I’ve been absent from this blog for a while, feeling frankly too hopeless about the political situation to pick up on my usual themes and too busy reading for pay as a professional reviewer to have much time to explore other ideas. But I have been thinking about something that I’d like to begin exploring on this blog, just setting aside the question of whether it can ever become a more generally salient idea for discussion elsewhere, let alone a movement for radical change. In a word: I’d like to propose a radical rethinking of justice, crime and punishment.
One of the books I read for pay this summer is Damien Echols’ memoir Life After Death, which is due to be published in about a month. You may recall that about a year ago, Echols was released from a death sentence he was serving for the bizarre murders of three boys in West Memphis, Arkansas, in the early 1990s. He was convicted, in court and in the media, as the supposed ringleader of a trio of satanist teens who had killed the boys as part of an unholy ritual. At the time, I was working at (of all crazy places to work) True Detective magazine, for which the story of the “West Memphis Three” was tailor-made–except for the fact that the police work behind Echols and company’s arrest was notoriously thin. The state’s case was based primarily on a confession from one of Echols’ co-defendants, who had tried to recant it. Virtually all of the rest of the evidence was circumstantial, focused on the boys’ appearance (gothic), taste in music (thrash metal, mostly), and behavior toward authority figures (understandably hostile).
I don’t pretend that I had any deep interest in Echols’ case, or feeling for his innocence or guilt at the time, beyond what our writers at True Detective had written about it. But it was a memorable case for me, somehow, whether because I have ties to Arkansas through my brother’s marriage or, more likely, because the crime was so disturbing and the defendants, particularly Echols, so striking looking. After moving on from the true crime field, I was unaware that HBO had done a series about the case called Paradise Lost, and that that series had helped launch a mission, soon joined by stars like Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder and Henry Rollins, to free Damien and his co-convicts. I was surprised and fascinated when the case came back into the national spotlight.
Needless to say, I was thrilled when my editor assigned Damien’s book to me, knowing it would make for a fascinating read. I was not disappointed. At all. I should say that Life After Death is an extraordinary book about an extraordinary ordeal, very affectingly told, beautifully written in places. Definitely something to put on your reading list if you care about books and literature.
More than that, it’s essential reading if you care about the state of justice in the U.S. It brings front and center the ugly fact that we don’t have a justice system worthy of the name here. We have a punishment system. And gods help you if you’re innocent but the system marks you for punishment anyway because you will be treated just as horrifically, whether you deserve to be so treated or not. And let’s be clear–it’s not just the “bad guys” who make prisons hell; it’s just as much the doing of the “good guys” we hire to run them. The same can be said of the justice system generally: the system is designed to corrupt the souls (morals, values, humanity) of the people who come in contact with it, no matter which side they’re on.
I think every American instinctively knows how awful our prisons are, and this knowledge supposedly justifies the whole system by acting as a deterrent on criminal behavior. But this knowledge also implicates us in the evil our justice system does, whether we approve of it or not. And I would argue that those who believe the “occasional” wrong man in the system does not detract from its essential soundness as a conduit for justice should really scrutinize their beliefs: How is deprivation of liberty, because a person is found guilty of a crime under our conventions of determining guilt, actually a form of justice? How is the handing over of justice to the segregated (and distorted) society of inmates and rudely trained guards not actually the greater society’s avoidance of justice?
I’ll return to this question and an alternative approach in an upcoming post.
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In 2016 there were 15.000 American murders: of those 15.000 some 10.000 were cleared, and of that 10.000 more than 5.000 were death penalty eligible: but death sentences were less than 50, and only 5 of those 50 condemned will be, in 10, 20, 30 years actually killed. In the same year we had 400.