How the death penalty really works

Feb 2, 2007 3:48pm

Death-penalty trials are intense. The ideal of our justice system–that impartial jurors will be presented facts by skilled advocates under civilized rules of evidence and come to a reasoned judgment–is put to a searing test. A capital case (and I’ve covered many in my career) is a visceral struggle, a matter of blood and sorrow, fear and pity, rage and mercy. I’ve felt at times covering death-penalty trials that I’m witnessing something that reaches deep into the human past, long before our country was imagined. Something almost tribal, something even pre-rational.

I say this not to make a point either for or against the death penalty. I am merely trying to describe what in my experience as a reporter really happens in a courtroom where a life is at stake, because another life has been savagely taken. As the debate over capital punishment continues in America, it is worth taking a steady look at how this thing really works, at the deep emotions unleashed in death penalty cases, and what they mean for the operation of our justice system.

Billy Slagle killed Mari Anne Pope. There is no doubt about that. It happened in 1987–almost twenty years ago now–in the pre-dawn hours of a summer morning in West Cleveland. Slagle, 19, wanted money for his next day’s drinking. He was stoned on marijuana. Mari Anne Pope was babysitting a neighbor’s two children, and when Slagle broke in to the house, she and the children awakened. The little ones escaped, but not before seeing Slagle on top of Mari Anne Pope in her bedroom. She was praying, her rosary in hand. Billy Slagle stabbed her 17 times with a sewing scissors. He was arrested on the scene, covered in blood, and confessed. Mari Anne Pope died a few hours later. Her broken rosary was found on the floor, a few feet from her bed.

Mari Anne Pope was one of 20,096 people murdered in the United States in 1987. By any reckoning, her killing was vicious. Billy Slagle was tried, convicted, and condemned to death. The question the courts have now been grappling with for two decades is: Was the jury’s decision to put Billy Slagle to death reached in a manner consistent with our ideals of justice? Was it a reasoned judgment or a gut reaction? Was it a verdict under law or a paroxysm of emotion?

Today, the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected Slagle’s appeal for another hearing in his case. You can read the court’s order by clicking here. You can read the court’s original decision in the case by clicking here.

The issue that has bedeviled this case for twenty years is the conduct of the prosecutor. It was a high-profile trial; the community was shocked by the crime, many people justifiably seething with anger. The state was seeking the death penalty, and the prosecutor was determined to secure it.

During the course of the trial, the prosecutor told jurors that Slagle (an American Indian) "…and his kind…represent some of the greatest threats against community and civilization as we know it;" that Slagle "had crawled out of a hole;’" that Slagle (who took the stand) "had the nerve to tell you "I pray, I pray;’" that Mari Anne Pope "was ready to meet God, and Billy was ready to send her to meet Him;" and that Slagle "has no conscience" and his life "has been one big lie." When Slagle was on the witness stand, the prosecutor asked him, "You don’t like prayers, do you Billy?"

So far, our courts have decided that the prosecutor’s conduct in this trial was either proper under the law, or that it did not affect the case in any serious way. This may be just; it may be unjust. I take no position here.

But what I want to draw your attention to is the issue of raw, primal emotion in the case–and in our system. The reason we have jury trials and not blood feuds or vendettas is that we believe a group of citizens, fairly informed, can reach a reasoned judgment about what happened in a case, and what should be done about it. It might not be a perfect system, but it is a noble one. That hope defines us. It separates us from gangs, savages and lynch mobs. It is a very great ideal.

It is an ideal that is very hard–perhaps impossible–to see at work in a death-penalty case like Billy Slagle’s, or in many others. Instead, we have a crying contest, a competition to see which side can break the jurors’ hearts harder–either the prosecution with its portrayal of Mari Anne Pope as a devout Christian killed with bloodthirsty fury, or the defense and its portrayal of Slagle as an abused, alcoholic teenager. Why should those issues–and the emotions they trigger–matter? Would the case have turned out differently if Mari Anne Pope had been a drug addict? A hooker? Slagle’s girlfriend? Would there have been a different verdict if Slagle had been a devout Christian struggling with alcohol addiction? If he’d shot her instead of knifed her?

We are beyond the realm of reason here, it seems to me. We are dealing with our most primitive emotions–fear, rage, pity, hatred, sorrow. But this is how the death penalty really works–the only way it could really work, given the stakes involved.

Do you think such a system is just?

You are using an outdated version of Internet Explorer. Please click here to upgrade your browser in order to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus