgered my parents for a dog. I loved dogs. It did not have to be a big dog like a German shepherd, just a small one, friendly to kids and loyal. My parents told me ‘No’ every time. – You’re not old enough, they said, or – we don’t want to take care of the dog, when you’re suddenly to bored to do it, was another argument, and the more practical (and creative) – the dog needs to be walked late at night, and that’s long pass your bedtime.

It did not stop my badgering, and 4 years later my parents finally gave up. I could get a dog – but a small one, and I had to pay for it myself. It was my dog, and therefore my responsibility, they kept saying. – Yes of course! I promise! I said. I was so happy.

Before I could get the dog however, we first had to find out which kind of dog and they told me that I needed to prepare for it. I read books about dogs. I talked to other dog owners. I slowly found out what it meant to take care of a puppy – and a grown dog. It required lot of work and time.

The summer ‘92 I got my first dog, a small cairn terrier. I loved it and I kept my promise to my parents – for about two months. The responsibility was suddenly real and not what I had expected at all; cleaning up after the dog before it was house-trained, feeding it three times a day, walking it four times, playing with it, even though I was tired, taking it to the veterinarian, and all the other practical stuff. After a while my parents began to help, and when I moved out years later, the dog stayed with them. It had become their dog.

The reality was that I was neither old nor mature enough to take care of a dog without my parents help. I thought I was. But I was a 13 year old lazy teenager, who thought I knew everything, because I read some books and imagined the rest. However, I was never as bad as the owner who tortured his dog Henry in Utah, which led to a felony animal cruelty bill known as ‘Henry’s Law’ in 2007. The Governor Jon Huntsman supported the bill and signed it in 2008, creating a first-offense felony penalty for abusing dogs or cats. When he signed it, he said:

“As we treat our animals, so do we treat our fellow human beings. There is a connection there that I think is undeniable”.

Even though I did not torture my dog, I was not a very good owner either. If it had been a child, it would have been removed – I don’t even know if I’m ready to take care of a child today. It probably requires a book or two.

But one thing is to understand the responsibility taking care of a dog, or any other pet, or a child for that matter, another thing is to understand the responsibility handling a government-system designed to kill people.

To me it sounds like a pretty scary responsibility – much scarier than having five dogs or three children. That’s why I would think it automatically requires politicians and voters to really, really do their homework in order to be really, really sure what they in fact are voting for. I would think it required a massive information-campaign from the state, maybe followed by some kind of mandatory test among the voters to know how much they knew about the death penalty, what their reasons were to support it, whether the same reasons were supported by facts, how much they had thought about the possible flaws in the legal system, and so forth. The choice to inject a lethal drug into a healthy person until he or she is dead should be a decision based on as much (critical) information as possible – that’s what you would expect from any modern and enlighten democracy – right?

In his book ‘Executed on a technicality’ from 2005, David R. Dow, a death penalty lawyer and expert, tells how he to begin with supported the death penalty:

“When I started representing death row inmates in 1988, I was not opposed to the death penalty. I was somewhere between agnostic and mildly in favour of capital punishment. Frankly, the death penalty was not an issue I had spent much time thinking about. The question of capital punishment was, to me, an abstraction, far away from my own life. I had known to murder victims, but I did not know any murders. I did not know how the system works”.

He soon did however, and then….:

“That is no longer true…..The difference between who I am now and who I was when I started representing death row inmates is the difference between knowing just an inmate’s name and knowing an inmate, between knowing how the system is supposed to work and how it actually works”.

One could argue that maybe David R. Dow back then belonged to an uneducated minority and that the great majority of the American population in fact has a solid understanding of how the death penalty system works. However the list of this (former) ‘uneducated minority’ seems long when you take a closer look. The list also include names such as former member of Congress Ron Paul, former governor George Ryan, Arkansas’ attorney general Dustin McDaniels, Darryl Stallworth, former California Deputy District Attorney, Donald Heller, Author of California’s death penalty law, and former US Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, and the list goes on. All, of them have supported the death penalty in the past and now opposes it, or have serious concerns about it. They are not alone. Several politicians, prosecutors, judges, legislators, law enforcement officers, conservative commentators and journalists have trough the years changed their mind when they learned the reality about a system they thought they knew all about.

I 1972 the US Supreme Court in Georgia v. Furman stroke down all existing death penalty-laws in the country in Georgia v. Furman after finding the application of the death penalty arbitrary and inconsistent in violation with the 8th Amendment in US Constitution, which prohibits ‘cruel and unusual punishment’. Two judges, Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall concluded that the death penalty in it self was “cruel and unusual punishment”, and therefore incompatible with the evolving standards of decency of a contemporary society. The majority did not agree with them.

But Justice Marshall had an interesting point. He emphasized the importance of public opinion as an indicator of the evolving standards of decency. These standards of decency were according to Justice Marshall necessary to assess the constitutionality of the death penalty. However, he said, public opinion about the death penalty must be limited only to informed opinion. So even though a Gallup poll in March 1972 found that 50% of Americans favored and therefore could not show that the majority of Americans was against it, the same 50 % had to support it based on solid information. Marshall believed that public support for the death penalty was largely caused by a lack of knowledge about it. If fully informed, the majority would conclude that the death penalty was both immoral and unconstitutional.

Marshall’s belief was and is called ‘The Marshall Hypotheses’. There are three hypotheses: 1) Support for or opposition against the death penalty is ‘inversely associated’ with the public level of knowledge about it, 2) the more knowledge about the death penalty the public gets the less the support for the death penalty will be and 3) those who support the death penalty for retributive purposes only, will not be affected by any level of knowledge.

At least eighteen published studies trough the years have tested one or more of these hypotheses. The results of these previous tests were somewhat mixed but supportive. None of these studies, however, examined the effects of change in knowledge levels with changes, if any, in death penalty attitudes and beliefs as needed for a more complete test of the Marshall hypotheses. In the study from 2005 ‘Can information change public opinion? Another test of the Marshall hypotheses’, John K. Cochran and Mitchell B. Chamlin addressed this, and gave 70 students a course on the death penalty. Cochran and Chamlin, found some very mixed results; some supportive of the Marshall hypotheses, some not, and some even contrary to them.

Overall, however the results were partially supportive and it did show some evidence that the support for or the opposition against the death penalty was ‘inversely associated’ with the students (who participated in this study) level of knowledge. At the end of the course, after receiving information, a higher level of knowledge meant lower levels of death penalty support and lower levels of belief in the death penalty myths.

It’s impossible to conclude something final from any of these studies, but it seems that some politicians and other public figures fit ‘The Marshall Hypotheses’ very well. David R. Dow changed his mind. So did a lot of other politicians, prosecutors and judges as mentioned above. Some quicker than others, but common for them all was that they learned something about the death penalty they did not know. In principle is doesn’t really matter, whether ‘The Marshall Hypotheses’ are true or not. What matters, is that America is a modern democracy, with transparent institutions (at least most of them), why there is no excuse not to seek the information necessary to make an informed decision as a citizen and a voter.

Does that mean you need to know everything about everything before you make a choice? Of course not, that’s impossible. But the bigger the issue and the bigger the possible consequences are, the more you need to be informed you need to be about the different aspects of it. So if you are asked to take a stance on whether your country needs a new national park, it’s ok if you think it is a boring issue and just says ‘yes’, ‘no’ or don’t know’, without thinking about it. But if we’re talking about whether to go to war or not, or whether you and your boy- or girlfriend should get a child, or whether it’s okay for the state to execute its own citizens, I would hope that whatever your decision is, its the most informed possible.

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman supports the death penalty. I do not know how much he know about it – but I’ll guess that it’s not more than his fellow politicians – which is next to nothing. When Huntsman signed the ‘Henry’ bill he probably agreed that pets and animals in general deserve good care from experienced and responsible people. So did my dog. Huntsman would probably be a responsible dog-owner himself. As former governor his job was not only to sign bills from the state’s congress, he also had the job signing death warrants for inmates before their executions. He never did however, but if he had to, would he then feel secure about how much he really knew about the death penalty in Utah and in general? Would he agree, that it is important to know as much as possible when you are dealing life and death? Can the state authorities remove the execution chamber if it’s mistreated, just like a child? Is it a fair comparison?

I hope the answer to my last question would sound something like this:

“There is a connection there that I think is undeniable”.

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Are you small enough to drown in a bathtub?

“I am so glad to see you here, I thought I was the only one…” was the statement they kept hearing from people at their booth in the exhibit hall at this years Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington. The statement could easily have belonged to a conservative gay being surprised to meet another conservative gay, and for the first time had the courage to ‘come out’. That could have been the case. It was not. I’ll return to this later.

I myself was not present at this year CPAC – actually I have never been there – but one guy you can always count on to run into, is the person behind this famous quote:

“Our goal is to shrink government to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub”.

This metaphorical quote of course belongs to Grover Norquist, activist and director of the group “Americans for tax reform”; a well-known profile among both conservative and liberal politicians in America, especially for his tireless struggle to prevent congress in Washington to raise any taxes by making members of same congress sign his anti-tax pledge.

You might at this moment raise the question: What the hell does that have to do with the death penalty?

I must admit, until recently I didn’t even know the guys position on the issue. Then I learned that he earlier this year gave an interview on the Michael Medved radio show about the project ‘Right on Crime’, which Norquist is signatory to. The project is a part of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a research institute in Texas working for free markets and limited government. According to the website, ‘Right on Crime’ the goal is to promote conservative ideas on criminal justice. As it says in the Statement of Principles, the goal is to make a more transparent, more effective, crime-preventing and – of course – cheaper criminal justice system:

“Conservatives are known for being tough on crime, but we must also be tough on criminal justice spending. That means demanding more cost-effective approaches that enhance public safety.”

On the website, Norquist explains why he supports the project, and considering his wish to cut spending and shrink government his reasons are sound:

“The agenda of Right on Crime, its solid, its principled, its exactly where conservatives have been and ought to be in terms of combating crime, while minimizing the amount of abuse by government”

No argument from here. Any ‘abuse by government’ needs to stop. That’s an easy statement to agree on. Whether Norquist meant abuse of government spending or abuse of power when incarcerating people for minor offenses, we are not told. But as an overall skeptic of government let’s assume he means both. That’s encouraging, because if there are something that libertarians often agrees on is that the death penalty is an expression of ‘big government’ and extreme exertion of state power, especially when you think about the bureaucratic monster the death penalty-system is, the cost of the system, and the risk of executing an innocent.

So it made  a lot of sense when another champion of small government, former Congressman and libertarian Ron Paul (R-TX) in September 2007 speaking at the Republican Presidential Forum at the Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland, said:

“I have become more aware than ever of the government’s ineptness and the likelihood of its making mistakes. I no longer trust the U.S. government to invoke and carry out a death sentence under any conditions”

Ron Paul once did support the death penalty, but then he found out that it did not really jive with a small, almost powerless government. So being a kindred spirit to Paul on the ‘small government’-agenda, of course Norquist answer, when asked about his position on the death penalty on the Michael Medved radio show, had to be:

“I’m actually strong supporter of the death penalty for people who murder people. That strikes me as perfectly reasonable, just, and fair, I’m for it.”

I must admit, his answer made me a bit confused. Republicans, libertarians, many conservative Democrats all dream of a smaller government. ‘Cut spending’ is the chant you’ll hear in every election – whether on national- or state-level. ‘Reduce size of government’ is another. And of course the never dying tribute to Ronald Reagan: ‘Government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem’.

In other words, government is not very good at much. The solution is therefore that government keeps its hands out of things like the educational system, the postal system, health care, railroads, banks, social security, and so on. This is necessary to preserve a culture of personal responsibility, thrift, strong moral values and of course freedom. This is not something an, almost, always inefficient government can provide, instead these virtues must be unleashed so they can thrive in an unregulated, free market, which automatically redistribute reward and punishment among its (rational) actors.

So what’s left for government? Well, defense, foreign policy and criminal justice. Here I’ll concentrate on the last. Because one thing Uncle Sam surely can be relied on, according to 64 % of the country, is how to 1) execute its own citizens smoothly and without any troubles at all and 2) how to choose the right individual eligible for the death penalty every time. In this case government can be trusted. It can be trusted to seek the death penalty in the right cases, where the offenders are the worst of the worst, where the evidence is beyond reasonable doubt, where the offender is sane, has a normal IQ, poses a real threat to society, offers no remorse at all, that the race of the victim did not matter all to the jury, and that the offenders race did not matter at all. The government has this gift. It’s not good at much, but in this case…well…it sure got an impressive talent – a talent, according to different national polls, about 80 % of the Republican voters seems to have a strong belief in.

It seems strange that Norquist or any other member of the ‘small government’-crew would endorse a system so infected with bureaucracy, massive spending and risk of irreversible mistakes – a system which really is an exercise in government power. Not really something one should think would be small enough to ‘drown in a bathtub’.

But help is near. If you’re a conservative or libertarian, who don’t really think that government is very good at much, and therefore also are a bit skeptical about giving the same government power to kill its own citizens, you could most likely have (and maybe you were) been one of the many people who at CPAC 2013, would ‘come out’ and yell: “I am so glad to see you here, I thought I was the only one…” after meeting the group ‘Conservatives Concerned About the Death Penalty’ (CCADP). As the pop-singer ‘Olive’ sang in the 90’ties: ‘You’re not alone’.

According to its website www.conservativesconcerned.org, CCADP is a” network of political and social conservatives who question the alignment of capital punishment with conservative principles and values”. The group is a part of Equal Justice USA, www.ejusa.org, a national organization working to end the death penalty in the United States.

“Some of us believe that small government and the death penalty don’t go together”, is one of the group’s headlines; a headline American conservative figure Richard Viguerie, can relate to:

“Conservatives have every reason to believe the death penalty system is no different from any politicized, costly, inefficient, bureaucratic, government-run operation, which we conservatives know are rife with injustice. But here the end result is the end of someone’s life. In other words, it’s a government system that kills people.”

Also conservative columnist George Will supports the work of CCADP and he points out the dilemma between ‘small government’ and the death penalty in a simple but precise way:

“Conservatives, especially, should draw this lesson…Capital punishment, like the rest of the criminal justice system, is a government program, so skepticism is in order.”

This group might be what the abolition-movement has been waiting for. A group like CCADP can turn out to be a very important voice in the debate, since they can reach out to other conservative without being called soft-hearted liberals. In a time, where more and more states begin to realize that the death penalty-system is flawed and beyond repair, the need for new voices is especially important. A group like CCADP – if they gain a sufficient number of supporters among ‘their own’ and if the are outspoken enough – could mean that the struggle against the death penalty would end 5-10 years earlier; maybe even earlier.

So until Norquist and his fellow conservatives, like CCADP, begin to share the concern about the country’s use of state-sanctioned killing, I’m afraid all the paperwork involved, alone would be enough to absorb all the water in his famous bathtub and save government from drowning.

 

A Shameful Moment

In 1992, Roger Keith Coleman was executed in Virginia for the rape and killing of his sister-in-law, Wanda McCoy, in 1981. At first glance, not an unusual case. However 14 years later, it became the main reason for me to ask myself some very difficult questions concerning my opposition against the death penalty.

I’ve chosen to begin this new blog with a more personal story. It is important for anyone debating the death penalty – supporters as well as opponents – from time to time to make a critical review of one’s own opinion. It is necessary in order not to loose perspective and in order to acknowledge that not many things are as simple as they look – including opposition to the death penalty.

Well, back to the story. Coleman was, as mentioned, executed by Virginia in 1992. Until the very end he claimed his innocence:

“An innocent man is going to be murdered tonight. When my innocence is proven, I hope America will realize the injustice of the death penalty as all other civilized countries have.”

The fact was that there had been doubts about Coleman’s guilt, also in the years after the execution. At the original trial in ’81 Coleman’s attorneys argued that semen from two men was found inside his victim and that another man bragged about murdering her. According to DNA and blood tests in 1990 however placed Coleman within (only) 0.2 percent of the population who could have been tested positive for the one portion of semen at the crime scene. But his lawyers said that the expert the state hired to do the DNA-tests had misinterpreted the results.

Coleman’s case drew international attention. He appeared on talk shows, in magazines and in newspapers pleading his innocence. Time magazine put him on the cover and L. Douglas Wilder, the then Governor of Virginia, received thousands of calls and letters of protest from around the world. Even the then Pope John Paul II asked the state to stop the execution.

But nothing helped. Coleman was executed on May 20 1992.

8 years later, in 2000, Centurion Ministries, an organization fighting to prove Coleman’s innocence, and four newspapers, including the conservative Washington Post, sought to have DNA evidence from the case re-examined. In 2002 the Supreme Court of Virginia declined their request. The Centurion Ministries hereafter appealed to the then Governor of Virginia, Mark Warner and the governor agreed to a new round of more sophisticated DNA tests. On January 5, 2006, the Governor ordered DNA evidence to be retested and the evidence was sent to Centre of Forensic Sciences in Toronto. In a statement he emphasized the uniqueness of the case:

“This is an extraordinarily unique circumstance, where technology has advanced significantly and can be applied in the case of someone who consistently maintained his innocence until execution. I believe we must always follow the available facts to a more complete picture of guilt or innocence.”

I remember in 2006 how exited I was about the outcome of the test. It could be the first time in the country’s history a person would be proven innocent after execution by scientific evidence. Human rights organizations, abolitionist-movements and other proponents all over the world held their breath while waiting for the result. Ira Robbins, an American criminal law professor, explained what was at stake:

“It could be the biggest turning point in death penalty abolition. Let’s assume it comes back that he was proved innocent. Here is the case that the death penalty opponents have been looking for a long time — that we have executed an innocent person.”

She was right. This could mean a gigantic step toward the abolishment of the death penalty in America – beginning with an immediate national moratorium on executions. Not only did the opponents hold their breath, so did the people responsible for sending Coleman to the electric chair. That’s understandable, because how does a government apologize for killing an innocent man? How do they explain it to the relatives? – Sorry, we were wrong. Your son, brother, cousin, friend did not commit the crime for which he sadly were fried to death. On the positive side though, we can guarantee that we won’t make that same mistake with him again. Are we cool? 

It turned out to be their lucky day. About a week later Centre of Forensic Sciences in Toronto, concluded that Coleman’s DNA matched with no exclusions and that there was only a 1-in-19-million chance of a random match. On January 12, 2006 the Governor’s office announced that the test results confirmed Coleman’s guilt. Virginia had not put an innocent man to death.

Imagine the state’s relief. It would have been a tragedy of dimensions if an innocent citizen had been killed – especially for the prosecutor’s future careers it seemed. Former prosecutor Tom Scott had sure been a worried man:

“Quite frankly, I feel like the weight of the world has been lifted off of my shoulders. You can imagine, had it turned out differently, (the other prosecutor) and I certainly would have been scapegoats.”

Well, everything was good then. The two guys could keep their jobs. Why worry about how Roger Coleman’s family would have felt if it had turned out he was innocent? Why worry about Roger Coleman? No, if someone had something to loose, it would be those two prosecutors. Coleman were dead anyway, right. When all comes to all, we are talking about their bread and butter here.  

I myself, along with many others, felt great disappointment. A big chance was missed. Coleman was guilty. The system does work, the proponents would argue. Not the outcome I had hoped for.

However, my disappointment was soon replaced by another feeling, and a much stronger one: SHAME.

How the hell could I have wished for Roger Coleman to be innocent? Had I forgotten that the fight against the death penalty were about human beings? Was I ready to accept the execution of an innocent man just to prove that the death penalty didn’t work? It seemed so. The fight itself had somehow become much more important to me, than the actual human beings involved. I was no better than the two prosecutors who seemed only to fear loosing their job. I was far worse. I had not for one single minute worried at all about Roger Coleman and his family – on the contrary. I had regarded him as nothing else but ammunition for the future fight against the death penalty.

The risk of executing an innocent person will always exist in the death penalty-system, and maybe it has happened already. We don’t really know for sure. A great majority of the Americans believeit already has happen. It is a strong argument among opponents, and yes it would have been a major blow to the system if the DNA-result in the Coleman-case had turned out differently. But that’s not the point here. The point is that I had wished he were innocent and that I had wished that one day the state would execute an innocent man. Just so I could say: Did we not all warn you? Now, abolish the shit. That’s not a pretty moment for a person claiming to support and promote humanistic values – it’s a shameful moment.

Every time a state executes a person, it’s a tragedy in my opinion. If the state executes an innocent man it’s a double tragedy. Does that mean that I believe a guilty murder ‘deserves’ the death penalty more that an innocent man? No, I do not believe that anyone deserves the death penalty, but the guilty person has done something to end up on death row, while the innocent person has done nothing. I have a better understanding why the guilty person is on death row, because that’s the reality of the state’s existing law. As much as I oppose this law, it exists, and I know that the legal system uses it. The chance of getting the death penalty for murder, of course, always will be so much bigger if you are in fact guilty of the crime in question. It’s no surprise. It’s still a tragedy, but no surprise.    

So what did I learn from all this? I’ve learned that I’m not in any way moral superior to death penalty-proponents. I’ve also learned that I always need to question my own thoughts and arguments and keep focus on what is important concerning this issue.  

I’ll never again hope that an innocent person has been, or will be, executed. I’m not interested in being the person Ira Robbins talked about, the person who waits and hopes for “…the case that the death penalty opponents have been looking for a long time”. No human being is ever worth sacrificing for what you might believe is a greater cause, even if will mean saving the life of thousands of inmates on death row. That’s not really respecting the right to life. That’s not really being against the killing of human beings. That’s not being a credible opponent to the death penalty.

Lesson learned.