We Are All Better than the Worst Thing We Have Done

The well-known capital defense lawyer Bryan Stevenson likes to quote an aphorism he got from a teacher, “We are all better than the worst thing we have done.” We call people who have been convicted of crimes, often because if they didn’t plead, they faced far worse sentences (I will write a blog post about this later) “criminals” or “felons, “or when they get out of jail, “ex-cons.” We define them by one bad feature about them. And of course, people who have been convicted of murder we call “murderers.”


This is like — I am aware that the analogy is not perfect – calling people with disabilities “cripples” or the disabled. Disability is not a wrong or a failing for which someone can reasonably be blaWho Are We?med. The analogy I have in mind is that we pick out one feature, typically negative, and define the entire person by reference to that feature. But people are many-sided. We have all done bad things, not necessarily criminal, but sometimes. It is unfair as well as inaccurate to say reduce anyone to one bad thing they have done, or even several things.


In addition, there is inevitably an explanation, which is not the same as a justification or an excuse, but an account of why the person did that thing, which refers to many factors beyond their control. So, for example, most FBI index crimes are committed by young men in the 18 to 34 year old age group (65.5% of homicides are committed by men in this age group) (https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/htus8008.pdf ), a period during which people’s and specifically young men’s, nervous systems are underdeveloped in a way that makes it easier for them to engage in impulsive, shortsighted behavior. That is why teenagers are so stupid and reckless.

That’s not a good reason to commit a crime, but it is a reason why we should not reduce the person to the crime. It is not true that to understand all, even if we could, is to forgive all, nor does it follow that a person we forgive for something bad that they have done ought not be held accountable and even punished. But to understand more is to regard people as whole, many-sided, complex beings. We would hope for similar consideration ourselves. If we were perfectly honest, if we were all held legally accountable for all of the bad things, or even just the very worst things we’ve done, we’d all still be in jail, given our absurd incarceration policies.


I have friends who are “murderers,” who have been convicted of intentional homicide— close friends. They are not wrongfully accused. They did it. Often what they did was awful. But they are my friends because they are not bad people who do bad things. They are people who have done bad things, typically in the distant past, and from age 50 or 60, age 20 is a lifetime away. Some of these people have done better things for the community and for the people around them than you or I.


And yet “ex-felons” or “murderers” (very few people with criminal histories have committed murder), even after they have served their sentence and, in, an old expression that no longer seems to have traction, “have paid their debt to society,” are stigmatized, discriminated against, denied many benefits, including many benefits of citizenship — in at least 12 states that I am aware of, the right to vote. (The pattern of felony disenfranchisement is complex and racially biased against black men. See http://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/felony-disenfranchisement-a-primer/ )

People will not hire them for jobs, ironically leaving them either destitute or for the public to support, even though many of them are perfectly capable of work, even difficult and challenging work that requires serious responsibility and is generally rewarded with good pay.


People should be assessed – should I say judged? Only one might remember the biblical injunction to “judge not” – for who they are as total people. I emphasize again that it does not justify or excuse their crimes committed in the past, however serious. But it does count against treating them as just that one bad thing that they did and nothing more. We are all better than the worst thing that we have done. We can show it if given a chance and trust.

If this sounds like “bleeding heart liberalism,” consider how you would like to be treated if you were convicted of a crime – and yes it could happen to you – perhaps because the risks of going to trial were too great. Even if you did it, you would not want to be labeled as a “criminal,” a “felon,” or an “ex-con,” as if that exhausted everything important about you. You would want to be treated with compassion and understanding. And given a chance. If that is “bleeding heart liberalism,” embrace it, but I think it is just common sense. We are all better in the worst thing we have done. Let’s treat ourselves and others accordingly.


I have a friend, who killed two people 45 years ago, for no good reason, as part of a failed burglary, and served 31 years in prison. He is someone that, when I was getting him out of prison, I would tell people, truthfully, I might be more likely to trust  with my then-small children than I might be willing to trust the never-even-arrested people to whom I was speaking. That is because I had come to know him and knew the kind of person he was.

Not all people who have committed murders are like that, but then, so are not all people who have not, maybe not you. I hope you are, but I would also hope that you would regard people who have committed murders and served time the same respect, consideration, and all around fairness that you would hope for if the circumstances were reversed. We are all better than the worst thing we have done.


And then there is the fact that in jails in Illinois people who have not been convicted of anything, and who are presumed innocent as a matter of law are referred to by their jailers as “offenders,” even though the burden is on the state to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that they are offenders — or more precisely, people who have committed to offenses — and this has not been done in those cases. But that is the topic for another time.


It has taken time to understand that while friendship can be fragile, it is also incredibly flexible.

Cruelty, Race, and the Death Penalty

It’s not as if capital punishment wasn’t bad enough, but the State of Arkansas is about to go on a killing spree with expiring death drugs the “ordinary” use of which amounts to torture. (As this page remains up the executions will almost certainly have been carried out.)

If we are going to insist on judicially authorized killing with a shred of humanity, if that’s not a contraDeath Chamber Gurneydiction in terms, we’d use the guillotine, which is certain, swift, and (because it instantly severs the spinal cord at the neck) medically provably painless. But decapitation grosses us out, so we’d rather impose excruciating deaths that often take long period with unknown drugs of uncertain provenance. If we couldn’t deal with decapitation, we might execute the condemned with overdoses of medical-grade morphine, which is also certain and certainly painless.

But the real problem is the death penalty itself, which is not only barbaric, but freakish (Furman v. Georgia, 408 U.S. 238 (1972)) (Stewart, J. concurring), as well as racist. It’s no accident that over 80% of the executions since the Supreme Court allowed the reinstitution of the death penalty in Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153 (1976) were in the states of the Old Confederacy.  Not that the old South is more racist than, say, Chicago, but the pattern re-creates the historical localization of lynchings.

In view of the immediate occasion of this post being executions in Arkansas, it is telling that of the almost 4,000 documented lynchings,  one Arkansas County, Phillips County, in the Mississippi Delta, accounted for over 6% of all lynching, 243 in all. More than eight in ten American lynchings between 1889 and 1918 occurred in the South.  African Americans make up 13% of the US population, but 42% of the roughly 3,000 people now on death row are black, and 35 percent of those executed since 1976 have been black (figures from the Equal Justice Initiative, http://eji.org/death-penalty; https://www.democracynow.org/2015/2/11/as_study_finds_4_000_lynchings ).

Just to drive the point home, over 75% of the murder victims in cases resulting in an execution were white, even though nationally only 50% of murder victims generally are white. (http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/documents/FactSheet.pdf ) In McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279 (1987), the court considered a study by David Baldus of the Univ. of Iowa showing that black killers of white victims were more than four times as likely to receive the death penalty than killers and victims in any other combination. The Court stated that the “racially disproportionate impact” in the Georgia death penalty was not enough to vacate the death sentence without showing a “racially discriminatory purpose” in the particular case. Statistics weren’t enough to raise a constitutional doubt. But they should raise a doubt in our own minds and that of our legislators.
There may be people who deserve to die, although it might be debated who these are. Some people might nominate corrupt politicians, high-ranking war criminals (there is precedent for this at Nuremberg), and crooked financiers of the sort who crashed and burned the world economy in 2000 and 2008, many members of any one of which groups caused far more atrocious suffering than any individual murderer.

But even if someone deserves to die for whatever reason, the question remains open, do we have the moral right to kill them? In view of the cruel, random and racially biased nature of the way the states impose capital punishment, it seems clear that we are not civilized enough to have a death penalty. And if we were, we probably wouldn’t.