Thursday, November 20, 2008

Suicide by court

The New York Times' version of this Associated Press article has an ominous URL:
The article itself never uses the phrase "suicide by court," or even the word "suicide." But that's what it's about: death-row inmates in the United States who choose not to contest the death penalty, thus passively committing suicide.

How often has this happened? 131 times since we reinstated the death penalty in 1977. That's 12% of defendants who've been sentenced to death. The most recent such inmate is going to be executed tomorrow.

The article focuses on the ethical anguish of the lawyers:
Attorneys are required to follow the client's wishes or have themselves removed from the case, said Michael Mello, a Vermont Law School professor who teaches ethics and death penalty law.

''Their hands are pretty well tied,'' Mello said. ''These are the cases that haunt you. This is the most hideous of cases.''

That's how Gus Cahill felt when his client, Keith Eugene Wells, told him he wanted to die. Wells was convicted of beating a couple to death in 1990 in Idaho. He went through the mandatory appeals, then decided to waive any remaining legal options and was lethally injected in 1994.

''I really liked Keith,'' said Cahill, a public defender in Boise. ''You're just thinking, 'Oh, my God, I feel so sorry for being part of what Keith wanted to do.'''
It's understandable, of course, that anyone would feel queasy about being helpless to save a human being from death.

But shouldn't this also cheer up criminal defense lawyers, or anyone who's morally opposed to the death penalty?

Dogmatic opposition to the death penalty would seem to only make sense if execution is -- at least for the person executed -- a really bad thing. Not just garden-variety "bad," but truly awful.

Doesn't the fact that 12% of people who receive death sentences actively prevent their lawyers from fighting it suggest that it's not so awful?


Ann Althouse said...

"Suicide by cop" is a common expression.

I see that some other articles about this case use the phrase "suicide by court."

Many murderers kill themselves before they can be apprehended, and I think the concern is that if we do want to punish them, we shouldn't give them what they want. In that case, it's not a question of how bad death is. If it's not so bad, that should be an argument against the death penalty.

The main thing here that would "cheer me up" is that some murderers accept that they deserve the punishment they were given.

John Althouse Cohen said...

If it's not so bad, that should be an argument against the death penalty.

I have a response to this but no time to write it up now. Stay tuned for a future post on this point!