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The switch

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The Observer got out recently to talk to a few folks who have worked against the death penalty in Arkansas for years, the results of which you can read in this issue. Our own feelings on the idea of society putting people to death as punishment has always been mixed, and are mixed still, though clearer than they have been in the past.

The Observer really had our switch flipped some years back when we went down to the courthouse to cover a death penalty-eligible trial. It was a terrible crime, as befitting the charge. A genuinely horrible murder. A terrible scene. A victim not just liked, but beloved by all who knew that person. Days upon days of experts on the stand, soberly delving into the way one human body was defiled. The Observer, who only sips medicinally from the hooch bottle on top of the fridge under normal circumstances, managed to polish off two full fifths of bourbon during the course of that trial. The grief and horror took a real toll, and all Yours Truly was doing was scribbling in a notebook about a person we'd never met.

You learn things sitting through a death penalty trial; things about society, about human nature, about yourself. One thing you realize is what we told several people at the time: If justice were left up to the family members of victims, most every trial for murder, rape, child molestation or aggravated assault would likely end in a drawing and quartering via four John Deere tractors on the courthouse lawn. If someone hurt a person The Observer loves, and we had our way, it surely would.

Another thing you learn, though, is that the American judicial system is really set up to stand in the doorway between truth and rage. It does that by seeking to drain the emotion out of some of the most emotional stuff we get up to as human beings: the 100 million ways we can wrong or hurt one another, and the way we as the wronged react.

Sitting there, day after day, scribbling, listening to learned attorneys argue for and against using taxpayer funded needles and drugs to send a man into Whatever Lies Beyond, The Observer realized something else: that what all the wood-paneled courtrooms and "May I Approach?" and Your Honoring are about is our desire, as people who want true justice, to take the search for truth out of the hands of those too impassioned to see it. We do that because the devil is always whispering in our ears, telling us to give in to hate — to pick up our torches and pitchforks and follow the blackest depths of our flawed hearts. Every courthouse is a temple to the idea that we can be better than that.

But then, at the end of all that pomp and circumstance, all that care and order, all that careful tamping down of the ember of rage so the truth can be seen and reached, we're going to then turn around and do the most moblike thing we can do, which is to say: We will kill this person because he has killed? We will kill, to show people that killing isn't right? Where is the good sense in that?

The defendant in the case Yours Truly Observed was eventually sentenced to life without the possibility of parole, cuffed and trundled off to the prison, to walk free no more, as he deserved. But for a period of time, the question of whether he would live or die was in the hands of 12 people. Not judges. Not learned scholars or great legal minds. Just 12 plain ol' people like you and me, dragged in by a letter sent through the U.S. Postal Service.

Standing on the dark corner of Spring and Markham streets, waiting for Spouse to come collect our weary bones and shuttle Her Man to our little house where two empty bottles clinked together in the recycle bin, The Observer couldn't help but think: Is that too much to ask of people? Is it right to do all this work to drain the anger out of a thing, only to press unlit torches into 12 ordinary people's hands at the last possible moment — the moment when there is so much at stake, for them and for all of us?

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