Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Fear and Loathing

Last night, I was watching a re-run of Frontline from this past October. It dealt with the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, who was convicted of setting a fire in his home that resulted in the deaths of his three small children, and was executed for it.

If the name means anything to you at this point, then you don't need me to tell you about the case. Not long after the execution, the story gained legs, and pretty much every media outlet in the nation. Besides, if you've been reading me here, you're likely at least somewhat familiar with the facts and the controversy - this is, after all, my fourth post on the topic.

Despite the fact that my last post on the Willingham case was occasioned by the Frontline installment that I mentioned above, I didn't actually catch it when it was first on, so last night was the first time I actually watched it. One thing struck me. One of the people that was interviewed was a local bar owner, and she made an interesting point - to paraphrase, she pointed out that Willingham treated his family poorly, and wasn't given the benefit of the doubt - other people who had treated their families well were given the benefit of the doubt. In short, part of the reason that Willingham was convicted and sentenced to death by a jury of his peers was that he'd made himself unpopular with his peers. And that made it easier for them to label Willingham as Evil and believe the negative things that prosecutors and a jailhouse snitch said about him. (Why anyone still thinks that people who loudly proclaim their innocence to anyone who will listen would suddenly spill the beans to a random fellow prisoner, who is likely to attempt to parley that into a break for himself, is beyond me.)

On the one hand, we understand that we seek to punish people and frighten us, that we don't like or don't have anything to offer. On the other hand, we like to think that we can create a system that somehow removes that from the equation, so that simply being scary isn't effectively a felony. But the simple facts on the ground would tell us that this isn't true. It doesn't take an exhaustive reading of the news to understand that we don't treat all people equally. If nothing else, celebrity is often a defense against charges that would land lesser mortal behind bars for long periods. While Tucker Carlson might think that Michael Vick should have been executed for the deaths of dogs during Vick's dogfighting days, the very fact that Vick is playing football again professionally demonstrates that most of the rest of us are okay with him now. "Normal" people would be effectively unemployable for life after a major felony conviction.

Of course, I'm not the first person to make this connection. People have been talking about it for decades, if not longer. Perhaps we should stop talking about it, and simply own up to it. Even if we don't do anything about it - and I suspect we won't, at least being okay with it will let us stop being hypocritical about it.

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