Sunday, January 30, 2005

Prison Blues

San Quentin, what good do you think you do?
Do you think I'll be different when you're through?
You bend my heart & mind and you warp my soul
Your stone walls turn my blood a little cold
- Johnny Cash

Death Row has been on my mind lately. I lived within spitting distance of the place for nearly 15 years, and didn't think too much about it. For quite a while, I didn't realize it as close to as it was. San Quentin is just north of San Francisco on Highway 101, between Sausalito and San Rafael in Marin county.

I'd cruise with my boyfriend to Sausalito for a tasty pancake breakfast, go for motorcycle rides through Marin, have dinner in San Rafael. We'd drive right past San Quentin, which always looked to me like a military base on a piece of prime coastal real estate on the edge of the San Francisco Bay. I lived less than 10 miles from Death Row. Millions of us did (and still do).

San Quentin was established in 1852. It sprung up during the lawless Gold Rush period and used to house both men and women until 1933. Capital punishment was legalized in California in 1851, and the first execution at San Quentin took place in 1893. The original gallows have now become a gym, since all that executing action has moved along to the infamous gas chamber. Merle Haggard served 15 years there, and Charlie Manson spent quite a few years there as well. The names of some of the folks on Death Row are familiar... Richard Ramirez - aka the Nightstalker, Sirhan Sirhan, and Scott Peterson is on his way there. Undoubtedly, the crimes that put these people on Death Row are horrible, and their guilt, more often that not, proven.

But should they be killed? Richard Davis, the guy who killed Polly Klaas - a 12 year old girl snatched at knifepoint from her home and strangled - just seemed like an evil, dark soul. I have no problem seeing him gassed. The entire Bay Area was galvanized into action when Polly went missing, and I remember crying once the news came out that she'd been found dead. It was like a lynch mob; we wanted his blood. We're getting it, eventually. But at the same time, who are we to decide this? If killing is wrong, isn't state sanctioned killing wrong too?

This is something I've never been able to firmly take a stand on, obviously. Why does this come to mind now? The recent Metro Link derailment, which killed at least 11 people and injured over a hundred others and happened just a mile or two from where I live. The guy who caused it had parked his SUV on the tracks, wanting to kill himself. Then he changed his mind, got out of the car, and wound up harming a huge number of people. Then he wandered onto his landlady's porch, stabbing himself in the chest repeatedly with a pair of scissor after having tried to slash his wrists, apologizing for what he'd done. And now, this suicidal man is facing 11 counts of murder with special circumstances, which would mean that if he is convicted, he gets the gas. So - should we kill him, or let him kill himself? If he's found insane, then he can't be sent to the gas chamber. If he is simply despondent, he can. If he kills himself, he saves the state a pile of cash and people who want to see him dead are satisfied - unless they want to flip the switch. But wouldn't it be malicious at that point? Keep a suicidal man alive so you can kill him later? Evidently, there are quite a few suicides on Death Row already.

I was unfortunate enough to have a friend randomly shot and killed in front of his own home some years ago. There was barely a description of the guys and vehicle responsible, and "two black men between the ages of twenty and thirty in a dark Cadillac" fit too many people living in Oakland, California. My boyfriend and I just came home from a movie to find police tape around the house and our lives changed forever. But if these two were found, and the death penalty put to them (it was theorized that maybe they were trying to steal his car), what would it solve? Would it get their bad genes out of the gene pool? Would it bring Talbert back? No. No to both.

Is an eye for an eye every truly satisfying? I guess it depends on who you ask, because I don't think it is for me.