In 1979, Jimmy Carter was President. Pink Floyd released their bestselling album “The Wall.” Denim overalls were in, Mork and Mindy was on TV, and news about the Iranian hostage crisis dominated every headline.
Some of you reading this weren’t even alive in 1979.
But in 1979, another, perhaps less well-known event, took place. Roger Tackett, a teacher, moonlighting as a convenience store attendant in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, was shot and killed. Brandon Astor Jones and his co-defendant Van Roosevelt Solomon were sentenced to death for the crime. Solomon was executed in 1985, but Jones has remained on death row for all this time.
That’s 38 years of waiting to be executed.
The State of Georgia just set a February 2, 2016 execution date for Jones.
A 2016 execution date for a murder that happened in 1979.
I mean, what’s the point? None of the reasons we punish hold true here.
We punish people to deter others from committing the same crime. But who is likely to be deterred by a 38-year delay between sentence and execution? (And let’s just put it out there, the death penalty is not a deterrent anyway).
We punish people to incapacitate them so they can not harm anyone else. At 72 years old, statistics would suggest that Jones is unlikely to harm anyone else anyway.
We punish people for retribution. And Jones’ crime of murder is certainly serious and worthy of punishment. But it does seem a bit bizarre to put to death a 72 year old now for a crime he committed all those many years ago. The person Jones was then, and the person he is today, are entirely disconnected. Too much — way too much — time has passed.
The idea of “too much time” on death row is not entirely new.
International courts have found too-long stays on death row to be problematic. In 1993, a British court found that it was “inhumane and degrading“ to hang anyone who spent more than five years on death row. The court said it felt too much like double punishment, and that the death sentences should be commuted to life.
Closer to home, the United States Supreme Court has never ruled on the issue of whether keeping someone on death row for too long is cruel and unusual punishment. In 2009, Justice Stevens and Justice Breyer voted to grant review in a case involving a 32-year stay on death row. Since not enough Supreme Court justices agreed to take on that issue, it is still unresolved by our highest court. But the issue of “too long” death sentences remains ripe for our highest court to consider.
Jones is now 72, and not in great health. He is a writer and a blogger who documents his experiences on death row. In other words, Jones may still have something to teach us; something perhaps that he can contribute to society were he permitted to serve out the rest of his life behind bars.
I’ve written before that I am opposed to capital punishment in all cases. But in this case involving an ailing senior, Jones’ pending execution really seems like overkill.