Saturday, July 23, 2011


I just read a very long, very good article about the execution of a man in Texas:

Trial By Fire
By: David Grann
September 7, 2009

The basic point of the piece comes in one of its last sentences: "There is a chance, however, that Texas could become the first state to acknowledge officially that, since the advent of the modern judicial system, it had carried out the 'execution of a legally and factually innocent person.'"

Since this was written two years ago, there have been a few updates to the investigations into the case. From the relevant Wikipedian entry: "A four-person panel of the Texas Forensic Science Commission investigating evidence of arson presented in the case acknowledged on July 23, 2010, that state and local arson investigators used "flawed science" in determining the blaze had been deliberately set."

After reading through all this tonight, I found myself looking up some basic information on prisons. (The article presents a stark view of prison life.)

Also from Wikipedia:

As of 2006, it is estimated that at least 9.25 million people are currently imprisoned worldwide. . . .

In absolute terms, the United States currently has the largest inmate population in the world, with more than 2½ million or more than one in a hundred adults in prison and jails. . . .

As a percentage of total population, the United States also has the largest imprisoned population, with 739 people per 100,000 serving time, awaiting trial or otherwise detained.

This is definitely some food for thought. I knew that the United States had a large number of prisoners, but I didn't realize how it compared to other countries. The same Wikipedia page has a small comparative chart:

Prison population per 100,000 inhabitants

Country - Prison population per 100,000 inhabitants

United States of America - 756
Russian Federation - 611
New Zealand - 186
United Kingdom - 148
India - 22

So at first I thought that maybe the USA just had a larger number of people (which wouldn't make logical sense anyway, since it's a measure of a percentage of the population)... but look at that last figure. India is the second most populated country in the world.

We should be constantly questioning whether our penal system is working to create better Americans. I think there is a real danger for everyone to (1) want to find swift justice in heinous crimes (aka, want to quickly find a guilty criminal, to prove that justice can be done in the world by simply taking out the bad seeds) (2) want our prejudices and hunches to turn out to be true so we don't have to be proved wrong (3) lock up the 'criminals' so we're safe (4) bring down other humans so we feel better about ourselves.

Also, as a final aside, the idea that a state governor is in many cases a final arbiter of who is deemed guilty and who is deemed innocent, who is granted life and who is granted death (through their ability to grant a pardon), made me yet again question the competence of Governor Rick Scott, who, incidentally, started out his career by practicing law in Texas before he went on to lead Columbia / HCA, the healthcare company that had "the largest fraud settlement in US history."

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