Does Phillip Garrido Deserve To Die?

As the news of Phillip Garrido's twisted crimes continues to unfold, I'm seeing a lot of people — including Jez commenters and Katherine Callaway Hall, whom Garrido abducted and raped in 1976 — wishing he could be put to death.

"I want him put away forever, or I want him executed," Hall told CBS News. "And I know that's harsh, but I'm sorry, I wish he'd never gotten out." Hall, of all people, should not have to apologize for that sentiment. We all wish he'd never gotten out — better yet, that he'd never been born — and if he dropped dead of natural causes tomorrow, the most compassionate person alive would be hard-pressed to stifle a cheer. The depth of Garrido's cruelty and remorselessness have inspired numerous comments along the lines of, "I don't even believe in the death penalty, but I'd like to see that bastard die," let alone the ones from people who do believe in the death penalty.

This despite the fact that, as far as we know, Garrido has not committed a capital offense. He's now a suspect in the murders of 10 women, but there's no proof yet that he's caused the death of another human being (or committed treason against the state of California), so any talk of whether he deserves execution at this point is based not on law, but on a sense that if there's such a thing as pure evil, Phillip Garrido must be the embodiment of it.

That I'm among those who, in theory, wouldn't mind seeing Garrido executed is exactly why I oppose capital punishment. The desire to stamp out perceived evil is not conducive to clear thinking, and surely, if anyone deserves a sober, methodical evaluation of the facts, it's people facing death sentences. As the Innocence Project has made clear over the past 17 years, though, they don't always get that. The project's website lists seven common causes of wrongful convictions — eyewitness misidentification, unvalidated or improper forensic science, false confessions/admissions, government misconduct, informants or snitches and bad lawyering — and that's without getting into the roles that racism and ableism have played in juries' decisions. Phillip Garrido might represent the cleanest possible government kill — a cognitively typical white guy who was caught red-handed committing a horrific crime — but then, the same things appeared to be true of Cameron Todd Willingham.

In a long feature story in this week's New Yorker, David Grann tells the equally heartbreaking and stomach-turning story of Willingham, who was executed in Texas in 2004 for a triple murder he almost certainly did not commit. In 1991, Willingham's house caught fire, and neither he nor firefighters were able to rescue his three small children. For a brief moment, he was treated as the traumatized, grieving father he was, until an arson investigator relying on outdated methods and what scientists who study fire would later call "old wives' tales" declared that the fire was set by a human being, and the children's deaths were homicides. Willingham was the only one who could have done it.

Grann painstakingly details not only why the arson investigator was wrong, but just how far rational thought can go out the window once a person's guilt becomes the prevailing wisdom, "until proven" be damned. Witnesses who saw Willingham as the house was burning initially characterized him as hysterical and recounted how he begged for help and even smashed in the windows of his daughters' bedroom, only to be thwarted by flames rushing outward. After the fire was ruled arson, they described him as behaving oddly, not seeming sufficiently upset or making much of an effort to save the kids. In an effort to prove that Willingham was a sociopath, the prosecution called " a psychologist with a master's degree in marriage and family issues," who knew the Assistant District Attorney socially and had little apparent experience with sociopathy. Based on heavy metal posters hanging in Willingham's home, the psychologist said, "I see there's an association many times with cultive-type of activities. A focus on death, dying. Many times individuals that have a lot of this type of art have interest in satanic-type activities." So now Willingham's not only an arsonist and a sociopath but a satanist, all because he was a fan of Iron Maiden — just in case you thought that sort of logic disappeared in the '80s. A jailhouse informant who claimed Willingham confessed to him was believed, despite not only his motivation to lie, but the unlikelihood of his story. (He said Willingham spontaneously confessed to him in an area where guards could easily have overheard, despite the two inmates not having any previous relationship that might elicit such trust.) When the informant tried to recant his testimony in 2000, Willingham's lawyer wasn't told about it. The series of patently outlandish claims twisted to fit the prosecution's portrait of a cold-blooded baby-killer is mind-boggling.

And worst of all is how evidence that the arson investigator was not only dead wrong, but probably had no business being in that line of work at all, was simply ignored. Shortly before Willingham's execution, a fire expert who relied on the scientific method rather than gut feelings, guesswork and "old wives' tales" reviewed the evidence and submitted a report to the Board of Pardons and Paroles, concluding that "there was no evidence of arson, and that a man who had already lost his three children and spent twelve years in jail was about to be executed based on 'junk science.'" Barry Scheck of The Innocence Project, who obtained all the records related to that report, told Grann, "The documents show that they received the report, but neither office has any record of anyone acknowledging it, taking note of its significance, responding to it, or calling any attention to it within the government. The only reasonable conclusion is that the governor's office and the Board of Pardons and Paroles ignored scientific evidence." And then voted to kill an innocent man.

What Grann's essay highlights is that the supposed "failsafes" in the system, meant to prevent wrongful executions, are pretty much a joke. Over twelve years, Willingham — who had no motive, who refused to make a guilty plea in exchange for a life sentence, who was saddled with an overworked legal aid lawyer who believed he did it, and who maintained his innocence and love for his children until the moment he died — exhausted every opportunity to clear his name, only to be told time and again, "Nah, we still think you did it, so we're not really interested in looking at the facts."

The evidence that Phillip Garrido committed monstrous crimes, more than once, appears incontrovertible. I'm in no way suggesting that in his case, it might all be a horrible misunderstanding. But I find it interesting that in the same week Grann's essay appears, many people seem more interested in discussing whether rape should perhaps be added to the list of capital offenses, whether Garrido deserves execution — to say nothing of castration, torture, and other things we ostensibly don't approve of as a society — than in looking at how often our justice system sentences innocent people to death. And how, despite all the supposed failsafes in the system, in at least one case, the state of Texas appears to have murdered a man in cold blood.

I am totally sympathetic to people's desire to see Garrido hung up in the town square, possibly not by his neck. But like I said, that's exactly why I could never trust myself to decide whether another human being should be executed, even one who makes me stumble over the words "human being." Because that desire is based, like the original arson investigation in the Willingham case, substantially on gut feelings and subjective interpretation — and when the stakes are life or death, that is not good enough. No matter how sincerely I believe the facts support a conclusion that society would be better off if Phillip Garrido were dead, I have to remind myself that people are saying the same thing about the president right now, and those people are just as eligible for jury duty as I am.

Trial By Fire [The New Yorker]
Prior Victim "Horrified" Over Jaycee Story [CBS News]
The Innocence Project [Official Site]