When I first told my friends I was going to do death penalty work in Baltimore, the immediate response was two words, The Wire (for those without Netflix, this is a TV series looking at the illegal drugs trade and other issues in Baltimore). Assuming my parents won’t get to read this blog while I am away, and not to put off future interns (positive comments to follow), it is undeniable that the crime rate is higher here than the US average. Crime is however heavily concentrated in certain areas of the city – the west and the north east. Unsurprisingly, these areas are also the areas with the lowest levels of employment, income and education. Whilst there is no death penalty in Baltimore, coming to understand the poor economic climate and cycle of crime people become trapped into has helped me appreciate how vast sections of society end up in the prison system in the first place.
Presenting the Defendant’s life history is the work of the not-for-profit organisation in Baltimore, where I am interning this month. The staff are experts in researching the backgrounds of individuals facing the most severe penalties in America: the death penalty and, for those who were juveniles at the time of the crime, life without parole. It is hoped that presenting decision makers with this information will encourage them to see the Defendant as a human being worth saving, with all their strengths and weaknesses and often impacted by generations of trauma.
My particular project while I am here is to read the transcripts of concluded death penalty cases in Texas, half of which resulted in life sentences and half of which resulted in the death penalty. I’m then reading transcripts of interviews held with the jury members responsible for handing out these sentences. In Texas, there is no list of expressly designated aggravating or mitigating factors which the jury are instructed to take into account. Rather, after finding a defendant guilty of capital murder, a jury trial in Texas will be directed to answer two “special issue questions.”
The first special issue question relates to the Defendant’s future dangerousness to society (with prison being treated as a section of society). If the jury members consider there to be a probability that the Defendant will commit criminal acts of violence so as to be a continuing threat to society then they have the option of imposing the death penalty. In reality this question can be drawn so widely that almost any Defendant can be found to be a future threat. The second question is whether, after having taken all the evidence into account, including the Defendant’s character, background and moral culpability there are sufficient mitigating circumstances to impose a life sentence. My research is to look at how receptive the jury has been to the mitigating evidence presented by the Defence lawyers at this stage. Unfortunately, as there is no clear definition of “mitigating” there is a risk that evidence relating to the Defendant’s poor background or even his/her mental illness could be seen as an aggravating factor going towards the Defendant’s future dangerousness.
I am already starting to see themes between the particular cases and the results will be incorporated into a full report in the not too distant future. What is obvious however is that these are not people with privileged upbringings. As it is often said, only the poorest of the poor end up on death row. People who are poor get the pot luck of a public defender who may or may not have the time or resources to dedicate to their case. I have read the depressing and frustrating consequences of this in one of the transcripts in particular. It is therefore hard to say that the death penalty is not still being imposed in an arbitrary “lightning-strike” fashion.
After all that, I guess it goes to show how privileged I am to be on the fun, safer side of the Baltimore divide. Reading the cases and the work of the office does remind you how life could easily be different. There are so many interesting things to do here in Baltimore, loads of free sporting events, free outdoor concerts, galleries, festivals, museums and theatres. There is a really picturesque waterfront with street performers and historic ships. The food is a big plus and I have indulged very heavily. I have met some really great, friendly people. Baltimore clearly has its issues but people I have met are proud to be from here and are keen to tell me everything the city has to offer in the same way I am proud to be from Manchester (and know we’re not all the cast of Shameless). All in all it’s a massively underrated city and I would encourage interns to come and volunteer here.