Heriberto ‘Eddie’ Rodriguez, a gang member from the San Fernando Valley regional bloc scarcely avoided the death penalty last week. The prosecution team sought the death penalty for an assault in the L.A. County Jail where he beat and kicked a man to death, and a long list of violent beatings against other inmates. At 32 years old, Rodriguez had already spent half his life involved in street gangs and crime. His former crimes included: carjacking, kidnapping, possession of firearms, and a case where he was sent to juvenile hall for his involvement in a murder. In County Jail, he would beat his cellmates, make them sleep on the concrete floor, threaten their families, and at times slashed inmates with razors. His attorney took a gamble and put him on the stand where he expressed his remorse, apologized to the family, and talked about his difficult upbringing. The jury empathized with him and gave him a life sentence instead of the death penalty.
So lets look at a few things here. The capital punishment debate has existed in the United States since the colonial period but peeked in the ’60’s during the civil rights movement, and has gained momentum ever since. The arguments against it are that it is cruel and unusual punishment, many death row inmates are found innocent after spending a significant amount of time there, high levels of people of color sentenced for similar crimes that affluent whites commit but avoid such a charge, and the moral dilemma of an eye for an eye. Just yesterday Texas executed its 500th inmate on death row since it reinstated the death penalty in 1976. Although its in decline everywhere else throughout the world, its on the rise here. All western, industrialized nations have abolished the death penalty except the United States. We are compared to countries such as: Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, North Korea, Afghanistan, which coincidentally we criticize for their human rights violations. Moreover, we also impose the death penalty on non-violent offenders for crimes related to drug trafficking such as: Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, amongst other third world countries. So…we criticize the third world for their crimes against humanity and send troops to remedy their situations by bringing them “democracy”, but we practice the same violations with the same fervor but think we are different.
What about life imprisonment? Interestingly, Spain and Portugal, and almost all the countries they colonized like: Mexico, Uruguay, Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, all of Central America, and others have abolished this concept, while all the western, industrialized nations carry it for crimes that vary such as treason, war crimes, crimes against humanity, murder, and rape. The best way to describe the United States is that it swings on the pendulum of human rights issues with the western world according to its personal interest, not a utilitarian one. For example, the embargo against Cuba.
But lets get back to Eddie Rodriguez because something small is always part of a bigger picture. His father was an abusive alcoholic who beat his mother, so it wasn’t unusual that he would take to the streets as a form of escapism. Children born of immigrant parents are clearly at a disadvantage. With parents working long hours, not having enough money, the fear of deportation, living in undesirable communities, and many other concerns that plague us, it is simply a coping method for the harsh social conditions around us. It is a way to deal with the social paradox of the American Dream that almost seems impossible for us because we cannot match up to our white counterparts, but have a different value system from our immigrant parents. Then we get picked up by the police for something insignificant and are thrust into the criminal justice system that is set up to harden people not rehabilitate them. They’re called gladiator schools because of the survival-of-the-fittest school of thought, and it is through this concept that the systematic warehousing of people of color exists. I’m not excusing his crimes, on the contrary, I agree with his sentence. However, it is high time for the United States to reevaluate the prison industrial complex.