**Trigger warning for descriptions of violence and sexual abuse**
Today I sat in a room with a man who admitted to stabbing his step-father to death. This isn’t the first time I’ve met with someone who has murdered, but it was the first time I’ve had to tell that person I couldn’t help him because he’s not claiming innocence. And that fact – that fact that I was not allowed to help him – has been eating at me all day.
The truth of the matter is, there is a tension between defense attorneys who work on death penalty cases and those that work on innocence cases. In the former, attorneys work to get courts to recognize the humanity in folks who the law labels “the worst of the worst.” In the latter, we only represent those deemed “worthy” of receiving it – the innocent ones, the ones who did not do anything wrong. I do not like this tension.
As someone who has crossed over and worked on both sides of the issue, I believe innocence work is necessary to ending the death penalty. Yes, the death penalty is expensive; yes, it has no deterrent value; and yes, the process is completely unfair. However, until the public believes that we are, and still stand, at risk of executing innocent folks, they aren’t going to buy into abolishing the death penalty. And while I’d like to say that the fact that the public doesn’t find the other arguments compelling is the only thing that makes me sad about this debate, what really makes me sad is that the discussion surrounding the death penalty doesn’t even attempt to recognize the vulnerability and humanness of the folks on death row. Because by the time someone reaches death row, we no longer think of them as human. They are incapable of being vulnerable, of having acts committed on them. Instead, they are only actors – perpetrators – who can commit acts on other people.
This framing of individuals as either victim or perpetrator troubles me deeply. Truthfully, while there are exceptions to every rule, I generally believe that in the case of major crimes, the following rule applies: not all victims are perpetrators, but all perpetrators are victims.
I know, I know. No one wants to think of the person who did something awful to them as being a victim. And honestly, I’m not asking you to. There’s a reason the criminal justice system isn’t supposed to be about what the victim wants* – you can’t be objective. Heck, you shouldn’t be objective. But law and society should be. Which means that before we punish someone, we need to take into account that victimization is a cycle—it’s those who have been hurt that go on to hurt someone else.
Take for example the man I met today. His life has not been an easy one. Because of his limited mental capacities, he quit school in the 4th grade, and still cannot read or write. By the time he was 12, he had seen his biological father attempt to kill his mother twice – once by trying to drown her in the toilet, and another by beating her in the head with a phone. That second time, he stepped in, pulled a pistol on his own father, and chased him into the street. His father came back the next day, and remained with the family until he was 16. In the meantime, the boy was beaten daily: first with his father’s belt, and then when he got bigger, with the grown man’s fists. Besides the physical abuse he received, he was also sexually abused from the age of 7 until he was 12, after which he turned to drugs and alcohol for support; he began drinking at 12, and started smoking crack at age 15.
Throughout all this time, no one stepped in to help this child. No one stopped him from quitting school. No one kept him away from the man who beat him mercilessly and tried to kill his mother. No one protected him from sexual abuse. No one loved him and taught him how to find solace in anything other than drugs and alcohol. Removed from the fact that he later killed, it would be difficult to imagine that anyone would not agree that this man had been a victim.
Yet, once a victim crosses that line to perpetrator – once this man killed his step-father – no one wants to remember the victim he once was. And that, I believe, is one of the fundamental flaws in our criminal justice system. No one wants to acknowledge that a perpetrator has been a victim, because if that’s true, then that means we are also punishing victims.
Robert Lawrence Smith writes in the Quaker Book of Wisdom about how people never look at the homeless. Folks avert their eyes and look away–ashamed, guilty perhaps. According to Smith, we don’t want to look at them because we don’t want to recognize our humanity in them. It’s difficult to think that we would let someone live in such conditions. So instead of recognizing them as human, we simply ignore them. This is similar to the response of the general public when we convict someone and label them a perpetrator: rather than acknowledge their humanity, we simply shuffle them away where no one can see.
However, I think it’s more than just not wanting to recognize a criminal as human. I think we don’t want to realize that we too had a role in creating someone who could commit this crime. Because the truth of the matter is, if this man hadn’t been abused–if he hadn’t become crack-addicted–it is highly unlikely that his step-father would have died. And in that way, we failed. We let these things happen. But we don’t share in the responsibility.
Generally, I feel tremendous responsibility for the acts my clients have committed. I do not mean to suggest they, too, are not culpable and should not be punished. But I do believe that some of that culpability is society’s too, and as a member of society, I must carry my share. So today, when this man asked for my help, and I turned him down, I can’t help but feel that I’m just continuing the cycle of denying this man assistance when he needed it. But yet again, it will be he, and not I, that suffers for it.
*Society’s failure to provide support for victims is a whole different issue. I believe we should be doing things to help victims. But those things typically aren’t punishing someone else, and shouldn’t be limited to the criminal justice system.