Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Most Vexing Questions

Yesterday's Houston Home Journal has an interesting piece by Jim Rockefeller, former Houston County Chief Assistant District Attorney and former Miami Prosecutor. I particularly noted this section:

When I was a prosecutor, I understood that not every murder was a death penalty case. The death penalty was reserved for the particularly brutal psychopaths. Personally, I was involved in three cases where I considered recommending the death penalty be pursued.

In one case, the detective and I are still dedicated to ensuring the killer remains locked up, so there is not another innocent victim – we both firmly believe if this killer is released, she will kill again.

Yet, in none of these cases did I recommend the death penalty. In one of these cases, the victim’s family clearly did not want the death penalty. In the other cases, I carefully explained to the family the costs and the interminable wait for justice. They agreed that the death penalty should not be sought.

Had the families not simplified my decision, I’m not sure what I would have decided to do. Did I want to saddle the county with a multi-million dollar legal tab for a death penalty case? Is the death penalty an appropriate legal remedy? Where is the line drawn between the extraordinary “death” case and the lesser alternative?

These questions are among the most vexing a prosecutor can face ...

It's notable, I think, that in a piece about tough questions and about the difficulty of deciding to pursue the death penalty in any given case, this prosecutor specifically mentions thinking about the victims' families -- but not in the ways that prosecutors are typically assumed to think about victims' families. Instead, this prosecutor not only took the wishes of a clearly anti-death penalty family into account, but also invited two other victims' families to consider the death penalty's costs (not just in the monetary sense) -- and all agreed that it wasn't worth pursuing.

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