OPINION: Capital punishment: a not so simple answer

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Photo credit: Andrea Wells

The clock struck 8 p.m. on the Oct. 20, 1992 and in perfect unison with the chiming of the clock, a phone rang.

“Rikki, the appeal is over.” Sean O’Brien, criminal defense attorney and associate professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City calmly said to his client, Rikki. “The court denied the appeal.”

There is a silence over the phone that most wish to never encounter, the type of silence that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand.

“OK,” Rikki said, “What’s our next move?”

Over a 35-year career, O’Brien said he has come to learn that approaching this question subtly is like trying to grasp a shadow; you can use every trick or method to catch the deceptive figure, but in the end your efforts will ultimately fail.

After working tirelessly to explain the situation to Rikki and failing with each attempt, O’Brien is forced to say the words he wanted so desperately to keep to himself.

“Rikki, they are going to kill you now,” O’Brien finally said.

Silence consumed the conversation once again, until Rikki simply said, “Well, I guess I have to go now.”

It is with an innocent goodbye from a charged guilty man, and the click of Rikki’s telephone receiver that O’Brien found himself hearing the familiar silence once again, but knowing this time that he is completely and utterly alone.

The question of state administered death

Ever since learning how to hold a conversation, my mom has advised me to stay away from two topics while talking with someone: money and politics. Until now, I have followed this advice religiously and while it has kept me out of trouble, I feel myself needing to abandon this practice in hopes of shedding light on a topic that I have remained blissfully oblivious to for quite some time.

I have subconsciously allowed my views on the death penalty to live in the deep depths of my mind in efforts to ignore the true intensity surrounding the debate on whether individual states should or should not practice capital punishment.

It wasn’t until I heard Rikki’s story and found myself nearly in a puddle of my own tears that I was able to recognize my guilt for permitting my views to wander mindlessly with the majority.

The tears came because Rikki Grubbs, a boy charged with first-degree murder and was given the death penalty in 1992, also battled a cognitive disability. O’Brien came onto the case 90 days before Grubbs was meant to be executed and to this day, claims this case to be the worst one he has ever been a part of.

Cases involving those who are cognitively disabled, like Grubbs, or mentally ill are some of the cases that stir up the most controversy in court and consequently take the longest to resolve.

In 2002, the Supreme Court case of Atkins v. Supreme Court concluded that the execution of a person who is mentally handicapped is a strict violation of the Eighth Amendment. It is because of this case that states with the death penalty are unable to execute an inmate who falls under that category.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union’s online section on Mental Retardation and the Death Penalty, despite current legislation working to prevent the placement of those who are cognitively disabled on death row, the steps to actually deem a person mentally handicapped are lengthy and extremely vague, leaving room for mistakes.

Another hole in the legislation leaves the determination of disability up to the decision of that state individually.

According to the ACLU, “prosecutors in states like Virginia and Louisiana have been arguing for the decision to be made post-conviction by the same jury that found the person guilty of murder.”

A post-conviction determination leaves room for the judge or politician’s biased opinion to come into play. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, the death penalty debate has been used in a handful of political campaigns as a promise to “be tough on crime … and enforce the death penalty” and is on a rapid incline.

Lawyers and politicians who have participated in death penalty cases have taken advantage of their successful cases by using them as campaign showcases. Although this serves as a useful tactic in efforts to receive votes, it fails to acknowledge the shortcomings associated with such a brutal legal system.

In December 2014, a mentally ill man was on trial for his life when a group of conservatives asked Texas Sen. Ted Cruz to postpone the execution.

It came as no surprise to the public when Cruz answered the conservatives’ plea by placing his trust in “the criminal-justice system to operate, to protect the rights of the accused, and to administer justice to violent criminals.”

Cruz served as a prime example of this behavior in his 2012 campaign, when he expressed his unwavering support for the death penalty and “repeatedly mentioned his win as Texas solicitor general in a case before the Supreme Court,” which ultimately led to a Mexican citizen’s execution.

In the cases of both Grubbs and the Mexican citizen a sliver of the corruption surrounding the legal system is brought to light.

“Politicians and judges who run on a platform supporting the death penalty have a subconscious bias, which becomes a problem when a person is on trial for their life,” O’Brien said.

Although it is simple to ask a person if they are for or against the death penalty, it seems that this approach is too naïve for such a complex topic. The concept of why we have the death penalty is quite easy to understand, but it seems that we are being asked the wrong question. What if there was an alternative to the death penalty, an alternative that punishes the criminal to the fullest extent of the law while simultaneously bringing some small relief to the victim’s family? Would it still be as easy to simply decide yes or no?

Kaitlyn Cotton is a sophomore in journalism.

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Hi world! I'm Kaitlyn Cotton. I'm a junior studying English with hopes of going to law school one day. I spend my days writing, reading and working for the Collegian. I have had articles published in the Kansas City Star, the Collegian, and most importantly- my parent's refrigerator.