March 2002


Jennifer Harbury has always fascinated me. As far as I could tell, she was a normal American lawyer named Jennifer, like me. Then, she fell in love with and married a Guatemalan rebel leader in the early 1990’s, at a time when the country was in a dangerous civil war. Less than a year after they married, the man returned to Guatemala to fight. He was captured by Guatemalan operatives who were working for the United States CIA.

When Harbury tried to find out what happened to him from the government, she was told that they didn’t know where he was or if he was alive. At first, she believed them.

In fact, he was alive and the United States knew it. The CIA operatives were torturing him to get information and the torture may have lasted a year to 18 months. Harbury thinks the government kept this secret from her to avoid embarassment over its complicity with Guatemalan torturers, and that if she had known, she would have been able to do something (file a lawsuit?) to save him. Now it is too late. They eventually killed him, and maybe dismembered him or threw him out of a helicopter.

To get the truth, Harbury staged a hunger strike in front of the White House, which promped Congressman Torricelli of New Jersey, who was on a government committee that had access to classified information about Guatemala, to publically disclose that the government knew the man was dead.

Harbury filed a lawsuit, which she argued before the Supreme Court today. I don’t know if anyone has ever argued their own case before the Supreme Court before. I searched the Internet, and I couldn’t find any pictures of Harbury and Bamaca, her husband, together. I don’t think they were married long enough to even have pictures. But his capture completely transformed her, and it seems she’s done nothing else but fight for the information about his death since 1992. Her obsession with finding out what happened to this man she, honestly, barely knew is both unbalanced and at the same time the only moral choice a person could make.

How many other issues are there that, if you trully believed, you would have to sacrifice your whole life for that purpose. If I truly hated the death penalty, shouldn’t I break into prisons to free condemned inmates? If I truly believed abortion was murder, wouldn’t I do anything, even kill, to stop it? What is the line between dedication and obsession? In polite society, it is sometimes acceptable to believe, but it is insane to act in accordance with those beliefs.

Today, a Texas jury decided that Andrea Yates, the woman who drowned her five children in a psychotic fugue, should not get the death penalty. The prosecution decided to seek the death penality, even though the woman was, by any calculations, completely insane. The jury found her guilty, nonetheless. It wasn’t really their fault. The law is that a person can only be not guilty by reason of insanity if they are so wacked they don’t know right from wrong. Some commentators have said that this means that the defense has to show that the person would have done the crime even if the police were in the room. Ms. Yates’ lawyers argued that she knew what she was doing was illegal, but thought it was morally right. The jury didn’t buy that argument, which just shows how narrow the defense is, despite this widespread assumption that people successfully “plead insanity” all the time.

The deaths of these children is a tragedy, but the real obscenity here is the prosecutor, who dangled death above this afflicted woman’s head for no purpose known to Justice. The largest psych ward in the U.S. is in the L.A. County Jail. This is how we deal with our mentally ill people in 21st Century America. The Texas jury did the right thing when it refused to sentence Yates to death. I hope the Texas voters will do the right thing and terminate this prosecutor’s career at next election.

“Two shafts of bright light pierced the New York City night sky Monday in memory of all those who lost their lives six months ago in the September 11 attacks.” CNN.com March 11, 2002.

Welcome to The Shout, a place for news, opinions, rants, finger-pointing and musings. The Shout is about the things I care most deeply for: law, technology, crime, politics, books, magazines, movies and San Francisco. Occasionally, a story about Mr. Boodles, the cat, may slip past the Censor. I hope you enjoy the view.