DEAD TO RIGHTS
“Who Should Die?” [cover story, June 28–July 4]. It may be true, as Sara
Catania suggests, that a national consensus is emerging against executing the
“mentally retarded.” Six justices of the United States Supreme Court apparently
agree with her. Unfortunately, her well-intentioned compassion masks a deep
pessimism about the integrity of our justice system.
The jury’s role in answering the question raised in the headline is conspicuously
absent from Catania’s critique. She is unwilling to acknowledge the fundamental
role of juries in deciding what is just. Last week, in his concurring opinion
in the death-penalty case of Ring v. Arizona, Justice Scalia wrote, “Our
people’s traditional belief in the right of trial by jury is in perilous decline.”
The retroactive mental-health analyses injected into capital cases by biased
“experts” and half-informed journalists accelerate that decline.
Rather than take on the jury system directly, Catania muddies the rhetorical
waters by suggesting that the people on death row may not be guilty at all.
If that were true, then they should be freed outright, not merely given life
sentences. But Catania does not go that far. Because she can’t. The evidence
of guilt in capital cases is consistently overwhelming. Often, the convictions
are based on statements coming out of the defendants’ own mouths. Ironically,
that fact is used by Catania as proof that death-penalty defendants are “often”
retarded. But if, as Catania reports, Jesse Morrison turned himself in, why
does that necessarily indicate he is mentally retarded? Does a murderer’s willingness
to accept punishment preclude society from imposing it? Have we fallen so far
down the rabbit hole that we think only the retarded show remorse?
In deciding whether a defendant should be executed for his horrific crime,
the jury might hear evidence of brain damage, an abusive childhood, a history
of drug addiction, or the influence of his wicked friends. By sentencing the
defendant to death, the jury expresses its view that none of that evidence forgives
the defendant’s extraordinary violence. Maybe the jurors don’t believe the evidence,
or maybe it just doesn’t move them. Or maybe they believe that, even if the
defendant can’t add fractions or keep a job, the hole the defendant tore in
the social fabric must be mended with a death sentence.
In each capital case, the jury, a group of 12 citizens no different from anybody
else, has reached a considered consensus about what is just. There is nothing
cruel or unusual about that.
As the prosecutor of Stanley Bernard Davis, let me set the record straight.
What Sara Catania failed to state was that Davis’ secretly recorded jailhouse
tapes, of conversations with his co-defendants, established that he was the
shooter and that he had committed a kidnap-robbery in the same location one
year earlier. On tape, Davis stated to his co-defendants that the reason he
shot the two college students was because the earlier kidnap-robbery victim
was allowed to live and that that victim had almost sent Davis to prison. (Unfortunately,
the victim would not or could not pick Davis out of a lineup.) Davis also stated
on tape that Brown (the immunized co-defendant who was separated from Davis
and the other two co-defendants) had to be killed because he might confess and
testify against them. Davis’ mail intended to set this up was intercepted, and
the plot failed.
None of the co-defendants was legally death-eligible; that is why Davis, the
shooter, was the only defendant tried for a death sentence. Co-defendant Bennet
was brain-injured and was allowed to plead to two second-degree murders. We
did sensitively exercise our discretion as to the only mentally deficient individual
in this case. The reason Brown got immunity was that the search and seizure
in regard to all evidence against him was legally suspect and subject to suppression.
Further, the tapes made clear that Davis was the sole shooter.
Davis’ own statements convicted him and qualified him for the death penalty.
He was not the victim in this case.
As a licensed clinical psychologist and a “Goldwater” conservative, I frequently
read your publication, because, even though I usually disagree with the opinions
expressed, I find them interesting and thought-provoking.
Sara Catania’s article opposing the death penalty for “retarded individuals”
was indeed thought-provoking but, unfortunately, was significantly misleading.
First of all, the diagnosis of mental retardation is never made based on an
I.Q. score alone. The I.Q score is used along with a measure of adaptive functioning,
so an individual with a score of 69 is not necessarily “mentally retarded” —
not unless his adaptive-functioning score is also below a certain level.
The most blatant error was in Catania’s list of the 10 “retarded” death-row
inmates in L.A. County. It should be noted that only an I.Q. score of 69 or
lower (along with the measure of adaptive functioning) can begin to qualify
a person for the diagnosis of mental retardation. A score of 70 to 79 is considered
in the “borderline” range, and a score of 80 or higher is in the “low average”
range of normal intelligence. Not one of the 10 individuals on the list had
an I.Q. score in the mentally retarded range (69 or lower). All were in the
borderline range, and at least two were reported as being possibly in the low-average
range. There is a margin â of error, so some of the scores in the low 70s might
actually be in the high 60s, and some of the scores in the high 70s might actually
be in the 80s. The majority of the scores cited were actually 75 or above, suggesting
that the higher probability is that, of the 10 men cited, more actually had
an I.Q. score in the low-average range. One of the individuals actually scored
in the low-average and in the normal range on two of his three I.Q. tests.
This is an important issue that should be debated, but articles should be
accurate in terms of the facts, so people can make informed decisions.
—Rick Hunnewell, Ph.D.
The feature article “Who Should Die?” by Sara Catania would have been a coup
had it not been for the demoralizing cover of a hanged inmate on your cover.
Am I missing some significance, or did you simply intend to shock and offend?
Not only was it in poor taste, but it upset my children and gave me the impression
your publication has no consideration for the families of those behind bars.
I’m disappointed by the lack of consideration shown in the approval of such
Playa del Rey
I object to the cover of L.A. Weekly showing the convict hanging. Hanging
has all but been abolished as a method of killing convicts.
Please try to be more respectful of the friends and family who live through
these heinous executions even as members of society such as yourselves gawk
on the sidelines.
THE CONTINUING HORROR
Re: the article on Demon
[“The Horror, the Horror,” June 21–27]. I am appalled that Paul Cullum continues
the slander/myth that the filmmakers tried to murder the documentary crew. It’s
common knowledge in the Michigan film community (and there is such a thing)
that no such event happened and that voice-over and special effects were added
to create this impression. The documentarians did this to “punch up” their show,
give it an ending, regardless of what effect it would have on Jackson’s reputation.
(Hey, who wants to work with a guy that might blow your brains out?)
The fact that the documentary filmmakers really have not completed another
film in more 25 years, while Jackson (regardless of what you think of him) continues
to work in production, says quite a bit. In fact, it’s kind of sad that they’re
still hawking that decades-old effort.
West Bloomfield, Michigan
Re: the charming Ms. Sandra Ross’ mention of me in her
gossipy report from the closing night of The Strip [Slush,
June 28–July 4]. While flattered that Ms. Ross remarked upon my “dropping
trou” and further that she enjoyed seeing my “great set of gams,” it must be
noted that I was not wearing “dazzling white boxers” under my dropped “trou.”
I was not wearing anything at all.
Sandra Ross replies: Either I saw what I saw, or Chris Wells should get himself
to a tanning salon.