When you’re done with this, go read something else.
Glancing over a news story headlined “Texas Executes Man for Paraplegic’s Contract Murder” hit a nerve. The death penalty is our legal system’s most odious failing. However, I soon learned that a superficially benign news story taught me a more powerful lesson: News is a powerful thing.
That’s not to say the death penalty isn’t still important.
On Tuesday, the rootin’ tootin’ state of Texas executed its 298th inmate since the death penalty’s re-institution in 1982. Capital punishment – both in Texas and in non-crazy states – is an unsightly blemish on the United States’ permanent record. It’s barbaric and vengeful. But upon finishing the news story written about the death of No. 298, I had to remind myself why I oppose the death penalty.
The events leading up to Williams’ execution involve the most morally revolting people in recent news. A Texas court convicted the 33-year-old burglar and arsonist of the murder of Jeanette Williams, a 44-year-old wheelchair-bound drug addict. According to the court’s findings, Richard Head Williams slit Jeanette’s throat with a butcher knife on March 24, 1997, part of a $25,000 murder contract made with Bruce and Michelle Gilmore. The Gilmores had recently taken out a $25,000 life insurance policy on the woman, of which Williams was to collect $12,000.
The reporter who wrote the news story described the events surrounding Williams’ lethal injection in a matter-of-fact manner. But I finished it surprisingly shaken from my left-of-the-middle political foundation. At a loss for how to defend my beliefs in the face of such condemning circumstances, my gut reaction to the article was to think people like Richard Head Williams deserve the death penalty.
Further research, however, reminded me of my principal objection to the death penalty. An online Houston Chronicle article summarized the events of Williams’ trial, including the defense’s argument that Williams, who repeated the sixth grade four times, was mentally retarded. And there it was: the information that gave me the small spark of doubt that allowed me to deem his execution a tragically unfit punishment.
I was embarrassed at my momentary lapse in judgment. I had let a single news item so influence me that I questioned my political beliefs. The exclusion of the details of Williams’ trial deprived the reader of an additional dimension of an executed man.
Journalism is frighteningly powerful. A perfectly objective presentation of information is ideal. But, just as a criminal guilt cannot always be determined absolutely, some journalists, like the Reuters reporter who wrote the piece on the execution, neglect valuable pieces of information.
When so many issues today are waiting to make a person angry, exhaustively researching a topic before making an opinion is the only way to avoid being an ass. Flashy headlines, sensationalized news angles and factual omissions litter the nation’s collective news hole, but being well-read means having more brain fodder to squeeze into a cohesive argument.
Don’t let one news story bully you into thinking one way or another. Think of it as a starting point in a process of self-education.
Texas is well on its way to the big 300 and people have every reason to be mad about that, but understanding all facts of such a complex issue could only help in the construction of an opinion that can make a difference.
-Drew Mackie is the Daily Nexus County Co-editor