Tuesday, April 22, 2008

St. Thomas More Society hosts death penalty speaker at USF

The St. Thomas More Society at USF Law hosted death penalty speaker, Aundre M. Herron of the California Appellate Project (CAP). A Boston University law grad, Ms. Herron spent 5 years working as a district attorney in the Midwest before coming to San Francisco where she joined with CAP. An entertaining speaker, Ms. Herron spoke to a crowd of approximately 40 students happily munching their Subway sandwiches in Kendrick 104 about her experience with the death penalty.

Ms. Herron opened her presentation with a quick primer on how the death penalty process works in California. First, in order to be eligible for the death penalty, a defendant must be accused of a "special circumstance" crime. These crimes, such as felony murder, are dictated by statute. Second, after being charged, they defendants go to trail. At the end of trial, they enter the guilt phase, where it is determined if the defendant is guilty or innocent. If found guilty, the defendant is next moved to the penalty phase, where it is determined if he shall receive the death penalty. If handed the death sentence, the defendant automatic right to an appeal. This right cannot be waived, even by the defendant himself.

The appeal phase, many times, is then handled by three agencies: the Habeas Corpus Center, Office of the Public Defender, and CAP. CAP oversees these other two agencies.

After that primer, Ms. Herron went into the crux of her presentation: the inherent unfairness of the death penalty process. In sum, the focus of the death penalty debate shouldn't be on the end result of the execution itself, or even the crime which led to the death penalty; the focus should be on the events through out the criminal defendant's life that led up to the crime.

Ms. Herron articulated that nobody accidentally ends up on death row. It is a certain individual- someone who has lived their entire lives without anyone to care for them, that commits the crimes and puts themselves into the position to be eligible for the death penalty. As Ms. Herron analogized, "folks are groomed for death row like the Kennedys' are groomed for Congress."

Often times, these individuals have have suffered significant sexual and physical abuse as a child by the people who were supposed to care for them. Ms. Herron spoke of one client who, as a young boy, from the age of 3-7, was routinely taken down into a basement closet by his father . Once inside, a sock was stuffed into his mouth and the young boy was sodomized. It was no wonder, Ms. Herron quipped, that this same young man later committed terrible sex crimes as an adult.

In addressing death penalty solutions, Ms. Herron asked students to look at the "broad view" to look for solutions. Instead of looking at the procedural aspects of the death penalty, she encouraged students to look to preventative measures. Failing schools and mental health facilities, she noted, could easily prevent many of these young people from their fates. If we could fix the "front end" problems, we could mitigate these people from even getting to the death penalty in the first place.

On the whole, I thought the presentation was very nice. She was charismatic enough to pay attention to. I thought her message could have been a little narrower, however. She spoke too broadly about problems with the death penalty. Of course it would help if our educational system could be fixed. Of course it would be great if our mental health facilities were up to date and could actually service the population. But that isn't the issue.

The issue with the death penalty is the way defendants are treated throughout the process. That is all you can focus on, small things. Ms. Herron actually suggested that we need to remake our entire society. That, quite simply, is unrealistic. As she pointed out earlier, the government can't even make the bus run on time. What would be more realistic is to look at smaller aspects of the death penalty process and look to fix them. This is where I thought she would take her presentation. Unfortunately, it did not go this route.

To end on a positive note, I thought the St. Thomas More Society ran an excellent program (though I think more people showed up than they anticipated). They advertised well and drew a good cross section of students, who asked questions and interacted with the speaker. This meant that something was added to the debate and that's what's important. Overall, well put together and I look forward to more programs and speakers from the St. Thom Society next semester.

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