Capital Punishment and the ‘Culture’ of Revenge

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death row

Death row by Lindsay Griffiths via Flickr

Americans are changing their minds about the death penalty.  According to a 2019 Gallup poll, 60 percent of respondents now favor life imprisonment to the death penalty.

Policymakers have also begun to reflect that.  According to deathpenaltyinfo.org, 22 states, in addition to the District of Columbia, have chosen to abolish capital punishment outright; another three states have announced moratoriums.

But while the move for abolition has not gone as fast as opponents might like, the change in public opinion has been due to the work of a few people and organizations who have been at the forefront of a campaign that began decades ago—organizations like the Innocence Project and champions like Sister Helen Prejean.

Jodie Sinclair

Jodie Sinclair

But there are also others not as well-known whose stories are equally compelling. One of them is Jodie Sinclair, a former broadcast journalist, whose advocacy became intensely personal after she married a prison inmate formerly on Death Row. In her new book, “Love Behind Bars: The True Story Of An American Prisoner’s Wife,” Sinclair chronicles her 25-year struggle to free her husband, Billy Sinclair, a national-award-winning prison author and coeditor of the Angolite, a pioneering magazine published within the walls of the Louisiana State Penitentiary.

In a recent conversation with TCR, Sinclair discussed how marriage with an inmate turned her into an “enemy of the system,” how she learned some painful lessons about what she describes as the “culture” of punishment and revenge that underpins the U.S. corrections system, and how COVID-19 has changed the landscape of death penalty reform.

The following transcript of the conversation has been edited for space and clarity.

The Crime Report: In the early part of your book, you describe how you learned that the common narrative in the media about your husband’s crimes was entirely untrue. 

Jodie Sinclair: The articles were a big shock. They didn’t seem to match the person I had met.  His physical demeanor, his ability to articulate, the national awards he’d won, all of that seemed to contradict it. In 1980, he was taking trips with an unarmed guard around the state of Louisiana to talk to school children.  The system was permitting him to do that. That is just about the clearest sign that somebody is rehabilitated.  They would never have let him outside the prison if they had though he was a flight risk.  And some of those trips were overnight trips.  The crime he had committed was so terribly misrepresented. They made people think he was a monster.  And all just so the prosecutor could get the death penalty.

Billy Sinclair

Billy Sinclair. Still photo via YouTube

TCR: His long imprisonment and death sentence—for a murder committed during a robbery—was due, in large part, to the efforts of the family and friends of his victim.  Should there be limits to a family’s pursuit of justice?

JS: Murder victims’ families should seek justice.  If they don’t, they’re betraying the memory of their murdered loved ones.  However, the system should not offer state sanctioned-murder.

TCR: During his imprisonment, your husband was constantly confronting a vindictive justice system intent on keeping him locked away.

JS: What you’re referring to is selective enforcement. It distorts the system to a terrible degree.  What selective enforcement does is cheat the families of murder victims.  For example, in the book [I write about] a man who killed two people and injured several others with a shotgun because his girlfriend rebuffed him.  He served 23 years.  The families of those victims did not receive the same level of justice as the families who had access to the system and, thus, could put a man [like my husband] away for 40 years who, in effect, was involved in an accidental shooting, with no intent to kill.

When you have one inmate targeted and receiving much harsher punishment, that’s selective enforcement. It isn’t fair and it’s never discussed.  If people are supposed to obey the law, then the system should also follow the law. It shouldn’t allow this kind of activity behind the scenes. And it doesn’t just happen in Louisiana.

TCR: Do you think it is easier today for families with few resources to fight for their incarcerated loved ones than it was for you?

JS: There are more “prison reform” groups willing to take up prison reform litigation, claims of actual innocence, flawed criminal convictions, and issues posing new constitutional safeguards. But given the number of incarcerated people in the U.S., the incredible overcrowding of U.S. prisons and jails, and underfunded and overworked public defenders,  too many inmates and their families will never get the kind of help they need to secure legal assistance for release. According to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of cases assigned to individual public defenders ranges from 50 to 590.

Despite the pro bono assistance I enjoyed—because of my upper-class status I had five personal friends who were excellent lawyers, including a former U.S. Attorney—there were times I had to hire attorneys to assist with my husband’s freedom efforts. Over the years, I paid four attorneys nearly $40,000 to represent him before the state’s pardon board, parole board, and in one prison-related matter. More than half of that was spent in 2006 to hire a Louisiana State Senator, who was also a lawyer, to represent my husband at the parole hearing that finally freed him. The money came from my 401-K savings. My husband also spent $10,000 (an inheritance from his mother) to hire an attorney at one point.

None of the money was spent for special favors. It went to lawyers that I hired to make sure that my husband’s pleas for freedom were heard over the raised voices and threatening statements of his victim’s relations – opposition so intense that my sister overheard the victim’s sister tell a TV reporter after a pardon board hearing, “we will kill him if he gets out.”

TCR: What can be done to make the process more balanced?

JS: Politics should be removed from the system.   My husband’s records were changed to make him look like a career criminal, and then were corrected in the FBI and state police files, [but] the people who were deciding on his release were not bound by that change.  They could make their decision on any basis they wanted to make it on.

Decision-making just needs to be more professional on the criminal justice side.  The constitutional notion of “equal justice” was first recognized by our country when the Fourteenth amendment was ratified in 1868, but more than 150 years later equal justice still does not exist for everyone in our criminal justice system.

TCR: Your book describes the Angola prison system’s animosity towards both you and your husband.  Why is the type of biased and prejudicial treatment you describe able to be practiced with little restraint to this day?

JS: When you marry an inmate, the wife automatically becomes an enemy of the system.  So, the things that I experienced were the same terrible experiences as the families of other inmates.  Specifically with Angola prison, I felt that many guards and prison officials act the way they do because they know they have the public’s permission to do that.  And it’s pretty much true of the nation as a whole.

Criminal justice is a public matter, but the public knows very little about it and that is by design.  All these attitudes of utter contempt, the tolerance of cruelty and inhumane action, the ideas of mandatory minimums, arresting people for minor crimes, extended sentencing, all peaked in the 1990s because they had the public’s permission.

TCR: What are some of the strongest motivations for society to embrace a more rehabilitative approach to prisons and the criminal justice system as a whole?

JS: I think what speaks to people is economics.  Look at what it costs to lock people up for all of these years.  Since the Supreme Court has mandated that inmates are supposed to receive the same kind of health care they do on the outside, you’re getting accelerated costs when they’re elderly.  Rehabilitation is much less expensive and effective than what we currently have.

Money talks.  I’m looking at cuts every day that are going to have to be made moving forward in the wake of COVID-19, and those economics are going to be a strong factor in changing people’s minds.  You’re going to have politicians saying, for the first time, that sentences need to be reduced just so they can get people out and cut the money they’re having to spend to keep 2.3 million people incarcerated. Death Row exonerations are making news.

Popular crime documentaries are beginning to show the bias in the system. And then you have people like Sister Helen Prejean representing the morality of the issue and emphasizing forgiveness. All of this will have an effect.

TCR: But why is there still so much resistance to change?

JS: The problem doesn’t go away easily. I read a long time ago that revenge is rooted in the genes and in the human psyche.  The goal of our prisons, with some exceptions, is punishment.  Hurt them every day.  {Attorney General] William Barr recently requested permission to begin executing federal prisoners again.

Prisoners and their families are regarded as less than human and, because of that, today you see families in agony.  They can’t visit because visits are cut off to prevent the spread of COVID-19.  They can’t talk on the phone because prisoners are too close when they talk, and most families can’t afford it anyway.  And these people have a relative in prison convicted of, for example, a minor drug offense who is now facing a potential death sentence. Yet there are people who are railing against releasing prisoners because they don’t want to be exposed to the virus. To me, that is just a truly vicious attitude. These people are being punished on a level that is disproportionate to their crimes.

Additional reading: Missouri Puts Killer to Death in First Execution During COVID-19

Isidoro Rodriguez is a contributor to The Crime Report

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