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COLUMN: Life, Death and Societal Safety

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The following was submitted by Kathy Nolan Deschenes. To submit your own content, e-mail [email protected]

When I served on a criminal jury a few years back, I was surprised at how unemotional I was about the task at hand. I was very quickly able to suspend the reality that a young woman was in front of me who we were deciding to send to jail or not for forging checks and cashing them at area banks. She was 19 when she committed the crime as I recall. The same age as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev when he murdered four people.

Kathy Nolan Deschenes (courtesy photo)
Kathy Nolan Deschenes (courtesy photo)

The judge spent a lot of time with us getting us to understand that we had to objectively weigh the evidence and leave our emotions outside the courtroom door. The young woman’s court-appointed defense attorney was terrible. He didn’t even appear to have studied her case and offered only one lame implausible scenario in her defense.

The prosecution had her on film cashing the checks at two different places. There was no mistaking her.

The jury was made up entirely of women. I noticed that as we were being chosen, the defense clearly challenged only men. Since attorneys have quite a few challenges without cause, that pretty much seated an all-female jury.

I understood why. Women would be perceived more likely to be sympathetic to this young woman and want to mother her, let her off easy, give her a second chance. The result was exactly the opposite. We unanimously decided she was guilty though as a group we all expressed the sadness we felt that her life was already so off track.

It was when I walked out of the courtroom and headed back home that it hit me. This young woman would serve time and I was one of the reasons. It was a long drive home stuck in Boston rush hour traffic so I had a lot of time to think.

How easy it was for me to distance myself emotionally from her in order to get the job done. I am not an uncaring person nor did I ever feel vindictive in voting guilty. I had a job to do for the state of Massachusetts and its citizens and I did it. I do not regret that.

In discussing the death penalty and more specifically the Tsarnaev case, I often put myself in the jurors’ shoes. I did not have to consume some of the shocking images that they did at trial and I did not have the same level of punishment to weigh. But I’m sure they had suspended reality just as I had – at least to some degree – to get the job done with the same amount of integrity.

I am for the death penalty in some situations – and the Tsarnaev case is just one of those situations. As with the young woman whose fate I had to decide, I am not cheering that justice was served or feeling that the “good guys” won. No one wins. Let me repeat that – NO ONE.

My reasons for supporting the death penalty are quite against the teachings of the Unitarian Universalist faith I belong to. I am likely in the minority in my beliefs on this and some other non-liberal stances I’ve taken in the past.

UUs believe in the inherent worth and dignity of all people. And when we say “all”, we mean all. When I work with the high school group and this topic comes up in relation to heinous criminals, it is a hard one to get our heads around. (Note: I never tell them my stance, but rather facilitate a discussion.)

My backing the death penalty has to do with the belief that anyone who has shown him/herself to be monstrously dangerous to society has to go. There must be no way for that person to ever harm anyone again. Life in prison is not life away from society. Prison is its own society.

Having been involved in animal rescue for 15 years in a leadership position, I feel the same about animals who are in a similar situation. Making a decision to euthanize a dangerous dog that cannot be rehabbed is not easy. I’ve had to do it. But it is done for the safety of society. Society is more important than any one individual. In order for the species to continue, I’ve always felt that there needs to be a way to eliminate those who would destroy it.

So what was my reaction to Tsarnaev’s death sentence? After reading this you would think that I would just nod and say that my Darwin-like sensibility was satisfied. You would be wrong.

As I watched the Boston news channel and followed comments on Twitter, I was overcome with sadness. While the 24 pages of the decision was being read (before the death sentence was revealed) I sobbed. Then I sobbed even more when the sentence was read. Why? Since I thought that the decision was correct?

Because a loss of life is still a sad thing. Whether justified (in Tsarnaev’s case) or not (in the victims’ cases). Again, NO ONE won. This is not about winning or losing.

When I had to euthanize dogs because they could not be in society without causing harm, I sobbed each time. It mattered to me with them and with Tsarnaev that they started their lives as blank slates. They were held and loved and no one expected anything but wonderful things for them. But something went very wrong. Something that could not be fixed. And so, for the good of society, a difficult decision had to be made.

I’m sure that there are many many people in my church and outside my church who disagree with me. That’s okay. Death penalty opposition to others is a spiritual gut-feeling just like my vegetarianism is to me. Neither is “logical” and can’t be argued that way.

But I do ask that my right to my own well-thought out belief be respected and I will do my best to respect others who disagree with me. It is my hope that we can all share in the sadness of the loss of life and potential. And that we can move on together to build a society that is better for everyone.