Tuesday, January 17, 2006

We did the right thing, executing Clarence Allen

Clarence Allen, convicted of ordering from prison the murder of a witness to the earlier murder for which he was in that prison, was put to death in the wee hours of this morning.

I oppose the death penalty. I as an individual do not have a right to revenge, and nor should the state, even with due process of law. However, there are a tiny few cases where an individual must resort to deadly force to protect him or herself, and likewise every once in a great while there is a criminal whose threat to society cannot be contained by prison walls. Pope John Paul II said that the death penalty was a sin except "in cases of absolute necessity — in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society." [Evangelium Vitæ, 1995-03-25] I took a similar position regarding Tookie Williams last month.

Clarence Allen was already in prison for life for murder. He ordered the murder of a witness to his earlier murder, as part of a scheme to overturn the first conviction. He protested his innocence to the very end, but his claims rang hollow. Yes, he dragged his appeals to the point where he was a broken man, but how can we defend society against the likes of Clarence Allen? Murdering a witness is even worse than murdering a cop. When I was watching one of the Barrington riots unfold in Berkeley in 1990, I was struck that the police who responded — including mutual aid from Hayward to UCSF to UC-Davis to East Bay Regional Parks — expected to be at the focus of confrontation, but the unruly crowd crossed the line when they began throwing rocks and bricks at the firefighters who were trying to put out the bonfire that was literally burning the asphalt off the surface of the street. The cops quite rightly saw it as their job to meet the rabble-rousers eye-to-eye, but the firefighters were out of bounds. That is not at all to say that it is the cops' job to die in the line of duty — quite the opposite. It is to say, though, that killing a civilian witness is an even greater crime than killing a police officer, just as raping a 5-year-old is a far worse crime than raping a 25-year-old.

Officials at San Quentin Prison were prepared for a number of contingencies, most notably the possibility that Clarence Allen might have a heart attack or some other medical emergency before his 12:01 a.m. execution appointment. In that case, Allen would have been resuscitated and his condition stabilized so that he could be executed, and that is as it should be.

Some people believe that the death penalty is always immoral, and I respect that view, even though I do not share it. However, I cannot fathom the logic of people who support the death penalty in general, but who argue that Clarence Allen should have been spared. Subjecting Clarence Allen to the death penalty in his agèd infirmity is absolutely not one whit more "cruel and unusual" than putting Tookie Williams or Jaturun Siripongs to death. It is certainly no more "cruel and unusual" than executing Manual Babbitt or Thomas Martin Thompson, nor especially is it any more "cruel and unusual" than denying Darrell Young Elk Rich's last request for a sacred sweat lodge before his execution. Allen's claims of innocence were less plausible than O.J. Simpson's. Allen's old age and general decrepitude were not the fault of the state of California, but of his own cynical gaming of the appeals process. If we are ever going to execute anyone, then Clarence Allen is near the very top of the list, even ahead of maniacs like Charles Manson.