September 29, 2011

Fear and Loathing in the Judicial System

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On Thursday, Sept. 22, a day after the executions of Troy Davis in Georgia and Lawrence Brewer in Texas, two other men were exonerated. Kenneth Kagonyera and Robert Wilcoxson of North Carolina had each spent 11 years behind bars, convicted of murdering a man during a home invasion. Neither man had committed the crime, but both had pled guilty.Nonetheless, last Thursday, after the court reviewed the extenuating evidence of their innocence, their convictions were reversed.The men, drained of hope and facing the death penalty, had confessed to the murder in an effort to save their lives. Protestations of innocence were not an option, but their pleas spared them the lethal injection. Their false confessions proved to be the dominant and most compelling pieces of evidence in the case, leading to swift convictions. Kagonyera and Wilcoxson were desperate to stay alive, and the only way to avoid death was, ironically, to incriminate themselves.How does it feel having the death penalty hanging over you and no means to defend yourself, pushed to the limits of mental endurance? What less extreme would lead you to imprison your innocent self? How overwhelming must the thought of dying be to mangle your mind so much?How does such overpowering fear affect the fundamental ability to act and think? Does it immobilize the mind, exposing its vulnerability to reach a point of submissive compliance? Kagonyera and Wilcoxson’s desperation to cling to life motivated their actions to avoid death, resulting in their guilty pleas.If, as appears to be the case, overwhelming fear affects a person’s ability to form rational judgments and make rational decisions, and that fear originates from the looming death penalty, then the death penalty itself is responsible for obstructing people’s ability to reason. It denies them their constitutional right to due process — the fair and unobstructed serving of justice.Clearly, in Kagonyera and Wilcoxson’s cases, the guilty pleas would not have been obtained without the defendants’ determination to avoid the ultimate punishment, and therefore it was the possibility of that punishment itself which unfairly affected the outcome of their trial and convictions. Held at gunpoint by the justice system, who wouldn’t be compliant? Who wouldn’t be acquiescent? Fearing that the system might retaliate with the harshest method possible, you yield to the pressure.The right to due process, a fundamental right, originates from the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution. But due process is endangered by the mere existence of the death penalty, regardless of the debate of whether such punishment is ethical or humane. I would argue that the mere possibility of receiving the death penalty impedes people’s minds and breeds an overwhelming fear that paralyzes and affects the ability to think rationally, making the vulnerable and innocent so desperate that they are willing to do anything to escape it — even if that means incriminating and incarcerating themselves. Due process denied.Lucas Yannis is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at lk396@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Lucas Yannis