March 23, 2005

Faster Punishment! Kill! Kill!

If ever anyone wants proof that American justice is impartial, they should be steered far away from the top stories of March 16, 2005.

Within the span of that one day, juries acquitted actor Robert Blake of murdering his wife and sentenced Scott Peterson to die. Of course, we in the media had long ago made up our minds.

A Los Angeles jury found Blake not guilty of two counts of solicitation for murder. Blake, known primarily for his role as the title character in the 1975-78 cop drama “Baretta,” was accused of the May 2001 murder of Bonnie Lee Bakely.

According to MSNBC, “No eyewitnesses, blood or DNA evidence linked Blake to the crime. The murder weapon, found in a trash bin, could not be traced to Blake, and witnesses said the minuscule amounts of gunshot residue found on Blake’s hands could have come from a different gun he said he carried for protection.”

Media coverage of the trial was a small-scale replica of the circus surrounding a certain other murder case that dominated 1994 and 1995. The general consensus in the media and in opinion columns during the trial was that Blake was undeniably guilty. This armchair verdict seemed less inspired by the facts of the case as by the notion that America loves punishing a monster. As Baretta himself always said, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time!” Ultimately, the court ruled that Blake didn’t and won’t have to.

Justice buffs need not despair over Blake’s acquittal, however. Just hours before, another accused wife-killer from California received the ultimate sentence. Scott Peterson stood trial for the December 2002 murder of wife Laci. But why do the details matter? According to the court of public opinion, Scott was toast from the outset. A trial would be but a formality to distract us while the chair was warmed up.

I’ll admit that I was not high on the Peterson case. The only reason I felt that this case garnered such a huge level of attention was because Laci was a well-to-do, attractive woman. Pretty faces make for tantalizing press, even as equally tragic murder cases happen every week of the year.

Another reason for the nationwide appeal of the Peterson case was that Laci was eight months pregnant. I’d say that Laci’s murder counts as a double homicide; after all, she was very definitely having that baby. Still, the case became a bonanza for pro-death-penalty and pro-life activists alike.

I am not one to judge innocence or guilt, particularly after not having followed the Peterson case closely. But from the first day of coverage, the public seemed to have already thrown Scott into the electric chair. Those with whom I had conversations about the case always had the same reaction: “Scott is guilty. I hope they kill him.”

But whether or not Peterson or Blake deserved convictions, anyone who cares about justice should worry when such decisions are made before examining the evidence. Once an idea is fixed in our collective heads, it’s hard to let go. Ask any of the 119 exonerated Death Row inmates released since 1973 if rushing to judgment is such a great idea.

For these reasons, the death penalty should be abolished. No government should hold sway over the life or death of its constituents, particularly given the injustices of a system rooted so solidly on public passion.

People are still innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. As interested citizens, we can volley the ball of presumed guilt around the court of personal opinion as much as we want. Ultimately, however, that court is useless as a tool of true justice.


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