July 24, 2002
The death penalty

Two recent items have gotten me thinking about the death penalty. This article in The American Prospect talks about recent shifts in opinion on the death penalty. I find that sort of thing to be more wishful thinking than anything else, and I'm never sure how much I sympathize with it. I've gone up and down on the death penalty. I remember once as a teenager trying to convince my Dad that the death penalty was just and good. How exactly I came to be to the right of my Catholic, Republican father remains a mystery to me. I think I've been making up for it ever since.

Despite my relentless surge to the left on many issues, I remain basically in favor of the death penalty. I just feel that it's the only possible response to certain crimes and certain criminals. Back in the day when Mario Cuomo was governor of New York and the death penalty was not on the books, a prisoner serving a life sentence killed a guard. As it happened, this was a rare loophole in the New York penal code - a lifer who committed murder was the one type of New Yorker who was eligible for the state-sponsored big dirt nap. Cuomo categorically ruled out the possibility of executing this killer, in keeping with his principles. I always thought Cuomo gave him a free pass. How else can you punish someone who's never going to breathe outside air again? It made no sense to me, then or now.

As with many things, of course, familiarity can breed contempt, and there's no place more familiar with the death penalty than Texas. There are many capital cases in Texas that make one question one's commitment to the idea of governmental killing. One such case, profiled in the July Texas Monthly is that of Darlie Routier (subscription required), a housewife from Rowlett who was convicted on the bloody stabbing murder of her two young sons. Darlie has claimed her innocence all along, saying that the boys were killed by an intruder, who also stabbed her. There's a pretty good case that she may be right. At the very least, there's room for a fair bit of doubt.

The evidence presented at trial painted a circumstantial picture of Darlie's guilt. Her story varied. Her stab wounds were described as "superficial" by one doctor. When police arrived, she seemed more concerned with her own injuries than the boys'. There was evidence that her blood had been wiped from the sink, as if she'd cleaned up after cutting herself, and evidence that the basement screen which was the alleged means of entry for the iintruder had been cut by a knife from the Routiers' kitchen. Possibly the most damning piece of evidence was a videotape of Darlie, on what would have been her son Devin's birthday, wishing him a Happy Birthday and spraying Silly String on the tombstone.

But the evidence wasn't clear. Despite reports of financial difficulties, the boys had minimal life insurance policies - $10,000 each, which didn't leave much after the funerals. (Husband Darin was insured for $800,000.) One of Darin's socks, which contained only a few drops of the boys' blood, was found on the street several houses away. The timeline made it virtually impossible that Darlie could have dropped it there before the cops arrived. One of the boys was still barely alive when paramedics arrived, so instead of making sure they were both dead before calling 911, he could have survived to finger her. Finally, unlike Andrea Yates or Susan Smith, Darlie had no history of depression, incest, abuse, or adultery.

In any event, Darlie was convicted and now sits on death row. Since her conviction, some truly bizarre things have happened. The court reporter in her case was fired after a staggering 33,000 errors were discovered in the case transcript. Most amazingly, her husband has admitted that his financial troubles at the time of the murders were such that he had hatched a plan to hire a burglar to break into the house, steal a bunch of stuff, then sell it back after the insurance company paid out. This has led to some speculation that the killings were a hit on Darlie gone wrong, as she was insured for $200,000.

Her appeal is underway, and I daresay we'll be faced with another case where questions of punishment will be overshadowed by questions of guilt or innocence. There's a lot of people out there who think Darlie got screwed - do a Google search on "Darlie Routier" and see for yourself. This web page has registered over eight million hits. Someone out there believes her.

I do still believe that the death penalty is a viable option. I just believe we need to be very careful about how and when we apply it. I'm far from convinced that Darlie Routier deserves it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 24, 2002 to Crime and Punishment

I'm all in favor of the death penalty for persons who have committed heinous capital crimes. Jeffery dahlmer, Charlie Starkweather, and so on. For me the problems with the death penalty are worthy of philosophers. Given that humans are not perfect, how can we absolutely know that someone is guilty? In the case you mentioned, and in a lot of others, there seems to be plenty of room for doubt about whether the one condemned actually committed the crime. The recent introduction of DNA evidence has resulted in the release of a shocking number of wrongly convicted criminals. It makes me wonder about the accuracy of our criminal justice system. I'm all for capital punishment, but only for the truly guilty, and it seems the achilles heel of the system is the determination of guilt or innocence.

Posted by: etc. on July 24, 2002 10:37 PM

You're both dead wrong (sorry!) Justification for the death penalty is predicated on the supposition that it is a deterrent to violent crime. Since it clearly isn't, and because it is overwhelmingly racist in its application and amounts to nothing more than state-sponsored murder, why shouldn't America join with the rest of the Western world and abolish it?

A man murders another man. He is tried and convicted. The judge pronounces sentence. "You are a murderer," the judge says, in effect. "Murder is wrong. We're going to punish you. And how are we going to punish you? Why, we're going to murder you."

What kind of illogical nonsense is that?

Posted by: Yardbird on July 25, 2002 2:27 AM

Whatever the rights and wrongs of it, the death penalty is no punishment for somebody guilty of a heinous crime.

Serial killers, terrorists, child killers etc - they all know what they're doing is wrong - and if they get caught they get put in a cell on their own, fed, cleaned, watered, clothed, and the worst thing that can happen to them is a painless injection that puts them to sleep forever. Some people don't even treat the family pet as well.

I'm all in favour of making those sort of people suffer for what they've done. I'm not advocating torture, but some old fashioned rock smashing for 12 hours a day, 7 days a week would be a start - but then of course you're infringing on their 'human rights'.

Maybe it's just easier to kill them, rather than actually punishing them for their crimes.

Posted by: arseblogger on July 25, 2002 4:39 AM

Yardbird, I know that the death penalty is not a deterrant. There's plenty of statistical evidence to back that up. That's not part of why I support it.

The criminal justice system provides three main effects as I see it: Deterrence, rehabilitation, and punishment. Not all of these effects are applicable to all defendants; indeed, for most there's only one that matters. For those who won't be deterred and cannot be rehabilitated, the only option is to choose a suitable punishment, and for some killers the only suitable punishment is execution.

I certainly understand the moral objections to the death penalty, and I have a lot of sympathy for them. If someday the majority of Americans come to believe that the death penalty is morally wrong and should be abolished, I won't be upset. I don't see it quite that way, but I won't argue that the world would be a worse place without capital punishment.

As long as we do execute criminals, I want us to take the responsibility seriously. If we can't be sure we're doing the right thing, we shouldn't be doing it. Darlie Routier may be guilty, but there's more than enough doubt here to make me say that executing her would be totally wrong.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on July 25, 2002 7:35 AM

I never understood why some think Yardbird's argument should be taken seriously. Do the people espousing this view believe that it's wrong for the state to incarcerate someone convicted of kidnapping?

There are many powers which we the people grant to the state exclusively. A representative democracy with independent judiciary acting under due process of law is not equivalent, morally or legally, to an individual acting of his own volition.

Posted by: Craig on July 25, 2002 11:29 AM

"Possibly the most damning piece of evidence was a videotape of Darlie, on what would have been her son Devin's birthday, wishing him a Happy Birthday and spraying Silly String on the tombstone."

I am obviously missing something, but why is this "damning evidence"? I gather this is after the murders (otherwise, what tomb?) Assuming innocence for a moment, please tell me what is correct and appropriate behavior for a mother whose sons have been brutally murdered on the birthday of one of them? Perhaps going to the grave and pretending that it was the happy day it should have been rather than the tragic day it was?

By the way, who took the videotape?

Posted by: David Margolies on July 25, 2002 11:43 AM

Dear Charles: Is being" a Catholic, Republican father" a pejorative? I know you are a democrat, but are you non-Catholic?
As for my attitude towards the death penalty, it takes on many levels, none Catholic. First and foremost, logic tells me that life is sacred, therefore, I oppose all forms of life-taking, including "just" wars. Be that as it may, I will tell you a story about my collision, amongst others, with Mario Cuomo. I had a viscious murderer, Thomas Grasso, on my docket. He was charged with killing a senior citizen for the proceeds of his Social Security check, $505. When the body was discovered, he was on his knees with his hand clasped in supplication. As it turned out, Grasso was also wanted for murders of seniors in Ohio and Oklahoma. I took his plea of guilty and sentenced him to 20 years to life. At sentencing, I asked him if he had anything to say, and after listening to 5 minutes of things he wanted me to do with his member, I shut him up by telling him I was a vegertarian!
After sentence, Grasso became a lightening rod for the pro and anti-death penalty folks and Mario Cuomo in order to dodge the heat stated that I could amend his sentence and thereby facilitate Grasso being shipped to Oklahoma to face the firing squad. In a memo decision discussing the Gov's concept of separation of powers, I reminded him that only the Executive could alter a pronounced sentence. In an aside, I opined that if it were up to me, I would have Grasso serve the entire 20 years, with a guard assigned to remind him everyday, that he still was liable to go to Oklahoma and risk being put to death after conviction. The punishment must fit the crime, if Grasso could kill and old, defenseless man, than the system should extract justice from him, and in my view, Grasso should have suffered 20 years of anticipation of what awaits him in Oklahoma. Ask me, some day, to show you the sentencing transcript.
Here's to life.
A Catholic, Republican Father.

Posted by: Catholic, Republican Father on July 25, 2002 11:45 AM

David, the videotape (which was taken by local newsies) was damning because the prosecution's case was based in large part on the idea that Darlie Routier wasn't acting like a mother whose children had been murdered would normally act. Cops at the scene said she was more concerned about her own injuries than the kids'. Nurses in the ER said she was emotionally flat. Her behavior at the grave was supposed to show that she was glad to be rid of her kids. It apparently had an effect on the jury.

Dad, I remember you telling me about the Grasso case. It would indeed be justice if New York extradites him to Oklahoma after his time there is up.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on July 25, 2002 1:03 PM

I've seen news stories on Darlie Routier. The cops were doing surveilancew on her and filmed the birthday party at the cemetary. Yes there was balloons and silly string. However, they also filmed right before it, both Darlie and her husband there at the cemetary saying a prayer for their kids. That was never introduced as evidence at her trial whereas just the birthday party was. It was said that the party shocked and outraged the jury which is what made them vote on death. Several of them after the trial eventually saw the other part of the tape (Darlie and her husband saying a prayer) and saw photos of her wounds, and they all said if that would have been shown at trial, she would be sitting at home with her family today.

Instead, she's likely to be executed because no one wants to do anything. Also keep in mind that over 125 innocent people have been released from death rows accross the country. And that doesn't even count the innocent ones that actually were executed (Ruben Cantu, Gary Graham, etc.).

An eye for an eye and we're all blind---Ghandi

Posted by: Duane on December 24, 2005 6:37 AM