AN INDICTMENT BY A DEATH ROW SURVIVOR
By: Houston Criminal Defense Lawyer John Floyd
I am happy to announce the release of another book by my good friends Billy and Jodie Sinclair entitled Capital Punishment: An Indictment by a Death Row Survivor, released by Arcade Publishing (New York). The book is a compelling collection of essays commenting on the death penalty from many different perspectives about this controversial and, in my opinion, most despicable, inhumane and arcane of punishments that continues to thrive in this so called modern world.
I have always been an opponent of the death penalty. I first seriously considered the issue in 1987 when I was in college and was required to do a research paper on the subject. Our assignment was to look at the death penalty objectively from both sides. It was the type of project typical of a freshmen government class intended to force the student to examine both sides of a controversial issue in order to appreciate its pro and con policy arguments. I was shocked when I came across a pro-death penalty article which attempted to do a cost/benefit analysis on the issue. The author supported the death penalty even after factoring in the variable that perhaps 30 innocent people had been executed. This study concluded that the cost of 30 innocent souls being executed was outweighed by the benefits derived from the death penalty, namely deterrence and justice/revenge for the crime victim’s friends and families.
I guess until that point in my life, I had never seriously considered the possibility that innocent people might be found guilty and sentenced to death. I had certainly never considered the horrid possibility that such innocents would have been executed.
That was enough for me. In my naïve state as a college freshman, I had single handedly concluded that the death penalty was immoral simply because an innocent person might be executed. Simple and straight forward, huh?
As I continued my college education, my opposition to the death penalty only solidified, but the reasons for that opposition remained basically the same. From my vantage point it was intrinsically immoral to exact the most serious, final and irrevocable punishment, if the system could not guarantee that innocent people would not be executed.
After my graduation from law school, I immediately began the practice of criminal defense. Like so many others, I began to solicit and receive court appointments. For those who don’t know Harris County, Texas the courts appoint lawyers to represent indigent defendants. Typically, this meant the judge appointed friends, campaign supporters, or lawyers he or she trusted to do a good job. This quality of this process depended upon the fair mindedness of the judge to appoint good, competent lawyers. So, after I offered supplication and did all I could to ingratiate myself to a particular judge, to whom I had been introduced to by an influential member of the local bar, I started getting court appointed felony cases.
After a few months of these court appointments, the time came for me to make a critical decision—one I fully appreciated would impact the pocket book. At my client’s suggestion, I decided to take his case to trial. His case, my first trial, was a ringer for the state. He was charged with a felony theft of an automobile. The facts were straight forward, a car was stolen and shortly afterward my client was caught speeding down the highway in it. His story to the arresting officer was, first, that the car belonged to his sister, and, second, after he had time to think about it, that he had “rented it” from a stranger he just met at a convenience store. Well, I tried the case to before a jury and, to the Judge’s complete shock and dismay, received a not guilty verdict. Even I was shocked: the client had done the crime; it was obvious that he had done it, but the jury saw it differently. The judge made a snide comment about how this wouldn’t happen again, and, well, that was the end of my court appointments.
As I considered that victory, it occurred to me that juries are much more unreliable than I had ever imagined. As I tried more cases, I lost one where I truly believed my client was wrongly accused after I had put on what I thought was a very compelling case. Again, I was bewildered and disappointed. I concluded that I had gotten a guilty man off after a jury trial and gotten an innocent man convicted after a jury trial. Then it struck me: juries are not only unreliable, they can so easily get it wrong. Even worse, sometimes juries think they are doing the right thing and still get it wrong.
Finally, I had another prominent argument against the death penalty: juries, no matter how well intentioned, do sometimes get it wrong. I came to realize that the death penalty is not only immoral but highly arbitrary depending upon any given jury. Since we know the juries do get it wrong as evidenced by the 233 DNA exonerations in this country, I simply cannot accept that such an irreversible punishment as the death penalty should exist in our fallible system. The risk of getting it wrong, no matter how slight, persuades against it.
With these arguments—supported by the many others offered by different anti-death penalty groups—and now understanding the inordinate moral and social costs for state sanctioned killing, I have continued my longstanding opposition to the death penalty.
It wasn’t until I met Billy Sinclair in March of 2007 that my opposition to the death penalty assumed another equally important course: redemption. Not because Billy argued against the death penalty, which he does humbly and eloquently, but because he is the epitome of rehabilitation and redemption. I have worked closely with Billy over the last two years and have developed a deep appreciation for this man who has come so far over so many years. I am proud to call him a colleague and friend. He has taught me something I could have never learned from books or anti-death penalty demonstrations and he has done so without saying a word. He has shown me clearly and by his own example that every man can redeem himself and become a valuable family man, friend and productive member of our society. For this, I owe Billy a debt of gratitude. While I often see terrible crimes that seem to cry out for vengeance and seem the ideal candidates for the ultimate penalty, I will never now forget that most people have in them, somewhere, the seeds of decency and the capacity to grow and change. Some will harness this power, some will not. For those who cannot rehabilitate and redeem themselves, there are other punishments that can serve the interests of justice and protect our society. It is unnecessary and immoral for the government to deal in the goods of the devil.
I would highly recommend that anyone interested in the death penalty read both of the Sinclairs’ books. They do not mince words or hide the truth. They are not flowery or pretty attempts to entertain. But, they are compelling and extremely thought provoking.
By: John Floyd, Houston Criminal Defense Attorney