The state of Arkansas is planning on killing eight men soon, one right after the other, in 11 days. They are doing this to punish them for having killed people. The Observer used to be very much a capital punishment believer. But then, we sat through a death penalty trial, start to finish: the trial of Curtis Lavelle Vance, for the October 2008 rape and homicide of KATV, Channel 7 anchor Anne Pressly.
Homicide is the cleanest of words you could call that crime. Murder is somewhat better. Slaughter is closest. The Observer, who still turns over the horrendous details in the wee hours, will not linger over them here, except to say that sitting through that trial exposed Yours Truly to the clearest evidence yet that, if reduced to our worst and greediest impulses, human beings can absolutely be no better than a tiger or crocodile — some beast crouching in shadow, waiting for a moment of inattention or vulnerability. The Observer, who drinks occasionally and only uses The Hard Stuff medicinally, downed two full fifth bottles of good bourbon over the course of that trial, one brimming tumbler at a time, deep down in the night.
If anyone deserved the death penalty, it was surely Curtis Vance. But the thing that flipped our switch was this: Over the course of that long trial, we saw the prosecutors and defense attorneys honorably going about their jobs, and the judge, and the bailiffs, and the court reporter. We saw the jurors filing in and out of their box, listening attentively, taking notes. We saw the other reporters, doing their bit for the First Amendment. We saw the wood-paneled courtroom and the state seal, the flags of state and country. We heard the clack of the gavel and the "all rise," and rose, and we sat when told to. And what The Observer realized over those horrible, exhausting weeks — what managed to flip our switch on capital punishment — is the most obvious: That the reason the court system exists — all the "may I approach" and flowing robes, the careful transcription and gavel clack — is to try to drain the passion and anger out of some of the most passionate, angry things human beings can get up to. Theft. Rape. Assault. Creeping by night into the house of a sleeping woman, seeing her there and allowing the ancient and animalistic part of you to hold sway instead of empathy and love for another human being.
Left to its own devices, what family wouldn't seize that man by torchlight? What parents wouldn't tear him limb from limb, alive and screaming? But if our society were to allow that, it would stain us all. And so we give him to the prosecutors, jurors and judges in stately robes, appoint him an attorney and read him his rights. We do all this to remove from bloody doings the rage that could make us no better than him, or the rough beasts from which we seek to set ourselves apart.
But then, after those weeks of trial, after all that care, after all that pomp and ceremony, the slow fitting together of a puzzle that shows the face of Lady Justice unshadowed by doubt, after our society had proven yet again that we are no bloodthirsty mob bristling with pitchforks and torches, the state turned around and proposed to do to Curtis Vance the most mob-like thing imaginable, which is to say: Now that we have proven we are more than vigilantes bent on drowning our rage in moonlit blood, we will kill him.
Vance was not sentenced to death. Instead, he rots in prison for the rest of his life, where he should be. The Observer's mind changed on the death penalty the exact moment when the prosecutors, whom we'd seen do their jobs with so much resolve and honor, pivoted away from the search for truth and justice untainted by rage and asked the jury to exact an eye-for-an-eye revenge.
You don't have to agree. Different strokes for different folks and all. But doesn't that all seem a little absurd to you, my friend?