No one is innocent

**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.

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20 Responses

  1. michelle
    michelle August 13, 2010 at 12:35 am |

    Thank you for this. I honestly think humanizing perpetrators of crimes is extremely important. And when you talk about things such as sexual violence, it’s even more important IMO, because the way most people think about rape, incest and molesters… only monsters commit these crimes. While in many ways it’s true, people have a really hard time admitting that they may be friends with, or love a monster. And if their loved one is not a monster, then surely, the victim is lying. Again, this binary way of looking at crime re-victimizes the survivor when they are not believed because no one thinks that the person they know is a “monster,” and only monsters do these terrible things… not terribly misguided human beings who need a lot of help. I hope this makes sense. I’m always really weary of expressing these sort of feelings about perpetrators of crimes because I know how touchy these subjects can be. I do not mean to belittle any experience of a survivor, as I am one myself, and if people understood that a normally nice guy can rape someone then my life would have been a lot easier during that time.

  2. KarenDotCom
    KarenDotCom August 13, 2010 at 12:38 am |

    I loved your post, it made me think.

    Sad state of affairs is that NO, the police are not there to protect you when you are young and beaten and sexually abused, but YES, they are there to lock you up in jail given half the chance.

    As a system is far from optimal.

  3. Thom
    Thom August 13, 2010 at 3:53 am |

    This is heartbreaking to read. I have to agree though. If people are on death row because all our safety nets failed to catch them throughout their lives, and our criminal justice system failed to save them when they needed to be saved, then it is hypocritical at best for us to blame them for being there.

    Our society has a bad habit of denying people any help at all, and then forever blaming the victims for having ever needed that help. You provide a very clear example of this horrible trait.

    I hope he finds a defense attorney. But even more, I hope all the other kids out there in similar situations aren’t ignored the way he was. I hope someone hears them and doesn’t turn away. I hope someone listens and believes, and finds people who can intervene and help.

    This also makes we wish I could still do volunteer work. For those reading this who have time and the physical ability, I can’t recommend it enough. It’s stressful, but satisfying, and a lot of places love their volunteers. So many places need more people to help others/each other.

  4. Haylie
    Haylie August 13, 2010 at 4:24 am |

    This is one of the most powerful things I have ever read. This expresses exactly how I feel about why the death penalty is such an abhorrent idea. It’s also so nice to hear someone within the legal system having thought about its contradictions and difficulties so well.

  5. Corbin
    Corbin August 13, 2010 at 9:40 am |

    Out of sight, out of mind. It is entirely too easy for us to lock people away, an never even consider the string of OUR failures that landed them in the situation.

  6. matlun
    matlun August 13, 2010 at 10:25 am |

    I think the most important thing to realize is that there is absolutely no contradiction in someone being both a monster and a victim. But that the perpetrator has also been a victim is often fairly irrelevant when considering his guilt. Even if he became the person he is today through a horrific childhood, does this change anything in the current situation?
    If and how there can be successful rehabilitation is very important, but that is a different question.

    It is obviously also true that “monster” is not a fair description for all people that are guilty of crimes, illustrating again that oversimplification can be a problem.

    I would also in general disagree with ideas that “a normally nice guy can rape someone” (I may be misinterpreting michelle here. If so, sorry). A seemingly nice guy may do so, but that just shows that people can be easy to misjudge.

  7. Comrade Kevin
    Comrade Kevin August 13, 2010 at 10:31 am |

    Some people would argue that we don’t have enough emotional energy to see the humanity of everyone we pass by and ignore on a frequent basis. But it seems as though we’ve never developed a strategy for coping with the inherent tragedy around us. We seem to think that we ought to be either indifferent as a means of defense or face being overwhelmed to our own detriment. There must be a better way between these two extremes.

  8. Ostien
    Ostien August 13, 2010 at 11:29 am |

    Thank you for writing this. This is an issue that really gets to me. Exactly, how can we ignore, and allow by simply ignoring, the cycle of victimization that occurs and how we can even laugh at it? Jokes about prison violence and rape reinforce this dehumanization. We ignore the history of violence that many of these people come from, once they commit a crime that society feels marks them as worthy of being striped of humanity. Then we throw them into a prison system where violence is an every day experience and wonder why they have a high recidivity rate! We talk double speak about reform when our prison system is anything but. The violence and rape of the prison system is seen as part of the punishment. It is not problematized it is normalized. Though even talk of any reform gets one labeled as “soft on crime.” When that really means anything short of caging people like abused animals is unacceptable.

    Lock them up and throw away the key. Erase their past. They are now only a criminal, nothing more. No past, no humanity. They are what we need them to be. They are something other then us, a threat. To be examined and tossed away.

    I’m not trying to make excuses for all violent offenders or even saying that we should not feel disgust at their actions but we (as a society not those victimized, that may be too much to ask of them) need to look at it from a multifaceted perspective, as you have, that perpetrator and victim are not mutually exclusive, a complex relationship of those two terms needs to be considered and we need to move away from dehumanizing these people.

  9. Danny
    Danny August 13, 2010 at 11:59 am |

    I’ve thought a lot about this myself. I find to be very bothersome for the system to turn its back on people who need help but then come charging in when that person in need does something that can be interpreted as wrong. Its like no one wanted to help the kid that was abused by their mom and dad but as soon as that kid grows up and abuses their own kid (the cycle of violence that I’m sure most people are aware of) suddenly they are everyone’s radar and are monsters that need to be punished.

    Horrible state of affairs.

  10. Miss S
    Miss S August 13, 2010 at 12:03 pm |

    Interesting post. I’ll admit that I’m in favor of the death penalty in some cases, but I do have critiques of our current strategy as well. What Michele said in the comments is also interesting about victims not being believed because no one wants to believe a nice guy can do it. But as someone else pointed out, a rapist isn’t a nice guy. He’s a seemingly nice guy. A lot of people believe that they would know what another person was capable of by looking at them and it’s just not true. I don’t believe in recognizing the humanity of rapists to excuse their behavior, but I do believe in recognizing that they are human. Therefore, one cannot be dismissed for bringing allegations against a “nice guy who worked hard, took care of his family, volunteered, went to church every Sunday, etc.”

    In some cases, it’s much easier to see the humanity in criminals than others. A person who was abused finally striking back? A mother stealing diapers for her children? For me, those are easier. Raping? Sexually molesting a child? Opening fire on a group of women because you couldn’t get laid? In those cases, their roles as victim/perpetrator matters little to me.

  11. Jadey
    Jadey August 13, 2010 at 1:06 pm |

    I question the entire system of labelling identities by guilt and innocence – it is inherently hierarchy-reinforcing. Admittedly, in a society where social hierarchies are present and in force, it is often appealing and satisfying to subvert those hierarchies through the criminal justice system (e.g., locking up CEOs, punishing people who abuse their relative social power), but I believe that this satisfactions are short-term, short-sighted, and not compatible with the world I want to live in. I think the understanding of “justice” in my society and communities is deeply flawed and devastating in its effects.

    An idea I was exposed to years ago that was foundational in shaping my beliefs on these issues is that there are no extra people. There is no such thing as human waste, human garbage, or excess humanity.

  12. fielddayfits
    fielddayfits August 13, 2010 at 1:35 pm |

    If we run the risk of de-humanizing perpetrators of violent crime, as you say, doesn’t any act of “re-humanizing” them, ie. understanding a particular chain of causation leading to the Act itself, risk de-humanizing the Act, of separating the violent crime from some notion of “human?” Agency seems obfuscated when being human is simply causal analysis, where “humanity” then refers to us as Platonic balloons being continually filled until some violent bursting point, wherein the balloon or our human husk is lost and what remains is the Act, divorced of the same humanity that was ostensibly what we would like to ascribe to the perpetrator.

  13. PM
    PM August 13, 2010 at 5:43 pm |

    Thank you for an excellent, excellent post, and for doing what you do for people that society has cast aside. One thing caught my eye:

    “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. ”

    Many states in the U.S. and, I’m pretty sure, some European nations will protect women who kill their husbands/partners after years of abuse, even if the crime would have otherwise been first-degree murder. Fo example, the woman who killed her husband with a rifle in a premeditated act, or multiple women who have burned their husbands in their beds. As far as I know, there aren’t any laws that protect abused children who retaliate like this, nor husbands or male partners. I have mixed feelings about laws like this, but I’m firmly against the way that this legal protection is selectively applied to the population at large.

  14. PM
    PM August 13, 2010 at 5:47 pm |

    I guess that could be read as a derail, but what I was driving at is that the case in question seems like one in which the laws I talked about could be applied.

  15. Maggie Gordon
    Maggie Gordon August 13, 2010 at 8:16 pm |

    Wow. Thanks for writing this. I start law school in two weeks and this helps put a lot of things in perspective for me. An old friend of mine was convicted of murder this year and I was struggling with how to reconcile the emotions that I was having about that case with my desire to learn criminal law. This post reminds me of the reasons as to why I want to go into law. Thank you!

  16. disillusioned
    disillusioned August 14, 2010 at 7:35 am |

    I have recently been exposed (via a friend) to the correctional system in Australia and to say I am disillusioned is quite the understatement.

    A close friend of mine was jailed for 12 months, 4 months non parole. He admitted guilt, assisted the investigation and was undertaking intensive specialist counselling (and had been before the charges were laid). He was sent to an assessment prison where he stayed for several weeks. He was then sent to a maximum secrity prison (without being assessed at all) and stayed there for several months. During that time he was actually assessed and classfied as a minimum security prisoner. Despite that classification he was kept in the maximum security prison for more than two months before being transferred to a minimum security prison. In all this time he has not been offered a single rehabilitative program to undertake while in prison. He has not been offered any sort of counselling for his crime (which he was participating in before his imprisonment on an intensive basis) and nothing productive or rehabilitative whatsoever taken place during his sentence. Jailing him has been purely punitive with no rehabilitative element whatsoever.

    He is now due for parole in a few weeks, pending a successful environmental scan. This means a decision is made as to whether his home is located in a ‘suitable environment’ for him to live in when he is released. His parole has been approved pending this scan. Mind you, the scan won’t take place until the week before he is due to be released. If his home is deemed unsuitable, he has to find another potential residence and it has to be scanned and pass the test before he will be released. This will continue until a suitable residence is passed. Not to mention that should his own home fail the scan, he will not be offered any assistance to find somewhere else (suitable) to live and moving to another area will put his employment (which is waiting for him when he is released) in doubt.

    I am totally and utterly appalled by the whole situation and that is without even mentioning the issues that arose due to my friend’s psychological wellbeing during the sentence and the lack of service provision for prisoners in that area.

  17. nezua
    nezua August 14, 2010 at 10:34 pm |

    Thanks for this post.

  18. nezua
    nezua August 14, 2010 at 10:42 pm |

    This is a video I made last year on the US’ stance on Juvenile life sentences without parole (JLWOP). It is similar to your post in that it speaks of seeing past the intractable unforgivable eternally criminal and thus unredeemable nature we assume upon the convicted, and realizing that their humanity is still in play.

    http://theunapologeticmexican.org/elmachete/2009/11/09/news-with-nezua-the-potential-for-progress/

  19. cathy
    cathy August 16, 2010 at 6:43 pm |

    Reasons aren’t excuses. Both of the male relatives who severely abused me were abused themselves, I have even heard one use it as an excuse in my presence. But it doesn’t excuse what was done. The same attitude that you advocate for may have been used as an excuse for the very people who abused this person as a child. ‘He was drunk’, ‘he had a terrible childhood’, etc. are things that I have heard used to excuse the actions of an abuser in order to release him and to minimize the abuse he commited.

    I am not saying that I support the death penalty or think that circumstance should not be taken into account, because I don’t think that. However, I also do not accept that having a terrible childhood excuses victimizing others. Like the fact that Roman Polanski was a Holocaust survivor does not excuse the fact that he raped a child. ‘His life sucked before’ just isn’t good enough for my forgiveness.

  20. Kristin
    Kristin August 19, 2010 at 2:02 pm |

    “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.”

    This was awful and hard to read. But necessary. Thank you.

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