The Accused Are Still Human

By Connie Schultz

October 16, 2010 6 min read

Last week, Phillip Morris, a colleague of mine at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, wrote a column objecting to the amount of taxpayer money being spent on Anthony Sowell's murder trial.

As most Clevelanders know and many others might remember, it was a year ago this month that Sowell made international headlines after police found 11 women's bodies at his house on Imperial Avenue. In an inexplicable act of insensitive scheduling, the court set his murder trial to begin on Valentine's Day.

Phillip is particularly galled by the $24,992 already spent on a social researcher whose job is to "humanize" the man accused of murdering the 11 women.

"If the defense wants to unearth background information about Sowell, why go the platinum route with our money?" he wrote. "Simply because it can? Simply because the defense knows that the court worries about appeals in such high profile cases?"

He added: "Let's not spend tons of public money trying to humanize him or help the public to understand him. ... We all have issues. The only thing that matters here is guilt or innocence."

Surely, Phillip's argument resonated with many readers.

I, however, respectfully disagree.

There are good reasons to provide as strong a defense as possible for Sowell, and they have little to do with the particulars of his case.

Let's start with due process. There is a reason we call Sowell an "alleged" killer. He has not been convicted of a single murder, and an accused person in this country is still innocent until proven guilty. We hold this high standard not to absolve the guilty, but to protect the wrongly accused. America has a patchy record with the latter, as the Innocence Project's 259 exonerations so far tragically illustrate.

Most of us want to believe we're fair and wise, but our versions of justice are as diverse as our population. An easy example comes to mind: Gather a roomful of people and watch them discuss the issue of rape.

Odds are high the discussion will turn from the accused to the accuser. Some will say it's too easy for a woman to allege rape for revenge. Someone else will offer the scenario of a woman who says yes until she says no and will point out how unfair it is to ask so much of a guy's hormones. Then comes the imaginary proof of a victim's consent, if not duplicity: What did she expect was going to happen when she was wearing ... that shirt ... that skirt ... that smile...? Why was she hanging out in that bar ... that neighborhood ... that parking lot?

Every time I write a column that says no woman deserves to be raped, some anonymous readers insist I'm wrong. They are the same people who weighed in every time I wrote about Sowell and who disparaged the women whose bodies were found at his house. Their question drips with accusation: What kind of woman hangs out with a registered sex offender, anyway?

Sowell faces the death penalty if convicted. Now, there are plenty who think Anthony Sowell's life isn't worth a dime of the money that will be spent to defend him. But one person's monster is another person's redeemable soul. Cherry-picking justice is a dangerous game. Which accused murderers should we invest in? Who decides?

Government institutions, including our judicial system, are run by humans and are thus imperfect. But perfection must be the standard if we're going to claim the right to kill people who kill people — and call it justice. When it comes to the death penalty, one mistake is one mistake too many. And if we're looking to save taxpayer money, we should abolish the death penalty. Most of those expensive appeals would evaporate if convicted murderers were sentenced to life without parole.

Finally, let's talk about why it matters for someone to examine an accused killer's life for a shred of his humanity.

Understanding the childhoods of men like Anthony Sowell is an investment in the futures of boys still young enough to be saved. Children are always watching and learning, and those who grow up in poverty often fall prey to lousy role models. Self-hatred is the legacy of childhood cruelties, and it unleashes many poisons. Without intervention, brutality begets brutality, and the abused often grow up to be abusers. Sometimes they become murderers.

Anthony Sowell is accused of doing unspeakable things to many women. Most of us want to believe we have nothing in common with a man accused of such horrible crimes.

But just like every last one of us, he was once somebody's baby.

And no matter what he did or didn't do, he is still one of us.

Maybe that's what really galls us.

Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine. To find out more about Connie Schultz ([email protected]) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

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