Joanna Schroeder attempts to examine the death penalty objectively, despite the visceral and powerful desire to exact revenge against child sexual abusers.
TRIGGER WARNING for sexual abuse
Mark Ellis’ article Death Penalty Now is an interesting study in human nature.
If you spend any time reading the news online, as I do for this job, you will come across stories of abuse, rape, incest, neglect and torture that will simply ruin you if you let them too deep inside. Sometimes it’s the specifics that get you, such as the exact steps an abuser took in order to ease a child into their abuse, or the horrific details of what exists within the child pornography community (it truly is a community, with a huge network of users taking and sharing photographs).
And sometimes it’s just a single mental snapshot from a story that stays with you. For me, I crouched next to the toilet and dry heaved after reading the testimony of a person who saw two pairs of legs in the shower in the locker room: a child’s and a man’s hairy legs. That witness realized that it was Jerry Sandusky, and did not call the police.
I thought of my own children… I think of my own children now, and my eyes fill with water and my throat closes off. I want to kill Jerry Sandusky. I want him dead. If I were in a room alone with him with a gun, I think I could kill him. I bet many of you feel the same way.
Fortunately, I will never be alone in a room with Jerry Sandusky. And possibly I would change my mind when faced with a choice that should never belong to an individual.
I suspect Mark Ellis is working upon two human instincts in Death Penalty Now. The first is similar to mine: it’s visceral, it’s animal, it’s fueled by rage and disgust and vengeance. The second is logical. In the Oregon case Ellis cites, a man murdered a boy in a fast-food restaurant bathroom. The man was convicted, and imprisoned, for child sexual abuse before he cornered that poor child in the bathroom and he was let go. This is a failure of our criminal justice system that cost a boy his
life innocence*. My stomach is churning as I write this, my eyes are filling. My thought is, of course, my boys. My sweet boys. And of the mother who thinks the same of her son.
If that man—that animal whom I cannot even convince myself is human—had been put to death after his first conviction for sexual abuse, that child in Oregon would not have had to experience that. That is simple logic. It is the very sound logic upon which Mark Ellis’ piece is founded.
A few months ago I came upon the story of a Texas father, whose name is being withheld to protect his daughter, who beat to death the man whom he found raping his 4 year-old daughter.
I read the story, both nauseous and intrigued, and found out everything I could about the case. Then I was silent for about 15 hours. All I could think about was the case, yet I never wrote about it, even though I knew it would get a lot of attention here on The Good Men Project. I simply couldn’t deal with how I felt.
The Texas father had a horse-shoeing at his home, attended by a man no one knew well, Jesus Mora Flores (some articles reference Flores as “Jose”). When the father heard his 4 year old scream, he ran behind a building to find Flores raping the girl. The father pulled Flores off his child and beat him. The man lay unconscious and the family was trying to revive Flores when the Texas father called 911.
There is nobody I know who wouldn’t do what the Texas father did. My husband, the most sensitive and kind man on the planet who cried while watching a baby cow being born, probably would have pounded Flores into the ground if that were our child. If I believed I had the physical strength, I would have too. I would do anything to protect my children, or any child for that matter.
Flores died, despite efforts to save him. At the hospital, physical evidence proved the abuse Flores had inflicted upon the child. What was left was a decision of the courts on whether to charge the Texas father with a crime. Finally, the Lavaca County grand jury announced that it would not return an indictment. CNN quotes a spokesperson:
The substantial amount of evidence showed that the witness statements and the father’s statement and what the father had observed was in fact what had happened that day,” Lavaca County District Attorney Heather McMinn told reporters.
“Thank God,” I said aloud as I read the update. My kids asked what I was reading and I told a little fib about how I had read that someone I was worried about would be just fine.
Fact is, that little girl isn’t “just fine”, but we can hope she will be someday. She clearly has a loving, supportive family and that is the first step in helping her heal. And that is what strikes us about sexual abuse—sexual assault against anyone for that matter—the ravaging effects the abuse often has upon the survivor.
And as we know, there is a lot of evidence that the majority of sexual abusers were at one time abused. It is a disease that spreads, it is contagious. And Mark Ellis is right in saying that there needs to be swift and final action taken against sexual abusers.
But the Death Penalty, despite the visceral satisfaction of knowing that someone who hurt a child is off the streets, is too rife with bias and imperfection to be relied upon to “cull the heard” without damaging our society as a whole. We can only rarely know beyond a shadow of a doubt that someone is guilty.
There have been 292 post-conviction DNA exonerations in the US since 1989. The Innocence Project breaks down how these wrongful convictions happen, with 72% based primarily upon wrongful eyewitness identification. Humans are fallible. We know this.
Beyond false convictions, there is a strong racial bias to who is executed in this country. Amnesty International released a report on the Death Penalty in the United States that says this:
Even though blacks and whites are murder victims in nearly equal numbers of crimes, 80% of people executed since the death penalty was reinstated have been executed for murders involving white victims.
More than 20% of black defendants who have been executed were convicted by all-white juries.
“Race and the Death Penalty in North Carolina An Empirical Analysis: 1993-1997” This study, the most comprehensive ever conducted on the death penalty in North Carolina, was released by researchers from the University of North Carolina. The study, based on data collected from court records of 502 murder cases from 1993 to 1997, found that race plays a significant role in who gets the death penalty. Prof. Jack Boger and Dr. Isaac Unah of the University of North Carolina found that defendants whose victims are white are 3.5 times more likely to be sentenced to death than those with non-white victims. “The odds are supposed to be zero that race plays a role,” said Dr. Unah. “No matter how the data was analyzed, the race of the victim always emerged as an important factor in who received the death penalty.” The study’s findings will be presented to the North Carolina General Assembly which is currently considering moratorium bills in both the House and Senate. (Associated Press, 4/16/01 and Common Sense Foundation Press Release, 4/16/01) Read DPIC’s Press Advisory.”
The crucial line in the above paragraph is this: “The odds are supposed to be zero that race plays a role…No matter how the data was analyzed, the race of the victim always emerged as an important factor in who received the death penalty.”
Race also plays a role depending upon who is the defendant. Amnesty International explains:
“From initial charging decisions to plea bargaining to jury sentencing, African-Americans are treated more harshly when they are defendants, and their lives are accorded less value when they are victims. All-white or virtually all-white juries are still commonplace in many localities.
- A report sponsored by the American Bar Association in 2007 concluded that one-third of African-American death row inmates in Philadelphia would have received sentences of life imprisonment if they had not been African-American.
- A January 2003 study released by the University of Maryland concluded that race and geography are major factors in death penalty decisions. Specifically, prosecutors are more likely to seek a death sentence when the race of the victim is white and are less likely to seek a death sentence when the victim is African-American.
- A 2007 study of death sentences in Connecticut conducted by Yale University School of Law revealed that African-American defendants receive the death penalty at three times the rate of white defendants in cases where the victims are white. In addition, killers of white victims are treated more severely than people who kill minorities, when it comes to deciding what charges to bring.
And so I must reason with myself, my brain against my heart, that the Death Penalty is not the answer. As much as I believe that I could kill Jerry Sandusky with my bare hands, the institution of the Death Penalty is simply too biased, too faulted, ultimately too human to be the answer.
That isn’t to say that I don’t support the Texas father who killed his daughter’s attacker. I do support him, and without shame. I cannot help but think to myself how much better off the world is without Jesus Mora Flores in it. And that is what makes me feel sick in the end.
Because I am not one to revel in another’s death, no matter who they are. My pleasure at the pain Flores suffered at the hands of the Texas father is a visceral, vengeful, mama-bear emotion of which I am not proud. Even the Texas father, on his call to 911, was hoping someone could help Flores.
Taking another’s life is not simple. The emotional fallout for the Texas father is likely not just over the crime that was committed against his daughter. And legislating to kill people in the name of the United States—in all of our names—is significantly more complicated.
As much as I believe Mark Ellis’ heart is in the right place, and that he is echoing something we all feel on some level, racism is alive and well in this country, and until we find a more effective and unbiased means of determining people’s guilt and assigning just sentences, we cannot—as a society—put people to death.
The solution to ending child abuse lies elsewhere. In a more holistic approach: more effective convictions, in finding rehabilitation that actually works for abusers, in effectively supporting our survivors—both male and female equally, in intervening when people show the earliest signs of sexual aggression and finding sufficient preventative therapies, in preventing prison rape, in teaching our children bodily autonomy and giving them the tools and language needed to help protect themselves when possible (though we know that it is not always possible), and in listening to and supporting victims the moment suspicion arises.
Still, there are no guarantees. And that is the scariest thing of all.
What do you think of the Death Penalty for child abusers? Could it ever be unbiased? Could it serve as a deterrent to other abusers?
In what other ways can we, as a society, help put an end to the rampant sexual abuse that is harming our children, and our society as a whole?
*Update: a commenter was able to clear up confusion over whether the boy Mark Ellis was referring to had survived, and fortunately he did.
Read Mark Ellis’ “Death Penalty Now“
Image of an empty chair in a dark room courtesy of Shutterstock