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Yates and the Death Penalty

Andrea Yates got Life in prison. While reporting this on CNN, the Headline News anchor had this exchange with the reporter:

Host I understand the sentencing phase of the trial was a bit unusual, in that the prosecution didn't call any witnesses.

Reporter: Yes. The prosecution got the guilty verdict they wanted, and decided not to aggressively pursue the death penalty because they didn't want to appear bloodthirsty.

That last comment seems to be missing a pretty important prepositional phrase: the prosecution didn't want to seem bloodthirsty to whom? The jury?" Having been found guilty, life in prison was the least Yates could get, so why not try and pursuaded them to go for the maximum punishment? And I can't imagine they wouldn't want to look bloodythirsty to the crowd in and around the courtroom, most of whom were not overly sympathetic to Yates' case.

In truth, I suspect the prosecution didn't want to seem bloodthirsty to the American people, and that a lot of folks who are ardently in favor of capital punishment are glad to see Yates get life in prison. Many in Texas and our nation would find the idea of executing a white, mentally unstable woman to be profoundly unsettling. And the less people that think about unfairly the death penalty to applied to different categories of people, the better its chances for continued popularity. Do you think the prosecution would be agonizing over their image if the defendant in the trial had been a black man? I don't. Nor do I think he would have received life in jail.

I'm against the death penalty on principle, but just barely. In high school I was rabidly in favor of it, although I am unable to recall why. Oddly, my conversion to my current position on the issue wasn't a result of my becoming more idealistic, but rather my becoming more cynical: I now have so little confidence on our judicial system ability to prevent the innocent from getting railroaded -- either through error or abuse -- that, to be on the safe side, I think we should avoid any irrevocable acts like execution. I suspect that many folks who were against the death penalty changed their minds when McVeigh's number got called. And I think that's great: what's important isn't so much a person's opinion on an issue like this, but that they care enough to think about it and make a conscience decision. Indeed, perhaps the only good thing to come out of cases like McVeigh's and Yates' is that it give us all an opportunity to reconsider our opinions on crime and punishment. And I think that's exactly what the prosecution in this case is trying to prevent.

Posted on March 15, 2002 to