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There it was. Glaring in bold black, ¾-inch high text, reaching out from the front page of the local section of <?xml:namespace prefix =”” st1 ns =”” “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Delaware’s News Journal and virtually gut-punching many of its readers. “1993 death sentence struck down,” it said. Right on cue, the standard medley of sanctimonious condemnations spewed forth. All of the righteous, bible believin’, self-appointed servants of the Almighty promptly condemned all of those “do gooder”, murderer-lovin’, liberal judges for putting criminals’ rights ahead of victims’ rights.
Not only does this stuff never stop, those who dare to question the logic behind such thinking also end up being condemned as “do gooder”, liberal murderer coddlers. Geez, it’s almost as bad as questioning a George W. Bush policy statement.
Those who are not familiar with this case, may click here to read the entire account, including reader comments as permitted on DelwareOnLine.com, the News Journal’s web site. However, I’m not sure how long the archive will remain accessible. So, I’ll give a brief synopsis here.
In January of 1992, Jack F. Outten and his cousins, brothers Steven and Nelson Shelton, lured a 64-year old man to an isolated area outside of Wilmington, Delaware. They beat him to death, almost beyond recognition, with a hammer. They were tried separately and their respective juries found each guilty. The physical evidence was overwhelming.
In capital murder cases, Delaware law requires that a jury, via a simple majority vote, recommend a sentence of either death or life in prison without the possibility of parole. The presiding judge has the final say, but must give “great” weight to the jury’s recommendation.
In accordance with Delaware’s law, the presiding judges in each case sentenced the defendant to death. Nelson Shelton waived his rights to appeal and the State executed him on March 17, 1995. Conversely, both Jack Outten and Steven Shelton appealed; each claiming ineffective council as grounds. In Steven Shelton’s case, the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against him. However, Outten’s appeal was successful.
The 3rd Circuit found that Outten’s original lawyers did not reasonably investigate his background; one that would have uncovered possible mitigating circumstances to avoid the death penalty. The fact that the sentencing jury never had the opportunity to hear about possible mitigating circumstances constituted sufficient grounds to strike down the death sentence.
Delaware must now decide to either hold a new sentencing hearing with a new jury or accept the 3rd Circuit’s ruling and commute Outten’s sentence to life without possibility of parole. I have no idea what will happen. However, in light of the original split jury recommendation—7 to 5 for the death penalty—I believe the original outcome may have been different. While probably just as split, it may have been in the other direction.
The sixth amendment to the United States Constitution, among other things, grants a citizen accused of a crime the right to defense council. It not only guarantees a criminal defendant the right to council; it guarantees the right to “effective” council. Such council has a two-fold obligation relative to clients.
The first is to make sure that the prosecution proves its case beyond a reasonable doubt. AND, that it does so within long established rules of evidence and ethics. Second is the obligation to instill reasonable doubt whenever possible within the same rules of evidence and ethics. In addition, whenever the death penalty is on the table and the latter is not possible, “effective” council MUST present ALL legitimate mitigating circum-stances that may eliminate a death sentence.
Whether circumstances are mitigating is a question of fact, not law. In other words, a jury must decide the matter. However, this is impossible if the jury doesn’t hear them to begin with. Regardless of the reasons, his original lawyers failed in this respect. They are to blame, not the appellate courts or judges.
Personally, I take no moral stand on the death penalty. In this respect, I’m indifferent relative to its use. However, as a member of a jury charged with such a decision, I’d vote no. I’d do so because I don’t believe it accomplishes what many death penalty proponents think. To me, the “death” penalty has more to do with vengeance than justice. Here’s why.
To the righteous—and I mean this respectfully here—the execution of murderers constitutes legitimately depriving such people of their lives. I mean, perhaps they reason that it only seems fair, right? By such logic, if you murder someone, you die! As the day of reckoning dawns, the mind becomes obsessed with the thoughts of impending death. Is there a God? Is there a hell? Will it hurt? Such thoughts form a monopoly as the impending execution gets closer. The heart will be pounding in the head so loudly as the gurney comes into view that all other thoughts become insignificant by comparison.
Perhaps the rationale is along the lines of, yes indeedy, scumbag, we’re dispatching you to God who is going to send you to the hell you so justly deserve. Hope you’re as scared as your victim was. Actually, we hope you’re a lot more scared.
Tha-thump. Tha-thump. Tha-thump. THA-thump. THA-Thump. THA-THUMP! THA-THUMP! THA-THUMP! THA-THUMPTHATHUMPTHATHUMP!
What many death penalty proponents fail to realize is that wardens are required to offer the condemned a sedative shortly before the big event. Some of the condemned refuse it, but many accept it. It’s not strong enough to obliterate the impending doom, but it’s strong enough to take a significant edge off things. The condemned is still quite a bit nervous, but more along the lines of “let’s get it over with.”
Also, what if there is no God, heaven or hell? Suppose that once blood stops flowing to the brain, all conscientiousness ceases. Once that last brain synapse fizzles out, there’s nothing else…eternal non-existence. No pain. No pleasure. Nothing, not even a recollection of ever having existed. As horrible and inconceivable as this thought is for bible believin’ people, it’s a possibility. If it turns out to be a reality, dying is no big deal. We’re not punishing these scumbags; we’re ending their suffering. Damn! That seems sooooo unfair.
On the other hand, living for the rest of their natural lives in an 8 by 14 foot cell, under maximum-security prison conditions, plus the honor of being on twenty-four hour call as bubba’s bitch (and you just know that he’ll share you with others if the conditions are right)…now, THAT’S punishment. Hell, no. It’s even better than punishment. It’s vengeance and it’s a lot more fun than justice could ever be!
See you next week.
Joseph Walther is a freelance writer and publisher of The True Facts. This stuff is copyrighted and can’t be reproduced without the expressed consent of the author. Send your comments. Just click here.