17 May 2014

A Young Fellow, a Young Lady & A Workin’ Man: Hard Times Hillbilly Tales

I spend more time on the road at out-of-town courthouses these days than I do at the Marion County Courthouse.

I love experiencing the feeling of “home” in many courtrooms of small, real towns.

Most of my work these days is in a small, two-county circuit. This isn’t LA Law, nor is it Boston Legal. This is a place where people from the real world come to Court, real and with all of their blemishes. It’s a place where everyone really does search for the truth, search for solutions and try to learn from one another.

This week, I ran into a couple of fellows and a young woman around the Courts where I work. Each had lessons to learn and lessons to teach.

Many kinds of hearings are “closed,” or non-public.  To keep cases rolling, lawyers often go into the Courtroom to wait on their own cases to be called. While they wait, they may listen or work or read.

I was sitting in the jury room at the back of a Courtroom during such a hearing because that’s where the chairs, tables and power outlets are.  I only heard a little bit of the content of the hearing that was going on, except that it involved a young man and the hearing was not going well for him.

That hearing ended and some other case was called.  The bailiff brought the young man back to the jury room to wait for transportation somewhere, and they left him there with me. His own lawyer was in and out.

I started talking with this young man – I’ll call him Bart – not about his case or the law or anything legal, just a conversation between people – who he is, who I am, were he goes to school and so forth.

From the little I heard from his hearing and from my conversation with him, I wonder if this young fellow ever had been really listened to or really given thoughtful guidance – or even ever given a bit of human respect. I bet that he has largely been ignored throughout his life until his behavior got so out of whack that someone would suddenly flare, give him an order, and chastise him.

Well, there you have two common schools of thought about child rearing in action.

One is to give a child the maximum freedom to develop (often that means to ignore them). Then, you can depend on the youth’s environment – schools, friends, and those who profit by tempting kids – to give them the information and the philosophy (“values”) which they will use in life.

The other is the “wagon boss” school of thought.  There, a parent – any adult, really – “outranks” the kid.  So when an adult wants some specific behavior from the kid (often something which benefits the adult, not the kid), the adult gives orders. And orders are to be obeyed, dammit, because “I have the power to give orders and you don’t, Bart.”

Neither approach works well. Each is an example of high-contrast thinking – thinking in “black and white.”

There is some attraction to high-contrast thinking.  Mainly, it’s really easy. You declare your set of beliefs and filter everything through them rather than straining things through a brain. That eliminates thought and eliminates doubt:  “I’m right and you’re wrong.”

Often, the result of either kind of thinking or, especially, using both inconsistently, is what Bart experienced – a trip to Court with unpleasant consequences.

I only had a little while, maybe a half hour or so, to talk with Bart. This may not have been in the least significant to him. We talked about manhood and what honorable men do and believe. I happened to be reading a book on the subject, so I wrote out a quote and gave it to him:

Honorable men refuse to wallow in the small and bitter.
Honorable men refuse to hate life because something once went wrong.
Honorable men don't build monuments to their disappointments, nor do they let others brand them and curse them to their destruction.
Honorable men seek out the highest definition of their lives, the nobler meaning granted by heritage, by their ancestors’ dreams and their parents’ hopes.
Honorable men cry out to God until curses are broken and a grander purpose is achieved.
Honorable men don't settle for lives of regret.
[From Mansfield’s Book of Manly Men, by Stephen Mansfield and Gen. William Boykin (Thomas Nelson, 2013)]

He read this and we talked a bit about it.   Then, he folded the page and slipped it into his back pocket.

Was this significant to him?

In and of itself, probably not. Any young person needs a lot of ongoing information and encouragement on responsible behavior, on personal responsibility, on self-reliance, and on cheerful cooperation – and not in the form of orders.  Young people need reasoned discussions. Those are not always easy, because young people are naturally hardheaded at times.  (Remember your own youth?)   It’s a lot easier to ignore them or boss them than it is to engage them in genuine discussion. But ignoring them and bossing them aren’t very useful approaches.

Reasoned discussions may lead – we hope – to young people adopting responsible behaviors and attitudes, not because they were told to but because THEY decided that these make up the right way to live.

Reasoned discussion also recognizes that the perfect person has yet to be born. [I recognize one exception to that, but not all belief systems agree.]   And so everybody screws up.  It’s what you do with screwups that matters most of all.

We as the older people have a duty to “minister” to the young.   Sure, a lot of them will consider our opinions pure bushwah and go try out really stupid stuff.  And sometimes, just sometimes, they will try the teachings of others on for size and build their own strong lives.

If we give them that one brick at a time, they have the capacity to build on their own wall of a fulfilling life. But if  we don’t give them bricks, the wall will not appear.

When you lament, “What’s wrong with kids today?,” one answer you really need to consider is that “WE are what’s wrong with them.  WE have dropped the ball on our responsibilities as elders.”

The concept that “It takes a village” has gotten a bad rap. To some, it has come to represent some sort of collective form of uniformity and intolerance of individuality. But it does take a village, one responsible and individual elder at a time.

On the way out of town after Court, I ran into a young woman. I’ll call her Sarah. Sarah is a pleasant young lady who works at a convenience store counter. As I was going into the store, I met a good friend who is the chief bailiff of the Court. 

If Court where a church – and in some ways it is – he would be the Head Deacon, the person who supports the machinery and implements decisions, that all-important, always-ready “utility outfielder.”

When I went to the counter to buy a bottle of milk, Sarah asked, “Who’s that cop you were talking to?” So I explained who he is and what he does and who I am and what I do. It was a pleasant conversation. As she was giving me my change, I commented to her, “Miss, they are police officers, not “cops.” They consider that disrespectful. Everybody’s entitled to respect.” She stood silently for a moment, then in a perky voice replied, “Yeah, you’re right!”

Here again, I do not expect that one encounter will permanently modify any behaviors.  It’s just one brick. But that’s all we can give young people on any given day, that one brick. If enough of us do it and do it consistently, then we as a village will have given young people the bricks, the tools and the blueprints to build that wall.

The next day, I went back to the same town for a hearing in Family Court. There, I met a gentleman near my own age. This fellow is one of the Heart of America “Workin' Men.” These are folks who build what we buy, fix what we break and who use the strength of their bodies and the agility of their minds to keep everything going.

I represented this gentleman’s wife in a divorce and he was there without a lawyer. These were very nice people who were making the best of an unfortunate situation. They had made their own agreement, which just needed a tweak and written down.  After doing so, we were still outside the Courtroom waiting for our hearing. 

This gentleman and I began to talk about life and society and so forth. He had been laid off from a manufacturing job when a plant closed a few months ago. He is looking for work and trying to get by on $200 a week unemployment. He said if he could find a job for $210 per week, he would take it in a heartbeat. I believe him. This is what working people do. They work.

Another bailiff was there also chatting with us. He had a line on jobs in a factory from which he had retired. (Working as a bailiff is his retirement job.) The gentleman in the case said that he was going to drop off an application on his way out of town. I hope he gets that job.

We also talked about the relationship of older workers to younger workers. Older workers are a steadying influence. As a rule, they show up promptly at the beginning of their shift and work steadily all day. Also, older workers seem to work more safely and without taking dangerous shortcuts. Younger workers need these examples.

We also talked about the preference employers seem to give to the young in hiring. A common reason cited is that younger workers have better health, strength and energy as a rule. But this gentleman gave us a reason that I for one had never considered: The older worker is less afraid of the boss, particularly the boss who is abusive or who is prone to seek dangerous shortcuts.

So the mix of workers hired by a company says more about an employer that I ever considered.

Oh, why “Hillbilly Tales”?

That’s a nod to the late Jim Comstock. He was the editor and publisher of “The West Virginia Hillbilly.” That was a weekly (“weakly,” Jim called it) tabloid-size newspaper on events, society, culture and living in West Virginia. On the back page of every edition was Jim’s column. Seldom was it an “editorial.”  Usually, it was a pithy and reflective essay on life. Every couple of months, Jim wrote a column called simply “Hitchhiker.”

Comstock frequently picked up hitchhikers as he drove the back roads. He wanted to know new people from every walk of life. When he picked up someone with an interesting story or from whom he learned something or to whom he gave something – sometimes all three with the same person in the same column – he wrote about it.

I learned a lot from these columns. 

I still learn a lot from any kind of person. 

And I hope I give them something to.

We ARE all in this together.

03 May 2014

The Genickschuss Protocol: Toward Better Executions for Oklahoma and America

Prison authorities in Oklahoma botched an execution last week. The Internet is aflame and All Decent People are aghast.

And it’s mostly a load of horseshit.

Mr. Clayton Lockett was found guilty of murder in 2000 for raping, shooting and burying a woman alive.  He had a jury trial. He had appeals in both the Oklahoma state court system and the federal system.  He presented various challenges through the time-honored – even sacred – writ of habeas corpus.

Lockett lost all those cases.

And so, he was set to die by lethal injection. In Oklahoma, the state uses a series of three drugs, midazolam (sedative; render unconscious), vecuronium chloride (paralytic; stop respiration); and potassium chloride (stops the  heart) as its “execution cocktail.” These medications are administered intravenously through a little plastic catheter which is threaded into a vein.

In Lockett’s case,the IV infiltrated or “blew,” that is, rather than going into the vein, a lot of the medication escaped under the skin. The state executioners hadn’t inserted a second IV, which was darn poor planning.  The execution was supposed to take less than 10 min. and it actually took around 45 min.  Lockett mumbled that something was wrong, tried to rise (“writhed,” according to one witness), and ultimately died of a heart attack. 

The news has been full of state officials swearing that they did everything they could to send Mr. Lockett peacefully on his way and lots of other folks who swear that Lockett’s death was equivalent to being drawn and quartered.

(“Drawn and quartered” is a phrase bandied about these days by people who have no idea what it is.  In short, it involves slow torture and really gruesome abuse leading to death.)

At the outset, let me say a few words about the death penalty. As a rule, I really don’t like it. Much of the general antipathy to the death penalty is moral in origin, which is fine. Perhaps I’m a lousy Christian, but the moral thing is not what puts me off the most.

There are three reasons I have problems with the death penalty and the first is by far the most prominent:

You cannot trust the courts. 

Maybe that makes me a bad lawyer and a bad citizen.

But it’s still true.

Starting in law school and ever since, often I have concocted little hypotheticals in my mind about cases. For death cases, there is a perfect storm that’s possible.

Juries are drawn from that pitiful pool of talent called Humanity. The other players are drawn from even a smaller and more pitiful pool, the members of Humanity who have gone to law school. All of these people are somewhere between brilliant and stupid; humble and arrogant; and compassionate and immensely harsh.  

If you get just the wrong mix, you may kill an innocent person.  And that’s guaranteed to happen sooner or later. There have been a number of outright exonerations of people on death row when evidence was re-examined using modern science. 

In other words, we have officially whacked a few innocent people.

A second thing to consider is that prison often is subjectively worse in the eyes of the convict than a death sentence.  Lots of media types and political whores talk about coddling criminals in nice, soft prisons. That’s total bullshit.  Prisons are horrible places. Inmates have absolutely zero privacy, near zero protection from harm at the hands of other inmates, lousy low-bidder medical care (much worse than Medicare or Medicaid) and for lifers, virtually no hope of seeing sunlight other than through bars ever again. It’s not at all unusual that a criminal who is given a long prison sentence will commit suicide rather than serve the sentence. Maybe a life sentence is not intended to be cruel, but that’s the effect. We don’t have to bemoan that fact but neither should we ignore it.

Finally, it’s way cheaper to house criminals than to kill them. Executions soak up tons and tons of tax dollars. Governments can keep prisoners housed and secure from the outside world for about $4 an hour. The appointed lawyers who are qualified to work on death cases make something between $60 and $150 an hour. Add to that prosecutors, judges and all the support staffs, and the cost of the death case leaves the cost of prison in the dust.

Now I can hear Bubba the Intellectual saying that we give criminals too many opportunities for appeal. Well, it’s back to Concern #1.  Mistakes are certain to happen.  It would be immoral and unjust not to have cases completely reviewed.

Nevertheless, I’m still okay with the death penalty being available. Why? That’s entirely personal: I have met a very few defendants who really needed to be totally and permanently excised from the Body of Humanity. I’m just fine with with wishing them luck on their way to the Happy Hunting Ground.  I hope that God forgives them and lets them have an eternal life which is better than anything they had on Earth. I’m also totally fine with them being gone from Earth.

A jury and a dozen + judges have agreed that Lockett met the criteria for a trip to execution. It’s possible they were all wrong in this case. But that’s not the way to bet. There is such a thing as a white raven. But there just aren’t too many of them.

John Wayne Gacy?  Ted Bundy?  Jeffrey Dahmer?  Adios, amigos.

So Mr. Lockett took his reluctant walk to the execution chamber. In 45 min., he was dead. I suppose “botched” means that his death was not instantaneous and not totally peaceful.

Our goal in capital cases should be that the death of the convict is quick and limited in pain. There are those who are big on the “eye for an eye” thing but that’s neither just nor justified. Gov. Dukakis’s campaign flamed out when he was asked if he would support execution for someone who killed his wife. He made an academic, even foppish, response. As lots of people later pointed out, a much better response would have been something like, “Hell yes I want him executed.   I’ll do it personally and with a dull knife personally. And that’s why we have to have dispassionate and responsible juries and judges so we can be sure that criminal punishment is not based upon inevitable irrationality but upon fixed standards of justice.”

(Just so we don’t blame it all on that, remember that when Gov. Dukakis drove that tank with a silly grin on his face, he made an equally egregious boner.)

But, but, but  – there’s another seldom acknowledged reason that people get all lathered up about methods of execution. Is this the Land of the Free? Beats me. It seems it’s getting to be the Home of the Sissies.

Oh, and the moral hypocrites.

Even those who love the death penalty are, by and large, not willing to participate directly. Which is okay. Those are hard things to do and not many people are emotionally qualified. Also, most of the public wants a bit of salve for the collective conscience by making executions not just quick and painless, but sanitary. No blood. No mess. People want a Charles-Foster-Kane-passing-away with “Rosebud” on his lips, the candle gently blown out.

Isn’t reality a bitch?

There are groups among the readers of these Dispatches who know death in some of it’s really gruesome forms. First among them are military combat veterans, most of whom have seen death, injury and destruction up close and personal. 10% of the annual federal budget goes for veterans benefits and programs.  I don’t begrudge those folks one dime.

Then there are the public service workers (police/fire/EMS) and the entire medical community. They know this one really hard fact: Death is ugly.  Often death is slow.  Often death is painful.

I think tonight of some deaths I have attended.  There are a lot of those folks who would have traded the hand they were dealt for a “botched” Oklahoma execution in a heartbeat.

The way those people died was not fair to them. They were dealt a bad hand, and it’s just not fair.   In life, Lockett likely was dealt a pretty bad hand.  Toward the end, he got caught slipping aces out of his sleeve.  That he got a short term medically induced death just is not this great tragedy. Those who suggest that he was punished in some way beyond what life, fate and/or random chance punishes most people are living in a fantasy world.

All that being said, there is a better way to execute people. If we as a society want to stick to drugs, there are lots and lots of drugs and drug combinations out there that seem to work well by accident among illegal drug users. Maybe this multi-drug cocktail idea used by governments is mostly smoke and mirrors to make it look all neat, abstract and terribly scientific.

Even so, the way society does executions today still has a lot of macabre ceremony to it, something like the Black Mass. There are optional visits from clergy who provide pastoral but not corporeal support.  There is a last meal, the menu always reported breathlessly in the press for death-tittilated voyeurs, like little boys sneaking a look at a skin magazine. There is a solemn march to the death chamber, the insertion of the IV, the reading of the death warrant, the solemn “Do you have any last words?,” and then the prayerful nod of the warden to the people behind the curtain to press the gaily colored switches of Doom.

They might as well shake rattles and chant a little.

Oh, the better way!

There is a German word for a very simple concept, genickschuss.  (Ge-NEEK-shooss).  It is a simple protocol. The executioner puts a pistol to the base of the convict’s skull with an upward trajectory and pulls the trigger. It doesn’t take a large round, and it doesn’t even necessarily make a whole lot of mess. It is instantaneous, so much so that it is painless.

I doubt we’ll ever get the guts or the honesty to dispatch people in this kind but direct manner.  We do so love to fiddle with trivialities.