Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A change of heart

"It's the most premeditated form of murder you can possibly imagine and it stays in your psyche for ever." -- Dr. Allen Ault, former Georgia corrections commissioner
Dr. Allen Ault was a psychologist for the Georgia Department of Corrections. He was later handed a promotion and named the warden at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Center - the prison that housed the electric chair. As warden his job was to oversee the execution, or as he put it, the murder, of inmates.

He is now an advocate for the abolition of the death penalty.

He is also still coming to grips with the consequences of what he used to do for a living.
"Kill somebody white and you're three times more likely to get the death penalty than if you kill a black person." -- Dr. Ault
The death penalty is not a deterrent. It never has been and it never will be. It exists in its current form to prevent lynchings and to satisfy our society's bloodlust.

For generations the white power structure in the South used lynching as a means of exacting control over blacks. It was used as tool of intimidation and its purpose was to ensure white dominance in the governance of the old confederacy.

It is still used today as a tool of intimidation and control. The South has evolved into a region in which African-Americans are challenging the old establishment for control of the government.The white political establishment is scared of losing their grip on power and will use any means at its disposal to hold on.

The rash of voter ID laws across the country is just another embodiment of this. The people least likely to be affected by having to show a government-issued photo ID in order to vote are affluent whites. The explicit purpose of such laws is to make it harder for the poor and minorities to exercise their constitutional right to vote.

The death penalty is meted out disproportionately to black defendants. It is far more likely to be meted out when the victim of the crime is white. It is nothing short of legal lynching.

In Texas we use an absurd standard to determine who the state is going to strap down and kill. We ask a jury who has just convicted a defendant to decide whether it's more likely than not that he will be a danger in the future. Furthermore, the jurors who are asked that question are the ones who weren't struck because of their opposition to the death penalty.

So we put twelve people in a box who are already predisposed to order death and then, after they have convicted the defendant, we ask them to decide whether they believe, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant is likely to commit future violent acts.
Burger spent 17 years on death row. Dr Ault saw him change. The troubled youth got an education, his brain developed and matured. 
Yes, he was guilty of a terrible crime. He was also desperately contrite.
When Dr Ault described Burger's execution to me, his words were powerful, the agonised silences even more so. Two decades have done little to ease Dr Ault's burden of remorse and guilt.
"His last words to me were, 'Please forgive me'. 
"I could see the jolt of electricity running through his body. It snapped his head back and then there was just total silence... and I knew I had killed another human being."
The only correct answer to the question is "who knows?" Who knows what's going to happen to that person once they have been sent off to prison? Will they obtain an education? Will they mature? Will they express remorse for their acts? There aren't many of us who know how much prison can change a person. Yet we allow the state to murder an inmate based on nothing more than supposition, prejudice and bias.

And we call this justice?

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