Thursday, May 04, 2006

Death by Rotting

In America, we are a land of rules and laws. Most of the time, those laws make sense. Sometimes they have unintended consequences. And sometimes things don’t seem to work out the way we think they should. But it’s the best system that’s available and we’re gonna stick with it.

We’re a land where juries often have the final say. That goes all the way back to the Magna Carta, which gave the accused the right to be tried by his peers. The prevailing wisdom is that a group of well-informed, impartial citizens usually make the best decisions. Most of the time, it works fine, even though every once in a while it means O. J. Simpson gets to play golf unfettered.

Juries often make decisions regarding punishment of criminals. Judges may occasionally soften the punishment, but they can never make it harsher. One particular case was recently in the national spotlight and deserves some commentary.

By all accounts, Zacarias Moussaoui is a creepy guy. He was arrested just prior to the 9/11 attacks as a possible terrorist while he was a student at a flight school. It seems that his flight instructor had notified the fbi after being suspicious of Moussaoui’s competence and motivation. No kidding. He was probably a lot more interested in learning how to navigate than to actually take-off or land the plane.

We’ll probably never know exactly what his involvement in the plot was supposed to be. At one time, he denied all involvement. Then he said that he was supposed to fly a plane into the Capitol. For a while, he was somehow related to Richard Reid’s shoe.

At least we know he didn’t like America. You’re not supposed to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theater. And screaming “You will never get my blood. God curse you all!” in a crowded courtroom full of people that are deciding your fate usually isn’t a good idea, either.

So the jury was supposed to figure out whether we should give the guy a potassium chloride cocktail or if we should just let him rot in a jail cell for the rest of his life.

They decided on rotting.

The whole death penalty argument is one that has fascinated me through the years. After all, it is appointed to all men to die. So we really can’t invoke a death penalty; we can only cause death to happen sooner than it would have naturally. And on our own terms.

Some will argue that we shouldn’t spend money keeping prisoners alive that have no possibility of ever seeing civilization again. But it can’t be a strictly economic decision because the conviction and appeals process probably costs more than a bed and three square meals every day for the next forty years or so.

Some people actually have a death wish, so executing them is a favor to them. You can kill two birds with one stone — so to speak. The criminal gets his wish and society gets its revenge.

In Moussaoui’s case, it seemed to be a matter of relevance and knowledge. The more he knew about the planned attacks — the greater his involvement — the more he deserved the ultimate penalty: death.

But the jury decided he really didn’t know that much. He knew enough to get life in prison but — irrespective of what he claimed in his own “defense” — he didn’t know enough to deserve to die.

Pundits immediately spun that by saying that a life of solitary confinement was actually a sentence worse than death — which is exactly the opposite of what the jury intended.

Either way, Zach had determined that he was going to win. If he was executed, he would die a martyr and get his 40 virgins. If his life was spared, he could claim to have gotten away with it against the evil empire. And hey, that’s probably worth at least a dozen or so virgins.

He felt that he had a right to be defiant at his sentencing hearing when he declared, “America, you lost. I won.”

But Judge Leonie Brinkema had the last word. She said that everyone else in the room would be “free to go any place they want. They can go outside and they can feel the sun, smell the fresh air, hear the birds. They can eat what they want tonight. They can associate with whom they want. But you will never again get a chance to speak and that's an appropriate and fair ending. You will die with a whimper and never get a chance to speak again.”

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