Sunday, January 29, 2012

Why America executes innocent people

I wasn't sure whether to go with the US legal system or paranoia about those evil dirty foreigners*. In the end, I have decided to talk about both.

This story came to my attention a few weeks ago. A 15 year old American girl was mistakenly identified as an illegal immigrant in the US and deported to Colombia. She went through the whole court process maintaining a completely different identity to her own. No one seemed to notice. And it didn't matter anyway. Once a mistake has been made in court, you have to follow the procedure as if it were true. So you blindly carry on as if nothing has happened and, in this case, you deport a girl (who, it seems, happily lived in Bogatà for a few months).

First for the paranoia over foreigners. And where better to start than Alabama's would-be-amusing-if-it-were-not-so-serious anti-immigration law. This wonderful article in the Economist talks about a visiting German Mercedes-Benz director who ended up in prison because of it (maybe they should close down the factory employing all those nice legal Alabamans). And the crops rotting in the field because there is no one to harvest them. And the rising costs companies are facing due to lack of workers. And the lower tax collections due to the consequent falls in productivity and output. And the declines in consumer spending. And the loss of legal citizens who fear their lives being made more difficult. After all, if executive directors who employ so many Alabamans are treated like that, what hope for everyone else?

Now for the executions part. We all love a good execution, don't we? And one day, it might be you or your friend! What a great party we can all have! I learnt a lot from one of my favourite books, Executed on a Technicality by David Dow, a death penalty lawer in Texas. One of my favourite parts are when I learnt that proof of innocent is not actually sufficient to prevent an execution. Because once a lower court has accepted some often emotional, racist, uninformed, corrupt 'fact' a higher court cannot overturn it unless there were either procedural errors or else it was completely impossible for a jury (ahem) to believe it, and that 'completely impossible' bar is set rather high. Of course, executing innocent people is not a problem - being human, we can't get it right all of the time. It is to be expected and we do accept the possibility of error in all punishments. But what I love is that we can know something for sure but in order to be more fair and systematic we have set up a system with rules that cannot be broken. We are unable to introduce common sense. And that is why the deportation of this girl reminded me so much of numerous executions I have read about. It is a lottery at the start combined with strictly following the rules in place. Beautiful stuff.

*I am in Vienna just now and yesterday struggled to communicate in German - the dirty, filthy foreigner that I am. I managed in the end though my incredibly bad German.

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