I have meant for some time to revisit courtroom statements made by Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater in a case in which a man was recently sentenced to death. I thought about it again after attending last night’s meeting as a board member of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.
The man Prater’s statements referred to is Albert Ray Johnson, 49, who was convicted in June of raping his girlfriend and her friend, beating both of them, and then killing his girlfriend’s friend. He was sentenced to death by a jury for the murder. The late Oklahoma County District Judge Donald Deason formally sentenced him to death in July. Johnson also has previous felony convictions for violent crimes, according to one media report.
As reported in the media, one of Prater’s arguments in the case was that this was a strong one for the death penalty. During arguments, as reported, Prater said, “Whether this defendant is incarcerated or out, he is a very dangerous human being. It’s time to look at what he did. If you give him life without parole, what’s the message?” Prater continued to tell the jury, “You will not have a stronger case to consider the death penalty on.”
It’s true that it’s difficult to make a strong if any case for Johnson’s rehabilitation given his history, violent nature of his crimes and age, but I’m opposed to the death penalty even in cases like this. Johnson will end up in an appeals process that will take years and will be paid for by taxpayers. It’s even quite possible the U.S. Supreme Court could abolish the death penalty while Johnson awaits his fate on death row, meaning the taxpayer money spent on his appeals to reverse the death-penalty decision will be for nothing. In addition, it’s unlikely that Johnson will receive adequate mental health services, which could create more problems for correction officers. At the trial, his public defender conceded Johnson killed the woman—the crime for which he received the death penalty—but argued Johnson suffers from mental illness.
— HuffPost Politics (@HuffPostPol) August 3, 2016
The meme goes something like this: “We kill people to show people that they shouldn’t kill people.”
I have a great deal of sympathy for the victims of Johnson’s crimes and their family and friends, but killing another mentally ill person in the state of Oklahoma will not solve anything tangible. Sure, it might give people a sense of retribution but that type of understandable yet emotional thinking will not lead to better mental health services or corrections reform. In fact, it just leads to more deaths and more prisoners. Oklahoma is now second in the nation in the number of inmates on a per capita basis.
So, overall, I think Prater’s argument is more about retribution and less about larger reasoning in terms of the death penalty’s impact on our culture in this country and in Oklahoma. Read this Amnesty International fact sheet about the death penalty. It argues the death penalty does not deter crime, costs more than other sentencing and doesn’t often take into account the role of mental illness among death-row inmates. The disregard for mental illness in some death penalty cases, I would argue further, makes it more difficult for everyone to have decent access to psychological services. This is because it denies the very concept of mental illness on a basic, important level.
One of the main reasons, of course, to oppose the death penalty is that sometimes innocent people get sentenced to death. Since 1973, Amnesty International points out, 151 inmates have been released from death row “due to evidence of their wrongful conviction.” It doesn’t appear at this point new evidence will appear exonerating Johnson, of course, but why take any type of chance with the ultimate punishment? By eliminating the death penalty and reducing costs, we can take away human error from an act that can never be reversed.
Johnson’s crimes were heinous and deserved to be defined that way, but I view Prater’s death-penalty argument, like the arguments of so many pro-death penalty proponents, as one that rests solidly on the idea of retribution, a concept which in practice never has a stopping point.
Unlike Prater, I argue the real message sent by “life without parole” is basically a positive one if it means the death penalty won’t be applied in a particular case. It takes into account the negative impact of the ultimate, barbaric punishment on our judicial and correctional systems and on our culture writ large.
— The Economist (@TheEconomist) August 3, 2016