Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Time and punishment

I'm thinking a lot about imprisonment today. I read this story about Jens Soering, who's serving 2 life sentences for killing his girlfriend's parents in a particularly grisly fashion. He was smart and well-educated, the oldest son of a German diplomat. As the story goes, he was mesmerized by an attractive, rich, cool girl at school who was troubled. As he tells it, Elizabeth Haysom killed her parents, and he, with his connections, agreed to confess to the murders to save her from execution. Something about being German and hating the death penalty. Anyway, she says that he did it. And the jury believed her and the prosecution. He's been in prison ever since.

Today I talked to two journalists, whom I respect a lot, about the case. One believes absolutely that he is innocent. The other believes just as much that he's guilty -- that he was at least in the room when it happened, if not planning and slashing. And both are very well-versed in the case.

Soering has written extensively about the brutality of prison. This isn't a new theme, but it gets more attention from the media and religious figures because of his identity. And truly, it's gotten my attention. I read a few articles he wrote, and they were shocking.

I'm thinking, particularly, about the man I helped send to prison a year and a half ago. I was the forewoman on a jury that convicted a man of eight counts of carnal knowledge and four counts of taking indecent liberties with the daughter of his girlfriend. It was a heinous crime. The girl, by then 16, described how he would manipulate her by saying that crying meant she loved him. He also read her poetry and helped her in school. So he built up this trust with her and then violated it in the worst possible way. And the girl's mom also violated her trust by yelling at her when she tried to tell her about the abuse. We convicted in 20 minutes. I mean, he really did it. He didn't even testify or mount a defense. And then we took a couple hours to decide the punishment. At the beginning, there was one woman who thought that 20 years was too much. At the same time, there were others who wanted to impose the maximum, which would be tantamount to life in prison. We talked about it for a couple hours, and we came to a mathematical equation, a certain number of years for each unlawful act. So we ended up recommending he go to prison for 36 years.

And you know, I felt proud of the consensus that I built in that jury room. I didn't take the high and the low and average them out, which someone suggested; nor did I take the most frequently occurring value. We talked it through. Everyone agreed by the end.

But now I'm thinking, how did we decide how long a man should spend in prison in a couple of hours? None of us had even been in a prison. And you know, I'm a law and order kind of a gal. And I can argue well if I really believe in something. 36 years is a long time. I know we thought hard about it that day, but it feels sort of capricious to me now. Why 36? It was so clinical, the way we did it, but it felt good to add some logic to it. Why not 30? Would that not be enough punishment?

And then I think to myself, am I really feeling bad for sending a child molester away until he's 76? I mean, he did it until he was caught. And he did it a lot more times than what we were trying him for. And this girl, who appeared to us with great strength and poise, will be tortured for the rest of her life.

I think that there are no answers here. I miss the time before I knew there were questions.

1 comment:

Julie said...

Some thought-provoking stuff here, Miss Juddee. Made me want to read The Pilot article on Soering (which I did). I also read reader responses to the article, which were interesting. I saw a lot of black and white in those responses.