This is the story of a serial killer who enslaves people, usually black men, and tortures them by telling them the date the killer plans to execute them and then by keeping them locked in chains until that date, always reminding them of the date’s imminence. Sometimes, the killer tells them that if they are lucky, if the killer likes them enough, they might escape death, but that just seems to increase the torture because the killer doesn’t really plan to let them go. The killer in this book also has a kind of Dexter complex, where the killer chooses victims morally corrupt enough that few people even notice their deaths. Of course, the killer in this book is state government.
This is actually one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. It’s hard to feel very sympathetic towards the prisoners that Sister Helen advocates for, and I have to be honest that I don’t share her confidence that a true life sentence will always be a true life sentence, or even that a true life sentence is more humane than the death penalty. On the other hand, I am completely convinced of the arbitrariness of state executions. Also, it was deeply tragic to read about the families of the executed men, and their devastation seems to deserve respect, just as does the devastation of the families of the executed men’s victims.
This year, I sat in the courtroom and watched parts of the trial of Angela McAnulty, who tortured her daughter to death over the course of about seven years. At the point that her daughter, Jeanette Maples, died, the coroner couldn’t name a cause of death because there were so many possible causes. She had numerous infected wounds, brain hemorrhaging, water in her lungs, and was severely emaciated. Angela had forced (forced? convinced?) her husband to install locks, to which only Angela had the keys, on most of the doors in the house, including the bathroom. Her daughter was only allowed to use the bathroom supervised because she would try to drink out of the toilet if she was unsupervised. There were other things, worse things. There were other kids who weren’t tortured, but who Angela involved in torturing Jeanette. The jury gave her the death penalty, and I have to say I would have done the same. In her police interrogation tape, she said that instead of torturing her daughter, she probably should have taken up smoking.
So, I feel pretty conflicted about the issue of the death penalty. I think Sister Helen Prejean is a lovely woman, and I think her compassion is truly noble. I’m not wholly convinced that the death penalty is the worst of American institutions, though. Buuuuuut, at the same time, the corruption that the death penalty seems to practically breed is truly disturbing. The fact that it is only used against the poor is equally troubling.
Although Angela McAnulty confessed to her crimes, and so no trial occurred as to her guilt (the only issue was sentencing), it was still a problem to me that her defense attorneys put on almost no case. Their closing argument was something like, “Yep, this is pretty much the worst thing ever. You’re a smart jury, and we’re reconciled to whatever you decide.” I’m not satisfied that that is actually a defense. I know the burden is on the state to prove a crime, but that doesn’t mean that no defense is necessary. According to Sister Helen, failure of the defense to actually provide a defense is a rampant problem.
I keep coming back to thinking about this issue in relation to the recent Supreme Court case
Connick v. Thompson
. That case is fascinating
. Like, I want to investigate it and write a book about all of the people involved in it. It is, like, EVERYTHING interesting about the law. But, the thing about it is that I feel with great certainty
that Justice Thomas’ opinion is correct (Slate does not agree
). I think Justice Ginsburg’s dissent would have created really troubling law. So the reason it relates to Dead Man Walking
is that they are both about the death penalty in Louisiana and how corrupt the prosecution of criminals who end up on death row is. They are both about how legal procedure is basically what decides who wins and loses. Since I totally love legal procedure for some insane reason, I kind of love that fact, but not when people unjustly die because of it.
One awesome thing about the Thompson
case is that Harry Connick, Jr.’s dad, Harry Connick, Sr., who was the lead D.A. in New Orleans for a helluva long time (Wikipedia says 1973-2003), is the “Connick” in the title of the case.
Anyway, the issue in Connick v. Thompson
was that Mr. Thompson was convicted of a crime and sentenced to the death penalty because the New Orleans prosecutors withheld evidence of a lab test that exonerated him. So, the lab tests get discovered, new trial, Mr. Thompson gets not only gets no death penalty in the new trial, he also gets completely acquitted of the crime. The withholding of evidence is a violation of the case Brady v. Maryland
, which says prosecutors can’t withhold exonerating evidence.
Then, this is the interesting part (to me). You probably all know this, but I didn’t before law school. The statute 42 U.S.C. § 1983 is the civil rights statute that says that we can sue people who “under color of” state law deprive us of our rights. So, the Supreme Court says that “people” can mean a lot of things. One of the things it can mean is municipal authorities in their personal capacities. (Like, as themselves, not as their office. So, when Sarah Palin was governor of Alaska, I would sue her as Sarah Palin, not as governor.) It can also mean municipalities themselves, but if you sue a municipality, you have to show that there is some procedure or custom, instituted by the municipality, that supported the deprivation of your rights. Some rule to change. This is the same with suing someone in their official capacity, like suing Mr. Connick as D.A. of New Orleans, or suing Governor Sarah Palin.
, Mr. Connick, Sr., came out and said basically, “Yes, yes, unfortunately I misread Brady
when I was the lead prosecutor.” *this is me going ballistic* So, he misread Brady to mean that he was supposed
to withhold evidence? No. I am not willing to believe that happened. But, the genius thing about this is that then
the attorneys bringing Thompson’s case sued the municipality, or Mr. Connick in his official capacity, not the prosecutors in their personal capacities. They argued that Mr. Thompson’s case alone, one
instance of withholding evidence, combined with Mr. Connick’s statement that it was a mistake on his part, showed a custom of the municipality. And Justice Thomas was like, “No, one instance doesn’t show a custom or a procedure or a rule that we can attribute to the municipality.”
People tend not to sue officials in their personal capacity because individuals have less money, less insurance, than municipalities. The interesting thing if you take the Thompson
case with Dead Man Walking
is that Prejean is pretty clear that she thinks that this kind of thing went on all the time in the New Orleans Parish. Even the Slate article above notes that Louisiana courts have overturned, for Brady
violations, many convictions coming out of Connick’s office. Correct me if I’m wrong (and I honestly haven’t read the opinion very closely because I have to actually do my schoolwork at some point), but it’s my understanding that the Supreme Court only considered the violations in relation to Thompson (and it would seem that way, too, because Thompson is the only plaintiff here). So interesting that, at least as it appears from reading the facts in the opinion, the attorneys didn’t bring suit using the other cases as well, even as evidence. All of the courts, even the lower courts that awarded judgment to Mr. Thompson, agreed that it was not custom or procedure to withhold evidence.
Anyway, that’s me geeking out on federal courts. I’m sure I haven’t explained the whole situation that well. And it does make sense to gamble by suing Connick in his official capacity, hoping for a judgment on which Mr. Thompson could actually collect, than to sue in his personal capacity. I just wonder about the lack of evidence. I wonder about the statements that Sister Helen makes in this book, which pretty blatantly imply that Mr. Connick’s office has been consistently guilty of § 1983 violations.
Okay, none of this is actually related to the paper I have to write on judicial review and the death penalty, so I need to go work on that now. It’s all just been rattling around in my head, so I felt like I needed to put it to paper. If you’ve made it this far, congratulations! Do you want to write my federal courts paper for me, too?