Elevate Difference

Capital Punishment: An Indictment by a Death-Row Survivor

In 1965, Billy Wayne Sinclair accidentally killed a store clerk with a shot fired aimlessly into the dark after a robbery he had committed. One year later, at the age of twenty-one, he was sentenced to die in the electric chair for his crime, however unintentional. Sinclair initially dealt with his death sentence through denial, swallowing the tranquilizers the guards on death row dispensed to keep the inmates pacified. Thankfully, Sinclair became curious about the system that intended to kill him and the methods it had at its disposal to do so.

In 1972, the Supreme Court decided the case of Furman v. Georgia, effectively striking down the death penalty nationwide. Billy Wayne Sinclair’s sentence was commuted to life without parole. Over the next forty years that Sinclair spent in prison, he became a respected, award-winning writer and jailhouse lawyer. Since winning his freedom in 2006, Sinclair has established himself as a senior paralegal in a Houston law firm. Capital Punishment: An Indictment by a Death-Row Survivor is Sinclair’s second book. The death penalty being the divisive issue that it is, it’s not likely that Capital Punishment will change many minds. The tales of miscarriages of justice, dirty politics, and DNA exonerations abounding throughout Sinclair’s book are enough to make one’s jaw drop in utter outrage. (Sinclair is fervently anti-death penalty, as might be inferred from past bitter experience.) However, that’s until Sinclair details the despicable crimes that led to the inmates’ death-row sentences in the first place, which generally caused me to lose any trace of pity I might have held. Perhaps Sinclair himself even realizes this, because the instances in which he actually discusses the crimes committed in a particular inmate’s case study are few and far between.

Sinclair is at his best when discussing in graphic detail America's present methods of executing condemned prisoners. Sinclair presents plenty of interesting anecdotes about the American way of death, past and present. For example, when Mary Surratt was hanged as a co-conspirator in Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, several people held her legs so that her undergarments wouldn’t “immodestly” show in her death throes. The sight of a woman’s underwear was more shocking to the public than the sight of that same woman dying painfully and publicly.

Thanks to several victim-blaming statements early in the book, I was not terribly impressed with Billy Wayne Sinclair's gender sympathies. He regained some ground in a later chapter titled “The Killers of Women” in which he discusses the disparity in the sentences given to those who kill women versus those who kill "real" people. Men who kill women are almost a legal anomaly. Two-thirds of all violent incidents against women in the United States involve a relative or an intimate, and six times as many women are the victims of violence at the hands of intimate partners as by strangers. However, men who kill intimate female partners are rarely if ever charged with first-degree or even second-degree murder. Generally, they plea-bargain down to lesser charges such as manslaughter and can serve even less time than automobile thieves. Capital punishment is rarely handed down in cases involving intimate partner murders. Sinclair makes the compelling argument that the murdered women are not viewed as "crime victims," but simply as victims of "domestic violence." Domestic violence victims, says Sinclair, do not receive the societal benefit of the justice of capital punishment when they are killed by rejected lovers and husbands. Of course, it doesn't help that socially, historically, and legally, women have been viewed as the property of men, to be disposed of as seen fit by her owner.

Female perpetrators of crimes serious enough to warrant the death penalty are extraordinarily rare. As of January 1, 2008, women made up only 1.5 percent of the United States' death row population. Because of this anomaly, and because Sinclair focuses mostly on Texas and Louisiana in his research, and furthermore because of his prior focus on disparate gender issues, I expected Sinclair to bring up the famous case of Karla Faye Tucker's execution in Texas in 1998. However, it merits only a one-line mention in an appendix of statistics. Karla Faye Tucker would have beautifully illustrated the hypocrisy inherent in America's thirst for blood vengeance, so long as that blood comes from the wounds of the public's image of a lower-class black male perpetrator. Tucker, however, was an attractive white female who had converted to fervent Christianity while imprisoned on death row for a brutal ax murder, thus contradicting in almost every way possible the "ideal" capital punishment candidate. Many at the time called for leniency for Tucker, who also begged for her life, but then-governor George Bush would not grant a stay of execution. The lesson here, one may surmise, is that women are treated more delicately and with more sympathy as convicted murderers (out of quaint ideas about the infirmities and inherent passivity and pacifism of women) than they are as the victims of brutality.

I'd liked to have known more about Sinclair's own life on death row, and I did have a few quibbles with his editing and facts, but on the whole I found this to be an exhaustively researched and well-written book, and perhaps enlightening and inspiring to others who have found themselves back outside after years in the penal system. Those who are staunchly and unflinchingly on one side or the other of the capital punishment debate will not likely be swayed to change their position, but there are plenty of facts, case studies, statistics, and anecdotes to make the undecided and the fence-sitters fall to one side.

Written by: Natalie Ballard, July 20th 2009

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