So it was comforting the other day to hear Clyde Edgerton say, at a protest in front of the Governor's Mansion, that our children and grandchildren will want to know where we stood on capital punishment, circa 2003, just as we care whether our parents and grandparents were right, or wrong, on the Jim Crow laws. Notice, Edgerton wasn't talking about the pre-Civil War South, when slavery just was. He was talking about the '40s and '50s and thereafter, when the horror of racism was fully exposed and folks had to shut their ears to the truth to keep it going. Similarly, the systematic unfairness of our executions--a system that openly favors "the whitest and the richest" and kills a wretched few--is now clear for all to see, if it wasn't previously. And still, Edgerton declared, "There are those among us who close their eyes and ears to the bell-clear negligence and abuse of that blindfolded woman who holds the scales of justice."
This from the author of Raney and other empathetic novels about a South that is greatly flawed and greatly forgiving. When Clyde Edgerton says the Old North State--most of it--does get it and will do what's right before long, I'm heartened. Speaking out for the first time on the issue, Edgerton was hopeful that the long-sought moratorium on executions, which passed the N.C. Senate last spring and was within a few votes of passage in the House when the General Assembly adjourned for the year, will soon be law. Citizens know the system is unfair, and legislators know it, he believes. The only question is whether Easley, the great executor, knows. "Surely he senses it," Edgerton says.
Well, Easley didn't know it when given the chance to save Eddie Hartman, who was raped by his uncle when he was 8 and ended up committing a senseless murder. Nor when he could have saved Joseph Bates, who was delusional and paranoid after suffering a serious head injury in a car crash, and ended up committing a senseless murder. Nor when he didn't save Quentin Jones, who was abandoned by his mother and beaten by his father and--guess what?--got stoned and drunk at the age of 18 and committed a senseless murder.
Each one an outrage? It surpasses belief that all of these men are pathetic victims, nothwithstanding that they killed innocent people they either didn't know at all or, in Hartman's case, was his friend. And yet, it's true, because that's who we execute. Not cold-blooded killers. No, mildless murderers who were neglected or abused as children; are mentally ill or retarded; are "self-medicated," the term mental health professionals use to describe the untreated sick who turn--not surprisingly, given their pain--to alcohol and drugs; and whose lawyers, when they're on trial, do the worst possible job.
These elements are always present, and especially the last. Get a decent lawyer, who can somehow make you a sympathetic figure regardless of your crime, and you either get off with life (Ian Campbell) or the prosecutor doesn't go for the death sentence in the first place (Mike Peterson). Last year, 1.3% of the murders committed in North Carolina resulted in a death sentence. Hell, yes, they're pathetic victims.
And the next one? Unless Easley listens: Timmy Keel. His drunken uncles had fun giving him booze at 7. He's hallucinatory, has been for years. Failed every course in the 8th grade and dropped out of school. Cut himself with knives and razor blades for no reason. In prison, at age 26, did not know the alphabet. And his lawyers deliberately missed the deadline for filing his post-conviction appeal so they could challenge the deadline rule!
Now, supposedly, we don't execute the mentally ill, or the retarded. But, in prison, on the right drugs, Keel is--officially--neither. In fact, he's a very sweet guy who doesn't like people calling him retarded. "I hear you," said a Duke law student who's worked on his case in an e-mail exchange with me, "on not wanting people to tune out on the issue because they hear about it too much, and always characterized as the most horrible case to come down the pike.
"Perhaps," she said, "something that will move people is that the group of inmates executed recently, seen as a whole, represent a total failure of our system--even the ultimate 'safety net' of clemency, because someone wants to get re-elected."
Contact Bob Geary at firstname.lastname@example.org