Headed to a business meeting, I was recently delayed at the door of Cook County’s huge juvenile detention center. A man in front of me was slowing things down by walking through the X-ray machine carrying keys and other metal objects on him. I was puzzled that no one seemed especially annoyed, until I spotted the Buzz Lightyear lunchbox he had placed on the conveyor belt. When intellectual disabilities are that obvious and childlike, even gruff sheriff’s deputies and the embattled relatives of incarcerated youth are generally patient and kind.
Intellectual disability does not always manifest itself so harmlessly. Nor is there always a clear boundary between normal function and cognitive impairment. That same detention center houses many young people suffering from a variety of intellectual limitations—limitations which may have contributed to their crimes.
Such limitations pose practical difficulties for detention center staff, who must supervise, care for and protect these young men and women in a tough environment. Detained youth with low IQs do not always understand facility rules. They may need simple and immediate rewards and punishments to behave appropriately. Living in such close quarters, they may irritate other detained youth. They become easy targets for bullying. They may also impulsively lash out, sometimes with tragic results. This is a widespread challenge in both adult and juvenile corrections across the country.
Which brings me to the ugliest, utterly unrehearsed outburst in last night’s Republican debate.
This outburst didn’t come from a candidate or from some media talking head. It came from the partisan crowd interrupting NBC reporter Brian Williams as he asked the following question:
Governor Perry, a question about Texas. Your state has executed 234 death row inmates, more than any other governor in modern times. Have you…
At that moment, the audience erupted in spontaneous applause. Williams continued:
Have you struggled to sleep at night with the idea that any one of those might have been innocent?
No, sir. I’ve never struggled with that at all. The state of Texas has a very thoughtful, a very clear process in place of which—when someone commits the most heinous of crimes against our citizens, they get a fair hearing, they go through an appellate process, they go up to the Supreme Court of the United States, if that’s required…
The crowd cheered again. The video provides the full effect.
The progressive Twitter-sphere quickly ignited with references to one particularly appalling case, that of Cameron Todd Willingham, which rebuts virtually every particular in Perry’s response. Brilliant reporting by The New Yorker’s David Grann, establishes that Willingham was wrongfully convicted of a crime he probably did not commit—indeed, that no one committed. Governor Perry had an opportunity to address the case’s obvious irregularities. Perry chose not to, and Willingham was put to death.
I think prosecutors and other officials sincerely believed that Willingham had brutally murdered his young children by setting his house on fire. Yet as Alan Dershowitz noted long ago, it’s easier to convict someone you’re convinced is guilty by cutting a few corners than it is to win the same conviction by doing things right. Such shortcuts are more common in the American justice system than we care to admit. Most of the time, the defendants are guilty. Not always.