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The Abuse Excuse

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Burglar/robber/rapist/murderer Jerry Terrell Jackson is set to be executed at 9 p.m. EDT in Virginia.  Matthew Ward of Reuters reports:

Jackson, on death row since 2003, entered the Williamsburg apartment of 88-year-old Ruth Phillips on August 26, 2001. He told police he did not know Phillips was home.

But she was lying in bed at the time and confronted Jackson. She told him to take what he wanted and leave, but he held a pillow against her face until she stopped screaming, raping her at the same time.

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A fingerprint on a piece of paper inside a wallet next to Phillips' bed and DNA from hair found on and around her body implicated Jackson, and a jury found him guilty of capital murder.

So what's to argue about?  A horrible crime against a helpless victim with no doubt of guilt  -- by no stretch of the imagination could execution of this sentence be considered a miscarriage of justice except by the few people who think all death sentences are unjust.  Well, you guessed it, it's the abuse excuse.

Jackson's lawyers in the appeal argue that his trial defense failed to present an adequate picture of the sexual, physical and psychological abuse he endured as a child.

Notably, Jackson's brother and sister were not called to testify at trial, reportedly because Jackson's defense believed it would harm his case as his brother suffered the same abuse and has no criminal record.
And there is the fallacy of the abuse excuse.  Yes, it's a terrible thing if someone has a bad childhood.  But regrettably lots of people do, and very few of them become murderers.  The decision to rape and murder remains an act of free will no matter how bad your childhood was.

States should have the authority in capital cases that they have in noncapital cases to decide that the probative value of this evidence is just not worth the cost of protracted litigation over whether the defense lawyer dug up and presented enough of it.  They did, until the Supreme Court fabricated a constitutional mandate out of thin air in Lockett v. Ohio and Eddings v. Oklahoma.  Justice White was right all along.  It is high time for the Court to acknowledge and correct its error.

For the present case, the Court denied a stay 7-2, with Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor dissenting.

Update:  The execution was carried out without incident.  Frank Green has this story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

2 Comments

So how do we untether IAC from this issue? I don't think that courts are really going to be able to limit the evidence a murderer can present to the jury.

Step One: Overrule Lockett.

Step Two: Amend the death penalty sentencing statutes to return to specified lists of mitigating circumstances, as in the original Florida statute at issue in Proffitt, not including the abuse excuse.

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