Monday, April 21, 2008

I Was Shocked at My Impulse

This great column by Aundre Herron appeared in Sunday's Sacremento Bee:

I am no stranger to murder. Not that I have ever killed anyone, but I have lost several members of my family to homicide. What makes me different from most people who share my experience is that I have worked as a lawyer on both sides of the criminal justice system.

I began my career as a district attorney. I filed criminal charges that made defendants eligible for execution and, through trials or pleas, put people in jail for everything from bad checks to murder. I was just doing my job, almost oblivious to the gravity of the role I played. In 1991, I went to "the other side" and began doing appeals for California prisoners sentenced to death, fighting against the very system I once served. But nothing prepared me for the challenge I soon had to face in my own life.

In 1994, three years into my work on behalf of people sentenced to die for murder, my brother, Danny "Deuce," was killed in Kansas City, Mo. He was a decorated Vietnam veteran who, after the war, found employment as a redcap at Amtrak. Eventually, he worked his way up to engineer and commanded the route from Chicago to Los Angeles. I couldn't believe my big brother actually "drove" the train. He was an amazing guy and a fantastic big brother. His murder was a devastating blow to my family and to everyone who knew him.

Even though I was working as a death penalty defense lawyer at the time, I was shocked at my impulse to hunt down and kill the perpetrators myself. Eventually, they were caught, but legal technicalities led to dismissal of the case. The cold, cruel reality I had to face was that no one was going to be held responsible for my brother's murder. But even if the case could have gone forward, nothing could replace what my family had lost. Nothing – not the death penalty, not the worse punishment I could imagine for his killers – would ever bring him back. There was no "closure" to be had.

Having served on both sides of the criminal justice system, the experience of losing my brother in this unforgettably tragic way, without recourse or retribution, forced me to re-examine the way "execution" and "closure" are joined in contrived alliance, recited by death penalty advocates to justify their point of view. But having survived my brother's murder without the "benefit" of the death penalty, it is clear to me that the death penalty cannot do what its proponents claim.

Read the rest of the piece here.

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