The Chamber and the Simpson Case

August 09, 1994|By ARTHUR W. MACHEN JR.

Those who have read John Grisham's best-selling ''The Chamber'' and have also witnessed on television the grisly testimony in the preliminary hearing in the Simpson case have been given food for thought about the propriety of retaining the death penalty in our civilized society.

''The Chamber'' tells the story of a convicted criminal who aided and abetted in the killing of two innocent children and was sentenced to die in the Mississippi gas chamber.

Before the saga's gripping denouement, the central figure makes his peace with God and does his best to make known his remorse to the survivors of his victims. Whether he thereafter dies or is reprieved is for the reader to find out in the last few pages. Without giving that away, it may be said that ''The Chamber'' brings home the point that the state does a better job of killing animals than killing people and that our overburdened judicial system puts a sinister gloss on the individual rights of those condemned to die.

Thus learn that the Supreme Court has a ''death clerk'' whose job it is to receive by fax copies of post-conviction petitions so that they may be available for review at the highest level before they have even been at the lowest by a district judge. Such efforts to streamline the process betray a cynicism that does little more than lip service to the Constitution.

The judges and justices thereby maintain the fiction that these basic rights are alive and well, yet the sheer weight of post-conviction petitions has forced them to adopt assembly-line methods to keep abreast of the paper.

One cannot blame them. The ingenuity of defense counsel has developed a litany of subjects for review, usually culminating in the last-ditch charge that trial counsel had been incompetent. Almost invariably, these appeals are doomed for rejection, yet hope springs eternal in the hearts of counsel while the convicted prisoner languishes on Death Row.

Isn't this a hell of a way to run a railroad? If we're going to retain the death penalty (and a substantial majority of Americans seem to want that), then we must accept the risk that the state will kill some innocent people, that the sentence will be capriciously imposed for the most part on the underprivileged, and that the only objective achieved is the satisfaction of a yearning for revenge. But at least we ought to devise some system whereby executions may be accomplished expeditiously and as humanely as possible. Keeping people on Death Row for eight years or more is itself cruel and unusual.

Having learned these lessons from ''The Chamber,'' this reader was glued to television at O.J. Simpson's preliminary hearing when the deputy medical examiner of Los Angeles County described in gory detail the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Mrs. Simpson was nearly decapitated by a throat wound inflicted with such violence and bestiality that it nicked her spinal cord; the young man was repeatedly stabbed in the neck and abdomen and sustained numerous defense wounds that conjure up the vision of brutal hand-to-hand combat. The scene can only be described as one of bloody savagery to be expected in a primeval jungle.

Against this backdrop, we learn that the state's attorney is uncertain whether to seek the death penalty, even though this is clearly an option under the facts alleged. If the defendant were a drifter from the inner-city slums, would there be any doubt? To pose the question is to answer it.

The outcome of the Simpson case is a long way off and understandably the prosecutor does not want to tip her head on this issue so early in the game. But it is not too soon for thinking Americans to ponder these axioms:

First, that on the facts so far known, this crime is so heinous that it cries out for the maximum penalty provided by law.

Second, that given the American attitudes toward hero worship, it is unthinkable that The Juice, even if convicted, would be executed. The public simply wouldn't stand for it. People held in widespread adulation are not subjects for the gas chamber or lethal injection, especially on prime-time national TV. It won't happen. Hence the inequity and resulting iniquity of capital punishment.

''The Chamber'' shows how badly it works in practice and the Simpson case shows that in some of the worst cases it cannot be applied at all. We should do away with it.

Arthur W. Machen Jr. is a Baltimore attorney.

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