Friday, November 13, 2009

Crime and Punishment

"The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry."

Ernest Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms

When I graduated from college with a B.A. in journalism, my first job was as a general assignment reporter at a newspaper in central Arkansas. I held that job for nearly two years. During that time, I covered several murder trials.

Consequently, I was familiar with the judicial procedure in the capital murder trial of Curtis Vance, who was convicted recently of last year's murder of Little Rock TV news anchor Anne Pressly.

Every state does things a little differently. When someone is being tried for murder, the procedure in Arkansas is to decide the issue of guilt or innocence and then, if the defendant was convicted, hold a second trial in which the jury decides the punishment.

Informally, it is called the "penalty" or "punishment" phase. And, when the defendant has just been convicted of capital murder, the only options are life in prison — or death.

As a young reporter, I always found the penalty phase to be the most dramatic part of the story of a murder trial because, at that point, the guilt or innocence had been established and the defense attorneys were no longer protesting that their clients were not involved. Well, most of them were not pretending anymore. A few of them did, but most had adapted their strategies to the reality of a conviction.

Their arguments and their witnesses were intended to support what they believed were mitigating circumstances, and I came to regard "mitigating circumstances" as excuses for the crime. Not explanations. How can one explain a premeditated murder?

I remember covering one murder trial in which the defendant, having been convicted, learned (allegedly for the first time) in testimony during the penalty phase that his mother had been mentally retarded. There had been some physical abuse in the family, all of which contributed to his actions as an adult. That was the defense's argument.

The defense attorney must have done a good job of selling that one. Or perhaps it was the moment during the testimony when the defendant spontaneously burst into tears and court had to adjourn for awhile so he could compose himself. Maybe that was when the jurors decided they could not authorize the execution of that defendant.

I guess it's hard for juries to decide questions of life and death — although I suppose I would prefer to leave it up to 12 jurors than a single judge. But jurors must be emotionally vulnerable after a guilt phase that frequently has gruesome physical evidence. Maybe it is all too easy to manipulate jurors after such an experience.

Vance apparently broke into Pressly's home, beat her with a piece of wood, raped her and left her to die in the early morning hours of an October day last year. Her injuries caused a massive stroke, which led to her death a few days later. The photos of the crime scene must have been pretty unsettling.

The defense brought in Vance's mother, who tearfully testified that she struggled with an addiction to crack when Vance was a child and that she was physically abusive. On one occasion, she said, she slammed his head into a brick wall. Doctors testified that they believed he had suffered brain damage.

I don't know if the attorney actually linked the abuse to the possibility of brain damage or if that conclusion was left to the jurors to reach. Whether the attorney connected the dots for the jurors or they did it themselves, it is a logical conclusion, and it is easy to see how it could persuade jurors to give him life.

Pressly's stepfather said he was not disappointed with the jurors' verdict. "There really aren't any winners tonight," he said. To me, that seems to be a very generous attitude, considering the magnitude of the loss his family has experienced.

But it's a tough task for jurors. I know I didn't always agree with the jurors in the trials I covered, but I never criticized their decisions.

We ask 12 citizens to do a dirty job for the rest of us. We must be willing to accept whatever their decision may be.

No comments: