In This Law Vs. Ethics Clash, Choosing Law Over Ethics Is The Ethical Course [Link Added]

Clear?

Probably not. Let me explain.

On July 5, 2005 in Kirkwood, Missouri, police were executing a search warrant. While they were in his home, twelve-year old Joseph Long suffered a seizure and collapsed. Police, maybe thinking he was faking, maybe worrying about being distracted from their jobs, maybe because they were just cold-hearted bastards, did nothing to help him, and wouldn’t let his mother intervene either. The child died. Two hours later, the same officers responded to the same neighborhood after getting reports of illegal fireworks being set off. Kevin Johnson, the dead child’s older brother, spotted officer William McEntee, one of the police who had been at his home earlier that evening. “You killed my brother,” he said, and fired a gun at the officer multiple times, killing him.

Johnson was tried, sentenced to death, and now, 17 years later, has run out of appeals. He’s going to be executed. His daughter, Korry, just two when he murdered the police officer, is now 19 and wants to be among the limited number of attendees at her father’s death. Missouri has a statute, Revised Code Section 546.740 that determines who is eligible to watch an execution:

546.740.  Execution, witnesses. — The chief administrative officer of the correctional center, or his duly appointed representative shall be present at the execution and the director of the department of corrections shall invite the presence of the attorney general of the state, and at least eight reputable citizens, to be selected by him; and he shall at the request of the defendant, permit such clergy or religious leaders, not exceeding two, as the defendant may name, and any person, other than another incarcerated offender, relatives or friends, not to exceed five, to be present at the execution, together with such peace officers as he may think expedient, to witness the execution; but no person under twenty-one years of age shall be allowed to witness the execution.

Khorry Ramey sued, claiming that the law violated her First and Fourteenth Amendment rights and that not being able to witness her father’s last moments on earth would do her irreparable harm. Since the execution is imminent and the wheels of justice turn slowly, she asked for a temporary restraining order, delaying the execution until her challenge to 546.740 could be resolved.

Khorry lost. Her father’s execution will go forward, and her challenge to the law will be moot before it can be argued at trial. With an opinion that is both reasonable and, frankly, obvious, the judge refused to order the emergency TRO, concluding as I did the second I learned about the case that she didn’t have a legal leg to stand on. The claim of “irreparable harm” from not being allowed to watch the father you barely knew be executed is particularly weak.

But at least two distinguished defense attorney bloggers—there probably are more—argue that this result is cruel and unnecessary. Here’s Ohio lawyer Jeff Gamso:

Missouri could have said to the court,”OK, in the interests of common decency and since we’re already committed to a course that will certainly damage the kid maybe we can just let it slide and agree that, as applied to Johnson’s kid this is unconstitutional.” And the court would have said, “Dandy. Khorry wins. Case dismissed. Let’s eat some leftover turkey.”

Instead, Gamso sneers, the judge decided, “[T]ough noogies. And fuck you.” That would be a fair, if deliberately pejorative and misleading, description of any court decision that rejects a lawsuit. Gamso goes on to argue, “…what the prison system and the good people of the State of Missouri and the Honorable Wimes are doing is sure cruel, and damn well ought to be unusual. And, oh yeah, gratuitous.”

Well allow me to retort! Judges holding to the letter of the law is neither cruel nor gratuitous. Gamso is embracing the classic progressive attitude toward judicial activism, which is that judges should feel empowered to second guess the legislature any time they would have written a law differently. That philosophy is undemocratic, and also ensures lots of spurious lawsuits, like Khorry Ramey’s, trying to find a sympatico judge whenever a law threatens an unwelcome result.

Gamso’s essay hardly tries to hide his defense lawyer bias. “As you might imagine, Johnson being black and facing an all white jury for killing a cop, Johnson ended up on death row,” he writes. Johnson killed a cop as revenge and should be on death row. A penalty of capital punishment for killing police officers is ethically reasonable in every respect. “The good people of the State of Missouri plan to kill him next Tuesday. Ho hum. Shit happens. Especially (but really not exclusively) to black guys caught up in the Missouri Criminal Justice System,” the blogger says. “Caught up” in the justice system? Shooting a cop dead in cold blood isn’t getting “caught up” in anything, and Johnson’s color is irrelevant. Gamso talks of the state of Missouri “inflicting trauma” on Khorry by killing her dad. The party responsible for Khouri’s trauma is her dad, and only her dad. If he had thought about his two-year-old daughter before he murdered Officer McEntee, she wouldn’t be facing any trauma now. He took himself out of her life by his own actions. Then the defense lawyer writes that postponing the execution “would have been the decent thing to do. It would have been fair and just and morally right.”

Baloney. It would letting the tail wag the dog. The execution isn’t about Khorry Ramey, or any of the murderer’s friends and family. Postponing a just execution that has already, like all executions, been delayed far too long for the tangential matter of whether a 19 year-old should be granted an exception to a long-standing law makes no sense and only serves a legitimate end in the distorted view of anti-death penalty activists, for which every minute’s delay is a triumph.

Khorry Ramey has known that her father was on Death Row for as long as she was old enough to know what capitol punishment was. She had plenty of time to check the law, try to get a legislature to lower the age limit, or file her lawsuit in time to have the issue considered without having to postpone the execution. To me, the whole thing looks like a last ditch delaying tactic, with Khorry having been recruited by Johnson’s defense lawyers—which, I assume, would be just fine with Jeff Gamso.

The most ethical way for the justice system to function is that the laws be followed, and if there are flaws in a law, have the law changed by lawmakers, not judges.

27 thoughts on “In This Law Vs. Ethics Clash, Choosing Law Over Ethics Is The Ethical Course [Link Added]

  1. Since I am not a lawyer (and therefore do not know what I’m talking about), I’ll be brief (still not a lawyer). This killing, like all other executions is noxious. It does irreparable harm to all concerned, especially those who would cheer on the killing.

      • I’ll assume your question is serious. One guy is dead. That can’t be undone. There was potential there which is gone. Permanently.
        The executioner either has to trivialize the value of a human being or enjoy what he is doing.
        Those who cheer on, or even are complacent in, the killing of a human being acquiesce to the diminishment of their own humanity.
        To write off someone as no longer deserving of life is to admit to failure, the failure to bring the condemned person back into the fold of humanity.

        • Au contraire, it it you who think life is cheap. That the price for ending another’s life is to sit in a room and think about what you’ve done. This isn’t the breaking of grandmother’s treasured vase we’re talking about. It is a human life that can never be restored. The penalty for that needs to be severe. The murderer forfeiting his own life is just. If a murderer doesn’t want to do that then he should not become a murderer.

          • Should the officers who let a child die on their watch in this case, and in fact stopped his mother from saving his life, have received the death penalty?

            • I’d like to know a lot more about that search. Distractions are considered dangerous for cops in that situation, depending on what the case involved. Still, the cops’ liability would be civil, not criminal.

              • “Still, the cops’ liability would be civil, not criminal.”

                That’s horrendous. If you or I stop someone from saving their dying child, we would be criminally charged.

    • I too am not a lawyer and will be brief as well. The original killing is what is noxious and caused officer McEntee’s family irreparable harm they continue to live with every day. Let the McEntees have what peace they’re entitled to. And let Ms. Ramey learn the lesson of living in a society with laws we must all live with.

    • HJ, do me a favor and elaborate. I hear that exact argument against capital punishment frequently, and for many it’s kind of a reflex and default. You usually have good arguments for your position. How does executing a cop killer, or the Cheshire home invaders, or Ted Bundy, or Richard Ramirez, or Charles Guiteau, harm anyone at all outside of the convicted and those unfortunate enough to care about them, much less irreparably?

      • If I can presume to speak for HJ, I think the argument is that capital punishment devalues human life and consequently dehumanizes a society that practices it.

        The argument is better illustrated by past events, where executions were more brutal, more common, and more public.

        A good example might be the Reign of Terror, where executions were celebrated and became mundane.

        Now, one May counter that current methods and practices are more humane, to which one would argue that they are still fundamentally dehumanizing, if only to a lesser degree.

        -Jut

  2. Personally, I think that defense attorneys like Gamso frequently opine negatively about random death penalty cases specifically to bias the potential jury pool against future death penalty verdicts. Just a theory.

  3. If ever there was a clear case where someone should fry, this is it. The man shot a police officer dead, knew he was a police officer, and shot him multiple times because of something that happened while he was in the line of duty, which may or may not have been this officer’s fault. You can try to blame racism or the system, or whatever, but the fact is this guy put himself on that gurney with a needle in his arm when he pulled that trigger. There’s no question of his guilt nor of whether this is an unsuitable punishment. The only question here is whether his daughter, who probably only knew her father from emails and the occasional visit, may attend his final moments, being below the minimum age set to do so.

    There is no question of her not being allowed to visit with and say goodbye to her father, so her not being present when they give him the 20 ccs of potassium chloride that will send him to Hell is de minimus. This is nothing more than a delaying tactic, not even to stop this cop killer from getting his just punishment, but to starve it off for another week, another month, who knows how long, until some judge can be persuaded to see it the condemned’s way, until the governor flips red to blue and commutes the sentence, until some high court somewhere decides this punishment is unjust. Unfortunately that race is almost over and this cause is just about out of fuel.

    I can’t understand the mentality of those who would spare this killer or advocate for his sparing, especially in light of the fact that those same people probably don’t bat an eyelash at the slicing and dicing of a gestating child who the mother has decided is inconvenient.

    If I were the governor of Missouri, which I’m not, I would not only sign this guy’s death warrant without blinking even once, but I would use 2 pens. I’d keep one myself, and the other one I’d send to the victim’s next of kin with the following message:

    Enclosed with this note please find a pen with which I signed the warrant that sent your loved one’s killer into whatever lies beyond this world. An evil heart beats no more, and an evil mind plans no further mischief. I know this can’t possibly bring back what you lost, nor fill the hole left in your lives by his absence. Nonetheless, I hope it will serve as a tangible reminder that there is justice in this world, and your loved one received what justice this world can offer, and perhaps thereby you can find some closure.

    With my deepest sympathy,
    /S/

    And after I signed that note and had my staff put it in the mail, I’d go back into my residence and I wouldn’t lose any sleep that night.

  4. I believe the argument’s that capital punishment devalues human life and consequently dehumanizes a society that practices it actually proves the reverse. A society that executes those that murder shows intolerance for such behavior and instills the certainty of consequences for murderous actions.

    That said, most that take the life of another are never sentenced to capital punishment due to a myriad of extenuating circumstances that always surround the crime, and only the most heinous and premeditated murderers end up on death row.

    Far too many times long term death row inmates are the beneficiaries of activists pleading for their lives employing all the usual arguments while their victims are long forgotten.

    • “That said, most that take the life of another are never sentenced to capital punishment due to a myriad of extenuating circumstances that always surround the crime, and only the most heinous and premeditated murderers end up on death row.”

      Doesn’t this case prove that is not always true? The article describes the murder as happening a mere two hours after the murderer’s brother died due both inaction and action (stopping the mother from helping) of the officers. That’s not a whole lot of time for premeditation. I’m honestly amazed he received the death penalty, just from the facts in this article alone. It seems a clear crime of passion, and one that–while in no way justifiable–I would expect jurors to at least find understandable.

  5. “Khorry Ramey has known that her father was on Death Row for as long as she was old enough to know what capitol punishment was. She had plenty of time to check the law, try to get a legislature to lower the age limit, or file her lawsuit in time to have the issue considered without having to postpone the execution. To me, the whole thing looks like a last ditch delaying tactic, with Khorry having been recruited by Johnson’s defense lawyers—which, I assume, would be just fine with Jeff Gamso.”

    This does not seem like a reasonable expectation to have for a child.

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