Tag Archives: death penalty

“I believe that anyone who has committed a crime as serious as murder…”

Here’s a nice emphatic opening for a sentence. And my student has offered The Irrefutable Evidence to support her yet-to-come thesis: “I believe.” (It is the bookend to The Irrefutable Refutation: “I think not.”)

Students have a tough time with that first-person pronoun and its relationship to an essay. Some have learned that “Never use ‘I'” is a hard-and-fast rule, and so they get into all kinds of tangles avoiding it, especially in autobiographical essays (where “I” is appropriate because it refers to the material, not the writer qua writer).

Some have learned that having a personal voice is important in writing, and they personalize by using “I” every chance they get.

And then there are the many, many students who seem unable to write without “I think” or “I believe” or (oh, dear) “It is my opinion that…,” no matter how many ways I try to communicate the idea that an essay is, by definition, what the writer thinks, and one reason documentation is so important is that it identifies those things someone other than the writer thinks. Some still insist on using those phrases in order to indicate to their readers that the idea that follows may not be the only idea and the student is humble enough to know it. We spend class time identifying other ways the writer can provide this room-for-disagreement or room-for-wiser-heads: adverbs like “probably,” “possibly,” “perhaps,” “evidently”; verbs like “seems,” “appears,” “may be,” “suggests,” “implies”; adjectives like “some,” “many”; and other strategies. Still, in comes the next batch of papers, laden with “I think” and “I believe” (not to mention a few “I think not”s).

This student seems to be using “I believe” to add fervor and importance, though: a nice ringing opening. (Insert here a chorus of “I Believe For Every Drop of Rain That Falls.” Of course that’s a song about faith, and faith has no place in a logical argument….)

And now for the rest of the sentence, where appears the thesis for which this opening prepares:

“I believe that anyone who has committed a crime as serious as murder is no doubt guilty.”


What did she think she was saying? Could she be echoing former Attorney General Ed Meese, who famously observed that anyone who was arrested for a crime was pretty sure to be guilty? I hope no student of mine would have that kind of blind faith in anything, including or especially the infallibility of the police. Or was she trying to say that someone guilty of murder was really GUILTY, guilty in a worse-than-usual way, guilty of something bad enough for a really big punishment? Oh, and guilty beyond the famous shadow: “no doubt.”

The opening prepares the reader for something profound or particularly significant, while all the student actually wants to say is that someone who has committed a crime has committed a crime. Now, there’s a controversial thesis for you! She can’t live up to the fanfare of that “I believe.” And because she began so importantly, what follows is not only a circular sentence: it is a ridiculously circular sentence. VERY much ado about nothing.

P.S. I apologize for sticking that song into your consciousness. You may take consolation in knowing that I have also stuck it into mine.

P.P.S. This Horror seems somehow fitting for the first day of the new dispensation in the State of Connecticut: we have joined the civilized nations and a growing number of civilized states in abolishing the death penalty. I believe that anyone who has committed a crime as serious as murder deserves to keep his or her life in order to serve a long, long, long prison sentence, during which he or she will have the opportunity to think about just how serious it is. But if I were writing an essay about it, I wouldn’t use that belief as my evidence: like a good attorney, I would use evidence as evidence. And that’s not a circular sentence.


“If the accused pleaded innocence…”

This is a good weekend to talk about unjust trials, scapegoating, and persecution of “outsiders.”

Yesterday was, after all, Good Friday. And the investigation of the killing of Trayvon Martin goes on (still with no arrest).

It’s also a good time to celebrate Connecticut’s decision to abolish the death penalty (the Senate has voted, and the House and Governor have already announced their intentions to concur). Certainly the residents of Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692-3 would have been better off without it.

And here is my student, writing about the fear of witches in New England, including the Salem Witch Trials (in history and in Cotton Mather’s accounts).

Here’s the whole thing, a remarkable piece of what may have begun as reasonable thought but staggered through some misunderstandings and partial information and finally turned into garbled prose:

“If the accused pleaded innocence they would be ruled with an iron fist and sentenced to death or trial. If they were sentenced to trial they would either be drowned or crushed by boulders because in theory a witch was able to both breathe underwater and withstand the weight.”

We begin with his impression that “trial” is a kind of ordeal, which in some contexts of course it is but not when we’re talking about legal proceedings. He means “trial by ordeal”; the alternative is not a death sentence (at least not right away), but trial by process of court—evidence, testimony, judgment. The Salem trials did not include trial by ordeal; all the accused faced their accusers, or at least faced the “evidence,” in court; no one was thrown into the horse pond to see if the devil would enable her (or him) to float. (The court did admit “spectral evidence,” though—witches’ power could be “proved” via observable phenomena.)

I’m not really sure where the “iron fist” comes into the picture. The cases seem to have been pretty much decided in advance, and the judges meted out the death penalty with inexorable virtue (there had, after all, to be some way of stopping the devil from bringing the godly down). Perhaps the fist that piled rocks on the chest of Giles Corey could be called “iron.” The pressing of Corey was not, however, a trial by ordeal: it was torture plain and simple, intended to “persuade” him to enter a plea of either Guilty or Not Guilty of Witchcraft. If he pleaded Guilty, he would be executed and his lands and goods would be confiscated, but his soul would have a chance at God’s forgiveness; if he pleaded Not Guilty and was found guilty (pretty strong odds), he would be executed and his goods would be confiscated, and his soul would probably go to hell. BUT if he refused to plead, he could not be tried and so the government could not take his property; and that was what he was fighting for, for his descendants’ sake. Anyway, my student seems to think that the “boulders” were a test to see if Corey was a witch; my student is wrong. And certainly nobody, including the devil, helped Corey “withstand the weight”: he was crushed to death, still refusing to plead.

My student’s confusion of “trial” (which in ordinary parlance can of course mean “ordeal”) with “trial by ordeal” gives his statement a nice irony that he didn’t intend, since he seems to think that someone who claimed to be innocent would automatically face one of two fates: summary execution by that iron fist, or death in water or under boulders. In his version, there is no chance at a hearing in court: sentence follows plea. I would like to think he presented the situation in this way because he realized the actual trials were, to our modern eyes, farcical exercises in “proving” foregone conclusions; but his statement doesn’t make room for or hint at any possibly tacit commentary, and the confusion in the actual statement suggests that he had a hard enough time trying to say what he meant, without grappling with subtle implications.

Well, the arc of the universe bends SLOWLY towards justice. Seeing clearly what has been done in the name of justice in the past, we should be inspired to try to bend the arc more quickly. It’s not there quite yet.