The pattern almost never varies. Around the time a person convicted of a capital crime is sentenced to death, the news media paint that person in the darkest terms possible. The agonies of the victim's family and friends are aired. The horrible details of the murder are outlined in a way that subtly reassures the public that the crime was an unspeakable, inhuman act, far removed from anything they could be capable of. Then, in the weeks leading up to the execution, the process is reversed. Often the media confer a kind of redneck sainthood on the person about to be executed. Most of what the guy has to say is taken at face value. Remorse or pleas of innocence are made real. The convicted murderer is portrayed as a victim.
This strange reversal actually makes sense. It's not just that the media tell stories in ways easiest to report. It's not just that the media understand the entertainment value of first reporting the guy as a homicidal maniac and then as a real human being about to be taken down a hall, tied to a table and filled with deadly chemicals. The truth is that in the time between the trial and the execution the convicted murderer has, in fact, become a victim.
It seems bizarre that in a country where the vast majority of people don't think much of government, where a growing number of citizens don't trust the state to even educate their children, those same citizens insist that the state kill other citizens. This surreal inconsistency is reflected in the media's reversal of reporting about convicted murderers.
There is a glaring fact that helps explain this reversal, this ambiguity in our feelings about a person being put to death - almost everyone executed in this country is dirt poor. Americans' convoluted, often vicious, attitudes about poor people lay at the heart of the capital-punishment issue.
Think about it. Setting aside the disproportionate number of African Americans who are executed - like with so many class issues in the United States race only muddies the waters - nearly everyone agrees that if a rich person commits the same capital offense as a poor person, the rich person is never put to death and the poor person is often a dead man walking. We know that. But why aren't more people saying, "Whoa, we have to get this thing straightened out before we off another 300 or 400 people?"
I think it's because we don't want to think about class issues - and capital punishment is a class issue.