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A Delusional System of Justice

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Since this is my last column of 2006, tradition and custom obligate me to choose a person of the year. This practice was started by the late Henry Luce, who realized that choosing a man of the year would call as much attention to his Time magazine as it would to the person himself. I have somewhat the same object in mind. My person of the year is Gregory Thompson. I choose him to call attention to the madness of the death penalty.

I apologize for the un-Christmasy nature of my topic, and I will understand if you choose to skip to another subject. But if you can spare me a moment, I'd like to tell you about Thompson. He is a cold-blooded killer, plain and simple. He is also out of his mind.

Thompson, 45, is delusional. He is also paranoid, schizophrenic and depressed. For these ailments, he receives daily doses of drugs and, twice a month, anti-psychotic injections. The state of Tennessee wants very much to put him to death for the horrendous 1985 murder of Brenda Blanton Lane, of which there is no doubt about his guilt. There is grave doubt, though, about the constitutionality, not to mention the decency, of executing an insane man. Thus the 12 pills Thompson takes every day. The idea, according to a recent account of his case in the Wall Street Journal, is to make him sane enough to be put to death.

Shortly before Justice Harry Blackmun retired from the Supreme Court in 1994, he reversed himself on the death penalty. Blackmun had been a lifelong supporter, but finally had had enough. In words that were to become famous, he wrote, "From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death." It's as if Blackmun had Thompson in mind, for in his case the tinkering occurs on a daily basis.

Blackmun was not the only Supreme Court justice to change his mind about capital punishment. Lewis Powell did something similar. He never got to the point where he considered it unconstitutional or immoral -- he just concluded there was no way to get it right.

Now, from Powell's point of view, matters have even worsened. The death penalty has become so necessarily cumbersome to implement, so full of essential safeguards, that it not only sometimes cannot be done -- note the recent suspensions of executions by lethal injection -- but it takes forever to do it. Thompson, you might have noticed, has been awaiting execution for nearly 22 years -- arguably cruel and unusual punishment in itself.

If I were not forced to choose a person as my person of the year, I might choose a concept: certainty. It is the one concept we cannot afford. Certainty is where we all get into trouble. We were so certain that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that it was reason enough to go to war. And once we went to war, we were certain that we would be welcomed in Baghdad by adoring throngs of Iraqis. And all that certainty was itself preceded by the fervid certainty of a president that he had been chosen for this war, this moment, this task. This was the worst certainty of them all.

As we keep learning, the devil is not in the details, it's in our certainty. This almost always is true of death-penalty cases. They are built on certainty -- witnesses who were certain, technicians who were certain, cops who were certain, prosecutors who were certain and jurors who were certain beyond a reasonable doubt. Yet routinely we read about convictions being overturned by DNA evidence. All those witnesses, technicians, cops, prosecutors and jurors were wrong -- certain, but wrong. That, in effect, is the only certainty. Occasionally, we will be wrong.

This year saw the fewest executions in a decade and growing public support for the alternative sentence of life without the possibility of parole. The cynic in me suspects that this is a result of historically low crime rates, not a sudden appreciation of how difficult it is to kill people properly, legally and, of course, justly.

Maybe, though, Americans are beginning to understand that we just don't need the death penalty, that it makes us no safer and demeans us as a people. The case of Gregory Thompson is a case in point. He was probably insane when he murdered Brenda Blanton Lane but will be deemed sane if and when he's executed. He's my person of the year -- a fleetingly sane man in the maw of a thoroughly insane system.

cohenr@washpost.com


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