Sunday, June 28, 2009

Clemency and Justice

Just lately, I've been noticing a lot of articles in the paper that seem almost impossible to square with what I know, or thought I knew, about the justice system in our country. Maybe things have changed. Maybe I was wrong all along. But some recent cases seem wholly out of sync with what I want to believe about our American justice system, and that is especially so when I bring to bear the wisdom of our Jewish tradition in evaluating the cases to which I'm referring.

At the end of September, a man, Michael Richards, was executed in Texas after the presiding judge at the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals refused to grant his lawyers an extra twenty minutes to print out their final state appeal. The court does not accept electronic filings of such documents, and there had been some problem with the lawyers' printer. They asked for a few extra minutes to get the document assembled, but the judge in question, Sharon Keller, felt that no exception could be made, not even if it was a matter of a few minutes and a man's life depended on her decision. Nor could Richards' lawyers appeal further: without a state ruling, they could not appeal to the United States Supreme Court. As a result, the prisoner was executed a few hours later.

For some reason, this calls to my mind a different story, one of a certain Keith Bowles. He was charged with murder, convicted and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. The judge at his trial informed him that he had eighteen days to file an appeal. He did file an appeal, but it was on the seventeenth day after his trial and the judge, it turned out, was in error—the legal limit for filing an appeal in federal courts is fourteen days. The Supreme Court considered the issue, then determined that it was the prisoner's tough luck that his judge had given him misinformation. I have no idea whether the man might or might not have reversed his conviction on appeal—but the point is that the court seemed to feel that the fact that the man was following the specific instructions the judge presiding at his own trial gave him was not enough to justify making an exception to the rules. The man is in jail, possibly for life.

And then there is the case of Genarlow Wilson, the Georgia teenager sentenced to ten years in prison because of an error in the formulation of a law that everybody agreed had not been thought through carefully enough and which was finally changed in 2006. He has finally been released...but only after a huge outcry on his behalf. And before he was released, his request for an appeal was turned down. No exceptions could be made, even in cases when the legislators who framed the law themselves freely and repeatedly said that they had been in error and hadn't considered every necessary angle in framing the law.

All of these are examples of people following rules because it seems weak, or even morally wrong, to make exceptions. Michael Richards might not have won his appeal, but that's not the point. There's no way to know if Keith Bowles would have won his appeal either, but that's also not the point. Genarlow Wilson did actually leave jail, but only because his sentence was reduced to time spent in jail, not overturned. A criminal justice system can't make so many exceptions to the rules that the rules themselves no longer seem to exist firmly or really, but neither should we have to tolerate a system that is so intractable as to allow no deviation from the expected norm at all. The court could have stayed open for another few minutes. A man's appeal could have been accepted a few days late when the lateness was due to a judge's own error. A young boy didn't have to go to prison when the law under which he was convicted was, in the opinion of its own framers, being misused and misapplied.

Our Torah understands that people in power make mistakes. In fact, the beginning of Leviticus ordains special sacrificial offerings for all sorts of public officials who have erred in their rulings or decisions. It goes without saying that those affected by those errors of judgment can seek redress, and that no citizen ever is expected to bear the weight of another's error of judgment. More than that, however, our tradition teaches that justice untempered by mercy is, almost by definition, perverse and unjust. To allow criminals to avoid punishment out of a misguided sense of compassion is not something Scripture endorses, even indirectly. But to refuse to temper one's sense of rigorous justice with a passion for mercy is also contrary to the lessons of Scripture. To be just, we must be compassionate. And being compassionate means always stepping back far enough to see the larger picture...and not letting a man, even a convicted criminal, die because somebody's printer failed to print out the requisite appeal documents quickly and efficiently enough.

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