Before I started blogging, before I went into PR and marketing communications, I spent several months of my journalism life talking to convicted murders on Death Rows throughout the United States, and many more months writing about the experience for a book. I was a capital punishment expert, a frequent guest on radio talk shows and an op-ed columnist for newspapers and magazines.
The book was published in 1994 – and I have spent the last 12 years trying to put the topic behind me. Then something like the Zacarias Moussaoui verdict happens and I find myself back in that world of perpetual darkness.
I no longer comment or write about capital punishment and respectfully decline when asked, which almost always is in the days and hours before a scheduled execution. It’s not that I don’t care, it’s just that it takes more intellectual and emotional energy than I can afford. Public affairs consulting taught me to fight the battles I can win, and the death penalty is a losing battle no matter what side you’re on.
But there is another high-profile death penalty case in the United States, arguably the most high profile and most significant since capital punishment was reinstated in the mid-‘70s. The defendant has all but begged for death during the trial’s guilt phase and there is little doubt he will get what he’s asking for.
I am not going to change my mind and comment on Moussaoui – nevertheless, the case reminded me of a final argument that a California defense attorney delivered to the jury in a death penalty case. The speech didn’t make it into the book, but I kept the transcript and thought I would share it now.
The following does not necessarily reflect my views on the Moussaoui case, and I certainly don’t expect you to agree – but I do expect you to think.
“Let’s imagine something for a moment…I hope it never happens, but let’s imagine it. You have gone into the jury room, you have deliberated and you have reached a verdict. You come out here with the verdict, the judge asks if you have reached a verdict, you say yes you have reached a verdict. You hand the slip over to the bailiff, who gives it to the judge, who gives it to Judy, the clerk, and Judy the clerk is now asked to read the verdict. And the verdict that is read says, ‘We the jury sentence (defendant) to death.’ And at that moment Mr. (defendant) has a heart attack and slumps over. That’s not very far fetched when you think of the enormity of those words as they come out and somebody has just told you that you are to die.
“He slumps over in his chair, falls down. What would happen? First thing that would happen is the clerk would probably reach for the phone and call an ambulance. The deputy, the bailiff in the courtroom, would leap up and try to do some kind of life-saving efforts. If there was a doctor, he would rush up and he would try to resuscitate or to help the man who is lying on the floor having a heart attack.
“Let’s think about it for a minute. Let’s think of the absolute absurdity of that thing. You have just said he is to die, he’s in the process of doing it, and now everybody is running around to save his life. Why is that?
“It is because it is instinctive in us to go for life and not to go for death. It is because that’s the way we are, because life is sacred, because we believe in life, and because that man is a human being…it is why we believe in saving life and it is why we would reach out and try to assist the man who is lying there on the floor having a heart attack.”