Lester Bower is dead. The state of Texas killed him last night. He had been on death row for 31 years. It’s not clear whether or not he was guilty of the crimes he was convicted of. At this point, there was certainly reasonable doubt — not to mention a shadow of a doubt. But once you are convicted of something — regardless of how bad the trial or your representation — it is really hard to get your conviction overturned. For roughly three decades, Bower had been trying to get the judicial system to consider the new evidence that almost certainly would have exonerated him had he been given a fresh trial.
People I talk to — death penalty advocates most especially — have a really screwy idea about how “justice” works in this country. They think that every person put to death has been found guilty three, four, or more times. This is literally never the case. Appeals only deal with whether the original trial was fair. So even when there is new information, it tends to be discounted unless it can be shown that it was improperly withheld in the original trial. As Radley Balko noted in The Washington Post yesterday, “‘Beyond a reasonable doubt’ is the alleged standard at trial. But once you’ve been convicted, you’re essentially tasked with proving your innocence.”
So the system is started and everyone involved in it just watches it proceed. It’s like a car with its cruise control set running down innocent people. And all anyone cares about is that the system works. It was it set at 65 mph; is that the speed with which it ran people over? Then it’s fine. It’s amazing to think about. And it reminds me of the 2012 Republican presidential debate when Rick Perry was asked if he ever lost any sleep over the thought that anyone had been wrongly put to death in his state. He said no, because appeals blah blah blah. Of course, he isn’t like most people; he has to know how limited and flawed the appeals process is. He just doesn’t care. Because he’s evil.
Of course, there was nothing special about Lester Bower. He’s one of many people who at bare minimum the state hadn’t proved guilty but nonetheless executed. Imagine if we had a large supply of small trash cans face down on a conveyor belt being fed into a machine that then crushed them. And there were people running around and lifting up the cans before they were fed into the machine, showing that there were kittens underneath many of them. Would any reasonable person say, “It’s good we saved those kittens, but obviously none of the cans that get crushed have kittens under them.” That would be madness. But of course, that’s what death penalty advocates say. Every time someone on death row is exonerated, they proclaim that it shows that the system works, and call for more executions.
I really don’t get it. In the video above, the audience twice breaks out in cheers — In less than a minute! — about the fact that Texas executes so many people. These are not people who are considering whether these people are guilty or innocent. They simply don’t care. They have no sense of empathy. They think the people being executed are “those” people — never people like themselves. Rick Perry’s argument is that the death penalty is justice — completely side stepping the question, which asks how we can know that.
Last night Texas killed another most likely innocent person. But his innocence hardly matters. His death serves a symbolic purpose. It allows death penalty advocates — big and small — to say to the world, “We’re tough!” In a sense, the fact that Bower is innocent makes it all the better. It says they are willing to even kill the innocent in the name of protecting the innocent. It’s a sad day in American, but then, almost every day is. Forgive us Lester Bower.