At The Jonathan Daniels Pilgrimage

Jonathan Daniels Historical Marker

Jonathan Daniels Historical Marker

Jonathan Daniels was an Episcopal seminarian who came to Selma in 1965 in response to a call from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He wanted white clergy to come to Selma and be part of the fight for civil rights.  Dr. King sought their participation in order to help demonstrate that the fight for voting rights was a cause with which everyone should be concerned, not only the disenfranchised. .

Jonathan Daniels was from Keene, NH.  He had graduated from VMI and was pursuing studies for the priesthood at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, MA.  He came to Selma and worked in Dallas and Lowndes Counties helping people of color register to vote.  For doing this work, we was arrested in Fort Deposit and taken to the county seat of Hayneville where he was jailed along with a number of other civil rights workers both white and black for six days.  When he was released, he and three others  when to a store to buy a cold drink.  They were met by Tom Coleman, Sr., a volunteer deputy  sheriff who was also an engineer for the Alabama Highway Department, indicating I assume that he had a college education.  When Coleman leveled a shotgun at Ruby Sales, a seventeen year old, black female civil rights worker, Daniels covered her with his body and took a near pointblank shotgun blast.  He died instantly.  He was only twenty-six.

My son and I attended the Jonathan Daniel Pilgrimage sponsored by the Diocese of Alabama.  Hayneville is a town that was doomed to dwindle.  Economic forces have shrunk this county and this town with every successive census.  What an unlikely place for a native of New Hampshire to die.  The unlikely quality of this place is exaggerated by the presence of motor coaches, church busses and expensive cars of the people who come from all over Alabama, from New Hampshire, from VMI and from several Episcopal seminaries to pay homage to the young man who put himself in peril to help people access that most basic of rights and who literally put himself in the line of fire to save a life.

Working with vulnerable people and people in trouble takes one to unsuspected places and in unfamiliar settings.  When I went to law school at age twenty-three, I did not think that I would be spending time in jails, but that is where I have found myself in the last twenty years.  Since I began defending capital cases about twelve years ago, I have been in the homes of people whose homes are vastly different from the one in which I grew up.  I have come to learn about the effects on children of parents who are alcoholics, drug abusers and perpetrators and victims of domestic violence.   I have also learned about the effects of generational poverty, illiteracy and the way that educational institutions fail vulnerable children.

By taking note of these unsuspected places and unlikely situations in which I have been, I do not mean to compare myself to Jonathan Daniels or anyone else we might see as courageous.  Jonathan Daniels was murdered.  By contrast, I have been able to grow into a middle-aged, mid-career lawyer with life experiences that have deepened by appreciation for the diverse human frailties and my own white privilege and the privileges of education.  Before I knew these things, I had easy answers about how society should respond to those who had committed crimes and those who had failed to meet with success in one form or another.  When you know, you are responsible for what you know.


The Life Sentence In Auroa, Colorado.

On Friday August 7, the jury announced that James Holmes would spend the rest of his life in prison after having been found guilty of murdering twelve people in at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado in 2012.  Many thought a death sentence was inevitable.  Now some observers are saying that this result should put an end to the expensive and time-consuming death penalty in the State of Colorado.  Colorado has executed only one person since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976 with Gregg v. Georgia, 428 U.S. 153and that execution was roughly eighteen years ago in 1997.  Essentially, the death penalty is defunct in Colorado.  By contrast, my home state Alabama has executed fifty-six people in the post-Greg era.  What accounts for this difference between Alabama and Colorado?

One reason is that Colorado has a robust, reasonably well-financed and well-trained public defender system.  In Alabama, capital defense is left to a system of appointment where the only qualification is that one have five years of “active practice in criminal law”.  There is no requirement that any of that experience involve a felony or any degree of homicide.

A second reason for this difference is that Colorado requires that a death sentence must be the unanimous decision of the jury.  One juror only needs to vote for life and the death  penalty cannot be imposed.  Alabama system is vastly different.  A jury’s life or death votes only constitute a recommendation that the judge may follow or disregard.  To find someone guilty the verdict must be unanimous, but to “merely” recommend a sentence of death, there is no requirement of unanimity.

In Alabama, the vote of the jury on life without parole versus death is only a recommendation to the judge on the sentence the defendant is to recieve. The judge decides the sentence.  The judge can just disregard the recommendation of the jury for life and sentence a man or woman to death. Ten times an Alabama  judge has overridden a 12-0 recommendation for life since 1976.  Common sense tells you that this is a dangerous thing where the trial level judiciary are elected.  Can anyone really be sure that political considerations don’t creep in during an election year?  This system lacks basic trustworthiness and integrity.  Justices Sotomayor wrote a well reasoned dissent in a 2013, criticizing the override in terms of violating the Sixth and Eighth Amendments.  The days of the advisory verdict and override are numbered.

I want to say something about why I was satisfied with the sentence in Colorado.  A wife of a victim of this crime said in a media report that she hoped that James Holmes would just fade into oblivion.  The surest way for this to happen is a sentence of life without parole.  Far fewer resources  will be expended and far less attention will be paid to James Holmes now.  The families of the victims will be spared the long and arduous process of death penalty appeals and habeas proceedings that surely would have had the result of re-traumatizing them.  In due time, James Holmes’ family will probably visit him very infrequently or stop visiting him altogether.  After this tragic story is replaced by another one, we will hear the name of James Holmes very few times, maybe only when he dies behind bars.