Johnny Holmes and the Personal Moral Judgment

 Posted on July 27, 2007 in Uncategorized

Thanks to Grits for Breakfast for calling my attention to this Houston Chronicle article about former Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes (Scott Henson calls it a "puff piece" and a "hagiography").

In the article Houston criminal-defense lawyer George "Mac" Secrest gave Holmes a compliment, as much a shot at other elected DAs as praise of Holmes:

Former assistant district attorney George Secrest called Holmes "the antithesis of the typical district attorney.""He was a man of immense integrity," said Secrest, now a criminal-defense lawyer.

Most notable to me, though, was the article's parting section, a discussion of Holmes's death penalty views:

Holmes rarely seeks to participate in debates on the death penalty, regarding beliefs on the matter as part of an individual's private system of moral values.Still, he personally believes there are "proper cases" where the death penalty is an appropriate sentence."Obviously," he added, "what is a proper case is not ultimately up to the prosecutor, but to the fact-finders."

Okay, bullshit. Beliefs on the matter are, and should be, a part of an individual's private system of moral values. Like religious beliefs, they are not, and should not be, susceptible to logic or subject to argument.

But Holmes's tack, passing the buck to juries, is disingenuous in the same way that this prosecutor's claim that "All we ever wanted to do in this case is to let a jury decide" is disingenuous. It's unbecoming of a man of such "immense integrity."

But when a prosecutor tries a death penalty case he is not simply leaving the question up to the personal moral judgments of 12 people. Rather, he is coldbloodedly selecting 12 people whose "morals" most favor killing the accused, even to the extent of excluding anyone who is morally opposed to the death penalty. Then he is trying to convince those 12 people who favor the death penalty generally that the death penalty is the appropriate moral response in the particular case.In Texas, we have the law of parties: "Each party to an offense may be charged with the commission of the offense. A person is criminally responsible for an offense committed by the conduct of another if, acting with intent to promote or assist the commission of the offense, he solicits, encourages, directs, aids, or attempts to aid the other person to commit the offense."

Just as they would bear legal responsibility for encouraging a murder, prosecutors bear whatever moral responsibility attaches to the deaths of the executed (including the innocents executed). They'd better be pretty confident that the Sixth Commandment (the Fifth, for the Lutherans and Roman Catholics) doesn't apply to the situation.

Technorati Tags: ethics, philosophy, death penalty

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