Monday, April 6, 2009

Each and every one of us

The New York bureau of The Mainichi Newspapers, Japan's oldest news organization, has been running a series on the death penalty; we posted an article featuring MVFHR member Aba Gayle a few weeks ago. Here's another story in the series, this time an opinion piece in the March 22 Mainichi Daily News:

Since I arrived in New York two years ago and began reporting continuously on the issue of the death penalty, I have asked myself every day what I ought to think about the state taking human lives.

With the start of the lay judge system in Japan this May, regular citizens will have to confront the death penalty directly, which I think is a chance for us to begin thinking about the death penalty as our problem. In Japan, however, there is a dearth of information citizens need to engage in such discussions. Is not the death penalty an issue concerning the public, and not solely the Ministry of Justice?

I recently went to Dallas, Texas, to visit Kerry Cook, a former death row inmate with a broad, easy smile that showed his gentle nature.

In 1977, Cook was arrested, convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of a 21-year-old woman he did not commit. It wasn't until 1997 that the dubious nature of the investigation was recognized and Cook's innocence proven beyond a doubt by DNA evidence, by which time Cook had already spent 20 years on death row. In those 20 years, Cook saw 141 of his fellow inmates head to the execution chamber. It was a trip that Cook, too, faced, as his execution date was set in May 1988. Cook was only spared, and given time for his innocence to emerge, when the U.S. Supreme Court ordered a deferment just 11 days before he was to be executed.

Cook's own impending death was not the only one on his mind in those days before his scheduled execution, for his elder brother had been murdered in 1987. The shock of losing his brother was so great that Cook tried to commit suicide in prison twice.

Although Cook well knows the pain of a victim's family, he is firmly against the death penalty, "because there remains a possibility of killing innocent people like me, even if a trial proceeds cautiously. My brother was shot to death, but I am still opposed to the murderer being killed in prison," he says.

A 12-member jury handed down Cook's death sentence by a unanimous vote. During a retrial in 1994, the jury affirmed that he deserved to die. Why did two juries, which should have felt the common bonds of citizenship with Cook, make such a mistake?

"In an American courtroom the prosecutor and the judge control the trial," explains Cook. "The jury is not left with any doubt about the accusation as it comes from the prosecutor. And the jury may not have enough information to form their own questions."

Cook believes the essential problem with the death penalty is that regular citizens are out of touch with the issue. People just don't know about the lives of death row inmates, what they think about as they count out their final days, or how a person can be "murdered by the state."

"I didn't understand anything about the death penalty before being arrested," says Cook. "If someone had asked me then, I would have said, yes, the suspect committed a murder, so they deserve the death penalty."

A trend of increasingly harsh penalties based simply on the rationale that "the person did something bad," couldn't have been the original goal of citizen participation in criminal trials.

Regarding the disclosure of information about executions, the United States is far ahead of Japan. At present, 36 of the 50 American states have death penalty statutes on the books. By law, the execution date must be set 30 days or more before the actual deed, and that date is released to the public. It's possible to find execution dates on the Internet, and even meet the condemned prisoner, should he or she approve. In Missouri, such meetings are kept private, with no prison guards or officials present.

As a basic rule, both the families of the prisoners and their victims are allowed to attend executions, and the admission of journalists is also common. The state of Oklahoma even encourages journalists to come to executions. Coverage is so thorough as to include a detailed menu of the condemned's last meal, while just before the execution is carried out the prisoner is always asked for his or her final words. So as to make sure these are heard, a microphone is directed at the prisoner.

It appears that in the United States, no effort is spared in ensuring transparency and the absolute elimination of doubt, so as to enforce the death sentence "properly."

The situation in Japan is very different indeed. Meetings with death row inmates are severely restricted, the families of both the victims and the condemned are not informed of the execution date, and of course cannot attend. What death row inmates think, how they live and how they die we do not know. In the end, is it right for citizens with no real knowledge of the death penalty to hand down such sentences?

While doing research for the Mainichi's February series on the death penalty in Japan and the United States, the words of one woman I met in Oregon stuck in my mind. Aba Gayle, 72, who has forgiven and even now lends moral support to her daughter's murderer, said she believes the Japanese are committing murder by continuing the death penalty. Neither the government nor the minister of justice, nor even the executioner is taking the lives of Japan's condemned. Each and every one of us is doing the killing.

After Kerry Cook was released he got married and had a son, naming him Kerry Justice Cook, as he wanted to believe in justice again. However, his anguish continues. Cook was recently forced to transfer his son to a new school, as Justice was being bullied by his classmates for being the son of a death row prisoner.

"Once someone is sentenced to death, the family of the criminal is also sentenced to death," says Cook.

The decision to take someone's life is a heavy one. If the public is not sufficiently informed about the death penalty, then there is the danger we will make mistakes that cannot be taken back. There is a dire need for information about the death penalty to be disclosed to the public before our citizens take such a heavy responsibility on their shoulders. (By Takayasu Ogura, New York Bureau)

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