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Bloody Amarillo

It's as though only blood will satisfy Texans. They seem to be largely outraged at the Supreme Court's recent decision regarding the execution of minors. From Morning Edition this morning [RealAudio], I heard again and again that these convicted murderers are somehow not being punished because they won't be executed.

As though they're getting let out of jail, instead of having their sentences commuted to life in prison. Justin Wiley Dickens, convicted of murduring a man in an Amarillo pawn shop robbery when he was 17, is puzzled by the outrage at the ruling. "This is hell. It really is. I can't understand the outrage of them saying we don't be executed, we're just goin' to another life of hell. They ain't never gonna let any of us out. Life sentence means a life sentence. And I pray for Jim Jacobs and Francis Carter's families, I just live every day with regret, I really do. Just tell them I'm sorry. If you would."

Justin Wiley Dickens's case is an interesting illustration of this bloodthirstiness: The shooting happened during a struggle over the weapon, under circumstances where it's unclear that Dickens engaged in any meaningful premedidation. In other states, this might have been second-degree murder, or even manslaughter.

But not in Amarillo, because in Amarillo, the District Attorney knows what's in the criminal's heart: "I got to know Justin Wiley Dickens very well, in that trial", says Amarillo DA James Farron. "If you have something he wants, and he has to kill you to get it, he'll kill you in a heartbeat, I assure you. You, me, anybody else." That's not a particularly Texan attitude for a DA, of course, but it is a particularly DA attitude. Criminal DAs generally take the line (at least publicly) that everyone they've ever prosecuted was guilty, regardless of the verdict (or the evidence, for that matter).

(For what it's worth, Amarillo attorney and adult death penalty supporter Russ Bailey, who was assigned to defend Dickens, disagrees strongly with Farron's assessment: "Justin in my opinion did not have the requisite intent. He was not an adult for any purpose in my opinion at that time. He was a nice kid....Most of these kids don't have any control over their lives. Justin didn't have any. He never stood a chance. And to throw away a life before they've even tried to live their own is a real tough thing to accept. It was for me for Justin. ")

People can be great at missing the point, though, especially when it's in their interest to do so. Farron, for example, sees the Surpreme Court ruling as a statement that "all 17 year olds" are decision-impaired: "It is simplistic and sophomoric to suggest that we can draw a line in the sand and announce that everyvbody younger than this many days is immature, unable to make decisions the same way that you and I do -- is that true of some 17 year olds? Absolutely. Is it true of most 17 year olds? Probably. Is it true of all 17 year olds? Absolutely not." Farron, for his part, seems to think that "it's true" of at least a third of 17 year olds: one third of Farron's own death row convictions are under 18.

Of course, it's simplistic and sophistic (and most likely Frankfurtian bullshit, to boot) for Farron to suggest that's what the Supreme Court ruling was meant to establish. As legal language goes, the decision is really quite plainly worded; if Farron really believes that's what they meant, he should be disbarred for incompetence. To quote Justice Kennedy's opinion [pdf]:

.... An unacceptable likelihood exists that the brutality or cold-blooded nature of any particular crime would overpower mitigating arguments based on youth as a matter of course, even where the juvenile offenderâ??s objective immaturity, vulnerability, and lack of true depravity should require a sentence less severe than death. When a juvenile commits a heinous crime, the State can exact forfeiture of some of the most basic liberties, but the State cannot extinguish his life and his potential to attain a mature understanding of his own humanity. While drawing the line at 18 is subject to the objections always raised against categorical rules, that is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood and the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest. ....

Which means that yes, they understand 18 years (or 6574 days, if DA Farron prefers) is an arbitrary cut-off date; but then, arbitration is their job. Part of that job means that they have to act, sometimes, when the demagoguery of some local politicians, or the particular popularity of some victim (as in the case of Justin Dickens) exacerbates local bloodlust.

Put another way, the point of the ruling was that elected or politically-appointed operatives like Farron ought not be trusted to turn American civil society into a cruel myth, ever-invoked but seldom obtained to. We've already let federal demagogues do that with anti-terror statutes that effectively permit the abrogation of basic constitutional rights to free speech, habeus corpus, and freedom of association.

Comments

Testing and neurological findings for adolescents support the Supreme Court decision.

I wonder what kind of research might be expanded for some adult â??demagogues,â? regarding testing for a type of â??sophistic, ignorant exegesis of evidenceâ?? syndrome.

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