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The death penalty and the nagging itch of wrongful convictions

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There are times in life when one’s moral values may be high jacked. What, in the abstract, we construct as firmly woven ethical fibre begins to unravel when the thread of ambiguity is pulled. This evening my moral jumper hit a snag.

On the heels of what appeared no more than chance exposure to the contents of a local radio programme, I found myself the unlikely attendee at a book reading by a former Irish Death Row inmate. Nothing exceptional about that perhaps, except for the fact that I am a supporter of the death penalty, under certain conditions. At this juncture it behoves me to clarify what I consider to be the “right” conditions under which a human life may be legitimately terminated by the state. Topping my list, the sexual exploitation and/or murder – particularly of children - ranks first and foremost among death penalty, capital-crime qualifiers. Flying in the face of political correctness, I make no apologies for the fact that serial murderers, child molesters, predatory sex offenders and sadists just don’t garner my sympathy or compassion - and why should they, they don’t afford the same humanity to their victims do they?

Given the staunchness of my position, it may come as no surprise that I never considered attending an anti-death penalty event, nor would I have ever imagined that I would be made welcome. After hearing the radio’s press release I decided I had nothing to lose and so I set off draped in my cloak of conviction. But I couldn’t have been more misguided.

Attending the book signing for Peter Pringle’s release of About Time: Surviving Ireland’s Death Row (History Press), I listened intently as the author recounted his 15-year ordeal of wrongful conviction and incarceration for the murder of two Gardai in County Roscommon in July 1980. While I hasten to add that Mr. Pringle’s alleged crime was not of a predatory sexual nature, and as such would not qualify as death penalty criteria in my estimation, the Irish State however thought otherwise and Peter Pringle was sentenced to hang.

Recounting harrowing experiences of a nefarious conviction, police brutality, degrading prison conditions, the loss of dignity and a challenge for survival, the author graciously imported his personal struggle to a spellbound audience, punctuated with sentiments of hope, forgiveness and reconciliation.

At this juncture my ethical jumper began to itch, its cable knit feeling a little woolly around my neck, not only from the gracious spirit and benevolence Mr. Pringle displayed toward his captors, but from a sad acknowledgment that Peter Pringle was but a tragic causality of Ireland’s under-developed and under-resourced criminal justice system. Despite feeling sympathy for Peter’s plight, I comforted myself with the synthetic fibers of denial, preferring instead to cling to the notion that this case was an anomaly, a loose stitch perhaps, but I decried, the coat of criminal justice integrity was, in the main, fit for purpose. My internal rebuttal provided much needed assurances that such travesties of justice are rare and that few innocents are sentenced to death, right? Grasping my sweater tightly, I felt momentarily soothed. That was until the breeze blew right through me. That breeze is called Sonny Jacobs.

Sonny Jacobs spoke softly; her American drawl reminiscent of another life, another time where her inculcation into the American criminal justice and penal systems echoed the cold and dehumanizing conditions simultaneously experienced by Peter Pringle here in Ireland. While the two “offenders” knew nothing of the other during their respective incarcerations, their personal narratives of wrongful conviction, institutionalization and hopelessness stretched across the Atlantic. For Sonny Jacobs was also a convicted cop killer languishing on Death Row. Like Peter Pringle, Sonny Jacobs spent more than a decade and a half asserting her innocence, and fighting her conviction from inside a maximum security prison.

While her death sentence was eventually commuted to life, reprieve did not come soon enough for Sonny’s co-accused, her husband - who suffered three botched execution attempts before finally losing his life in Florida’s electric chair. The implications of incarceration transcended Sonny’s loss of liberty: they annihilated all that she held dear, maternal relationships with her young children and her parents, the death of her husband, leaving her bereft of society’s identity signifiers, robbing her of her identity as mother, daughter, wife and law-abiding citizen. For, like Peter Pringle, Sonny Jacob was a condemned convict awaiting her fate at the hands of the state, not withstanding the fact that neither Peter nor Sonny were guilty of the crimes for which they were convicted.. Innocent people condemned to their death for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, I shivered at the prospect that if it could happen to them, it could happen to me – or to you.

So then where does one do with such moral incongruity? While I hold firm in my conviction that predatory killers of children, sexual sadists and serial killers warrant a capital punishment censure, how do I reconcile my principles in light of the plight of the wrongfully accused? While the “evidence” used to convict both Peter and Sunny was, in each case, eventually deemed unsafe, it was none-the-less the deemed sufficient to sentence them each to death. So what if Peter and Sonny (and all the other cases of wrongful conviction) were executed before their innocence could be proven (the fact that one must prove one’s innocence, is a glaring indictment of justice in late modernity)? Would their unjust deaths have created a tide of public outrage? Would the criminal justice systems of either country come under scrutiny? Would their wrongful deaths have been felt by anyone within the system? I should think not.

For according to their captors, and sadly for society at large, both Peter and Sonny are the collateral damage of a political ideology which is not concerned with guilt or innocence, but rather with power, authority and exerting a hegemonic control over the marginalized, the dispensable and the disposable. Only, contrary to the state’s intentions, neither Peter, nor Sonny were willing to go quietly; their personal resolve for survival every bit as steadfast as their captor’s conviction. And, while their faith, hope and strength are inspirational I cannot help but contemplate just how many more threadbare jumpers there are out there waiting to unravel, waiting to end their lives in the rag bag. My moral conflict provokes an itchy discomfort, but maybe it is better this way.

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Author:         Kate K

Publisher:    First Edition Ltd

RRP:              NZ$35.00

ISBN:             9781877572470

Format:         p/b

Publication: August 2011

Synopsis:     New Zealand publication exploring the links between cannabis and mental illness. Strategies for recovery based on the Te Whare Tapa Wha model.

Author bio:  Kate K is a New Zealand author and Registered Nurse with both personal and professional experience of the mental health and addiction fields.