Killing People in Louisiana

The Prosecutor Who Says Louisiana Should ‘Kill More People’

Now you have to admit, that’s a headline that grabs your attention.

It appeared on the front page of the New York Times a couple of days ago. The article concerns a 67 year old man named Dale Cox, who is the District Attorney of Caddo County, Louisiana.
Mr. Cox spent the bulk of his legal career as an insurance lawyer, ultimately joining the district attorney’s office and becoming DA fairly recently.

The man, and his point of view that Louisiana does not execute enough people, got some national attention after Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer—in his dissent on a case involving the use of certain lethal drug used in executions—pointed out that the death penalty is greatly skewed toward a certain small number of geographical locations. (Justice Breyer was making an argument against the death penalty and this was one of the points he was making in his argument).
It turns out that Caddo County Louisiana is one of those places that executes more people, proportionally, than almost any other place in the United States. And the main reason is that DA Cox is so determined to make sure it happens. He demands the death penalty be imposed whenever the law allows for it. Not surprisingly, a disproportionate number of people executed are black.

Interestingly, it turns out that Mr. Cox was, once upon a time, an opponent of the death penalty, but he says that he changed his mind because of the terrible crimes he’s seen and prosecuted in his time at the DA’s office. There’s more to this interesting article and I’ve included the link at the end of this essay.

What caught my interest, aside from gruesome tone of the headline, was the fact of Mr. Cox’s conversion. I’ve also had changes of mind/heart about capital punishment during my life.

…When I first became aware of the fact that there was a death penalty, it didn’t seem particularly inhuman or unjust to me. I don’t know if that was my nature (I was an angry kid with a lot of free-floating vengeance percolating inside me) or the culture of the time and place in which I grew up (1950’s, Lower-middle class Queens)—probably both.
Aside from hearing about the injustice of the Rosenberg executions from the few extreme liberals in my neighborhood and a fair number of Jews who saw it as a combination of McCarthyism and Anti-Semitism), I didn’t know many people who seemed too concerned about what generally transpired on death row up in Ossining New York (“Sing-Sing”).
I’m sure there must have been plenty of anguished and passionate discussions about this subject (and of course I later found out that there were), but I just don’t remember them. And if there were such discussions they were subsumed in the PTSD-like aftermath of having battled the Nazis and the Japanese and the then current struggles with the Soviets, North Koreans and Chinese—not to mention the constant dread of atomic annihilation.

As teen-agers, we read about executions in the papers and saw movies that featured executions (usually the electric chair—the “hot seat”), but still, it didn’t seem troublesome that a convicted murderer should be executed. Anyway, most of the movies we saw in the theaters and the old movies that were replayed on TV were about psychopathic killers and mad-dog gangsters. They got what was coming to them—it was almost as if they were chasing their own deaths the way gamblers gambled to lose.
The psychological nuances of a single, complicated murder; complex details of evidence and procedure; constitutional arguments—even the eternal religious and ethical arguments about capital punishment were things I just didn’t know much about when I was young. And of course, living in a completely segregated, racist society, most white people paid very little attention to the racial disparity that Justice Breyer was alluding to in his dissent. As for DNA evidence—that was unknown back then.
Live by the sword, die by the sword… it was pretty simple math.
Maybe this hard assumption had something to do with the fact that WW2 and the horrible crimes committed during that time were fresh in people’s minds and certainly formative for anyone my age. In my neighborhood—indeed, all over the country—people said they had learned (or permanently re-learned) one of life’s great lessons from Hitler and the Nazis; There were some people in the world (and always would be) that have to be killed to keep the rest of humanity safe. These people were like rabid dogs—there was no reason, no point, in trying to take any other approach but to murder these murderers.
Of course, the Nazis (and the Japanese) were killed in battle and not executed after they were rendered powerless and interned. It was a fair fight that they started and we finished. Maybe the Japanese and the Germans (and later, we learned, the Russians) had it in them to torture and even murder helpless prisoners-of-war but the Americans didn’t.

On the other hand there were the allied military tribunals in Germany after the war, especially Nuremberg (which a lot of Germans called “victor’s justice”). Nuremberg was the primary case to be made for the vengeance and teaching-people-a-lesson arguments for capital punishment. State mandated execution is the price you pay for deliberately breaking the basic laws of civilization.
Here were some of the worst murderers the world had ever seen (and managed to catch and try); mountains of evidence and hundreds (thousands) of eye-witnesses, yet there were passionate arguments against executing even these very high-level Nazis.
But the Nuremberg tribunals took place right after the war and weren’t current news when I was growing up. The movie, Judgement at Nuremberg, with all its complexities and anguished debates, I didn’t see till I was much older.

When I got into college and started to really think about capital punishment and study it, it started to dawn on me that maybe there was something wrong, something philosophically and ethically illogical, about the State (in the name of its citizens) committing what amounted to pre-meditated murder. I still retained the concept of vengeance (though more on a personal level) but I couldn’t square that with my increasing doubts about cold-blooded, planned state executions.
At that point I still believed that the existence of capital punishment would keep people from committing murder. It took me years and various life experiences to understand that it (the threat of capital punishment) only stops people who probably wouldn’t commit murder in the first place. Anyone with an uncontrollable temper or temporarily out of their minds or without a functioning conscience? The death penalty doesn’t mean a thing.

By the time I was my early twenties (in the mid-to-late Sixties), I was pretty much against the death penalty. It was a time when the federal government was committing mass murder in Vietnam and Cambodia. And various “law-enforcement” branches of state governments were aiding and abetting murderers down South and in the inner cities.
My feeling was that there was already enough murder being committed by the State. We didn’t any more executions on top of all that. So I guess you could say I was a firm opponent of capital punishment.
Then I became a probation officer.

First, I was in Brooklyn Family Court, then Brooklyn Criminal Court, and finally New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan.
During the course of six years, I interviewed several hundred “offenders” (the label the court gave to people convicted of, or pleading guilty to crimes).
My job was to talk to the “offenders”, get as much background history on them (as much as time allowed) and on the actual crime itself, then recommend a sentence to the Judge (obviously something within the sentencing guidelines). I was also occasionally asked to interview the victims of crimes.
These pre-sentencing reports were requested because it was understood that Judges were overwhelmed with cases and didn’t have a clue about the people they were sentencing. The state of New York was saying it wanted to know something about the backgrounds, childhoods and lives of the people they were shutting up—sometimes for very long stretches—in their prisons. It was, I thought, a decent attempt at rendering something as close to justice as possible.

I interviewed men (it was mostly men) who had committed piddling drug offenses (possession of a joint, etc.) and various degrees of theft, but I also talked to men who were guilty of rape, child molestation, vicious assaults on totally helpless people, major drug dealing, and murders. Often these men had long histories of either calculated or mindless violence.
Bad as that could often be—spending time in crummy, depressing prison interview rooms and holding pens, and digging into the sad, doomed lives of these men—what was much worse was talking to the victims of some of these crimes; children who had been repeatedly molested by a family member, women who been attacked and raped on the street or in the hallways of their buildings, old ladies who had been permanently disabled during a purse snatching; wives of store owners shot to death or paralyzed in robberies…
I came out of these people’s apartments and houses full of rage and a burning desire for revenge on the monsters who did these things to them.

Being a probation officer completely changed my feelings about capital punishment. I had not the slightest doubt after doing this job for a couple of years that some people needed to be permanently removed from the planet. Even if they were put away for the rest of their lives, it wasn’t enough punishment for what they’d done.
My own desire for vengeance for what I had suffered as a kid fused with the victimization of the people I spoke to and I wound up feeling as if I had been appointed the official Officer of Retribution—the sword of God, so to speak.
I felt so strongly about this, based on what I had seen and heard on the job, that I sometimes said that if they needed volunteers to pull the switch, I’d step forward and do it myself. But the truth was I never could have done that—it was just a measure of how righteously angry I felt.

…This feeling that there are certain people that should be removed from the world stayed with me way into my early sixties. By then I had experienced a change of mind and finally settled on what I figure is a permanent opinion about capital punishment: The state should not have the power execute people.
Why have I changed my mind? Well, if I said—rather than “a change of mind”, a “change of heart”, that might help explain it. Cold rationality—tabulating the pros and cons—might have been enough to cause this change, but I believe it was the accumulated experiences of my own flawed life and the approach of mortality that softened me on this issue. And maybe it’s because I saw my own desire for vengeance as a sword that, in the end, only pierced my own heart. It could certainly be because of all the stories I’ve read about the profound transformations some men have undergone after decades in jail.
We also know now, after who knows how many studies and reports, that the existence of the death penalty will never stop some people from committing murder. And, of course, there’s the advent of DNA as a forensic tool. Hundreds of people, or maybe by now it’s thousands, have been exonerated because of DNA evidence; men and women who have suffered in prison for decades or been on death row for years for crimes they didn’t commit.
Also, to whatever extent I have a sense of a larger, higher, connective force in the universe, I have a feeling of sadness about the destruction of anything living; a feeling that to kill anyone or anything is to kill everyone. There’s an ancient Jewish saying that “to save one life is to save the entire world”. So then it only makes sense that to kill one life is to kill the entire world.

This feeling of universal connectivity extends even to the most personal and primitive feelings I’ve had and that, deep down, still linger in my heart. If, God forbid, somebody killed someone close to me, I’m sure, at first, I’d want them to die—I’d even want to kill them myself. But if the killer was caught, convicted and sentenced to life in locked cell—and enough time had passed, I’d probably feel that that was punishment enough. It seems sufficient to me now that locking somebody up for twenty or thirty years or even for the rest of their lives is enough punishment for any crime, no matter how awful. Execution makes the state (and thus its citizens) murderers as well; and premeditated murderers at that.

As for District Attorney Cox of Caddo County, I have no right to judge him—not after the way I’ve felt and acted in my life.
Who knows what particular worm of hatred and misery is gnawing at his vitals? He is consuming himself in his own vengeance as surely as if he was swimming every day in a vat of acid. The real problem is that he’s not doing this just to himself. He is an agent of the state and of a system that victimizes other human beings, a system that needs to fade away with the other barbarities of history.


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