Causes Secondary Trauma

A Juror Describes the Burden of Making a Decision For Death

The Death Penalty Hurts Us All
by Stewart Dotts – 1/29/12

I think that this case is one of the tougher ones for abolitionists, especially those on the fence, like me.  Probably not for you, but listen to this.  Understand where others sit.  It will make you a better advocate.

James Cooke is guilty. I know that with a certainty beyond my ability to adequately describe. He did murder Lindsey Bonistall, he did it while engaged in a 1st degree burglary, he did try to escape justice and hide his guilt, and he is not in the least bit remorseful. I arrive at this conclusion after serving as a juror during his first trial, and I continue to hold this belief these many years after the trial. There is no doubt in my mind about this. None.

I also believe that Cooke is eligible under the law for the death penalty. And I believe in the law. I found then and I believe to this day that the aggravating circumstances outweigh the mitigating circumstances, and that according to Delaware law, death is the appropriate punishment. That is the law.

Now before you hit the reply button, please understand that I also wish that I had never been asked to make this judgment and that I had been able to make a different judgment with a clear conscience. That is not what happened. Also, please understand that the cost of making this judgment was so very much higher than ever I could have or did anticipate when first I appeared before the court for jury selection. Oh yes, it was very costly.

Also, please recognize that if I were placed in the same position again, whether the same case or another one, I would make the same difficult decision. I pray that never happens. I am not convinced that I am sufficiently strong to bear that burden.

Which brings me to my point: Nobody should be expected to make such a decision. The existence of a death penalty places an unfair and overwhelming burden on everyone associated with its imposition. I hear your debates against it, I recognize the flaws in the legal system, and I read about the near misses or “exonerations” that occur. Yet I reject almost every one of the arguments save one.

The death penalty is wrong. That’s it. It is wrong. It hurts us all. The cost is too high. We damage the innocent. We damage our society. We hurt too many people in the process. We should stop. That’s it. Just stop.

So, what makes this case so tough? James Cooke is the poster-child for death penalty advocates. He is guilty. He lacks remorse. He is dangerous, even in prison. He has been offered a “deal” and he has rejected it. He is so convinced that his crime is “un-provable,” that he is willing to reject the life preserver that has been thrown him, despite the overwhelming evidence against him and despite that he is indeed, factually guilty. He is a very bad man. If anyone deserves the death penalty, he is that person.

And there it is for many of us. He does deserve it. He earned it. He is the one. Many, most, perhaps all others deserve some consideration. He does not.

So this is a tough one. It is so easy to give in. It is so easy to say, “Ok, this one time. This is the guy. Punch his ticket. He deserves it.”

But no, don’t give in. Don’t get down into that cesspool, and especially don’t make anyone else go there. He may deserve it. You may disagree, but surely you can see how others might feel that he deserves it. Nevertheless, nobody else deserves to be part of the process. Let them go. Don’t make defense attorneys lay awake at night in mortal fear of making a fatal mistake. Don’t make prosecutors spend their every waking moment for months plotting the death of another human. Don’t make twelve innocent civilians bear society’s burden of being the chosen few to make that decision. Don’t make the court reporters, the judges, the bailiffs, the news media….don’t make anyone be part of this process. He may deserve it. Nobody else does.