All of the twenty-five or so of us present yesterday afternoon in 220 Phillips Hall on the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill were invited to think about that by session moderator Barbara Friedman, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. We were there as part of the incoming freshman class's summer reading program to read and discuss Sister Helen Prejean's book The Death of Innocents.
When it came my turn to introduce myself, I said that, "Contrary to appearances, I am not the oldest freshman on the Carolina campus. I was a freshman forty-seven years ago." After a little polite laughter, I explained that I was there as a guest of Chris Mumma, who wrote a blurb for a book I edited on the criminal justice system. "In fact, Sister Helen wrote a blurb for it too."
Chris Mumma, who co-moderated the discussion, is an attorney, an adjunct member of the faculty of the UNC School of Law, and the executive director of the North Carolina Center on Actual Innocence. She explained that the book in question is Jingle Jangle, written by Jim Rix, the cousin of Ray Krone, the one hundredth Death Row convict exonerated since the U.S. Supreme Court lifted the moratorium on capital punishment in 1973. "It's a great book," Chris said. [Note: Rix himself advocates neither for nor against the death penalty. He's against wrongful convictions, whether capital or not.]
At first, only a couple of the freshman thought that the death penalty affected them personally in any way. They didn't know anyone whose family included either a victim of a capital crime or anyone indicted for a capital crime. Or, as one of an impressively poised and articulate pair of twin brothers who were present said, "I've never been on Death Row, and I don't know anyone who has."
After more than an hour's discussion of the book, consideration of statistics about capital sentences, and some discussion of aggravating and mitigating circumstances, Professor Friedman repeated the question: "Do you think now that you may have a personal connection with the death penalty?"
Until that moment I hadn't said anything beyond briefly introducing myself along with everyone else and answering a question about the circumstances surrounding Ray Krone's being swept up into the criminal justice system. But now I felt compelled to say, "You know, I think that, in a way, capital punishment affects everyone of us personally. Working on Jingle Jangle made me realize—and I think that another of the blurb writers actually said this1—that if Ray Krone could end up on Death Row, it could happen to anyone." A long enough silence followed to make me think that I might have made a point.
We were asked to raise our hand if The Death of Innocents achieved its stated objective of turning us against the death penalty. I think that about half of the participants raised a hand, including myself, although it has been a few years since I came down against the death penalty. There wasn't time for me to summarize my years of going back and forth, maddeningly back and forth on the question of capital punishment. I might have said that one of the most memorable high school activities I engaged in had been debating capital punishment in English class. On the occasion, I argued against it. But over the years, I continued to go back and forth on the question. I was for it for a while, then I was against it...until my opinion swung back the other way, only to teeter there for a while before tottering back. It was agonizing. I'm not sure that I'm right today, and I don't think being right was the reason I finally decided to just be against the death penalty, period. I needed to put myself out of misery. Chris Mumma, too, told the group that she herself had previously advocated for the death penalty. She had heard about murders that made her so angry, "I could have killed the murderer myself." But today she is a North Carolina coordinator of innocence projects2.
My personal reason for finally opposing the death penalty was almost stated by one of the freshmen, who identified the reason as a religious one, though he didn't necessarily subscribe to it himself: Just as the person who commits a capital crime doesn't have the right to kill, neither do we, as a society, have the right to take a life, regardless of the crime or how sure we are the person did it. My own version of the reason would have included something about how I think that we as human beings harm ourselves by condoning executions. And I don't think of this as a "religious" reason, but as a humanistic reason.
It helps me to believe this even more easily to have been reminded by the book discussion that capital punishment very likely doesn't deter anyone from committing a capital crime (most murders are not premeditated anyway), judicial procedures involving the death penalty cost a lot more than those involving life sentences, the death penalty is administered unfairly, and mistakes continue to be made (for the reasons Jim Rix analyzes in Jingle Jangle) and lead to the deaths of innocents....___________________
- Rachel King, author of Don't Kill in Our Names and Capital Consequences, recommended Jingle Jangle by saying:
Jim Rix has written an astonishing memoir about his cousin Ray Krone's wrongful conviction for a 1991 Arizona murder. Rix meticulously details every aspect of police corruption, prosecutorial misconduct, defense incompetence, expert witness tampering and jury shenanigans that led to Ray's decade-long nightmare. But Rix doesn't stop there. He dissects each problem, then with careful research explains how it is not an isolated incident but part of a larger pattern of problems in the criminal justice system. Rix's wry humor and occasional sarcasm reveal the depths of his despair at realizing that the justice system, which he once trusted, is so deeply flawed. Scariest about this true story is that if Ray Krone, an honest, law-abiding person, could end up on Death Row, it could happen to anyone.
- Chris Mumma's blurb for Jingle Jangle:
Ray Krone's story has so many of the elements we see over and over again in innocence cases—unreliable forensic conclusions, incomplete investigations and overvalued testimony resulting from "confirmatory bias" that occurs because everyone thinks they have the right perpetrator and they ignore evidence to the contrary. Once the conviction occurs, it typically takes extraordinary luck and the work of an individual or the media to get to the truth because the justice system prefers finality. There are more Ray Krones out there—there just aren't many who are lucky enough to have a cousin like Ray's.