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A country gone insane ...

By Kirsten Edwards - posted Monday, 15 May 2000

I love that email going around about questions sent to the Sydney Olympic website. Examples include: Will I be able to see kangaroos in the street? (USA) Do the camels in Australia have one hump or two? (UK) Can I wear high heels in Australia? (UK) Are there supermarkets in Sydney and is milk available all year round? (Germany) Which direction is North in Australia? (USA) Will I be able to speak English most places I go? (USA). I should have noticed how many of them were from the US. I did notice my American friend didn’t laugh quite as hard when I read out the one about the guy wanting to walk from Perth to Sydney. "Well do you know the distance between New York and Washington" he responded indignantly. I pointed out that a better analogy would be me suggesting I could walk between LA and New York but the rapport had been lost forever.

Despite our many and increasing similarities in politics, law and culture there are still important differences between Australia and the US that a true blue Aussie needs to confront in order to survive here. One of these differences is in language. A visitor to a New York deli will quickly starve unless she learns to ask for to-MAY-toe soup rather than for to-MAH-toe soup. And I mean YOU have to learn. It’s like Paris, they won’t listen carefully and just work it out, they will just stare at you blankly as if you had launched into a round of Swahili. Then they might present you, with a dramatic clatter of plate against counter, with a kosher ox-tongue sandwich … it will be expensive … and don’t forget to tip. What they call the "entrée size" is what we call "the main course" size, which will of course be enough to feed Africa for the rest of the millennium. (Actual conversation transcript - American: "Well if Australians call "appetizers" "entrees", what do you call main courses? Kirsten: "Main courses" American: "Oh right I can see how you could get that")

Oh and don’t go searching for the prawns, oops I mean shrimp, in the spaghetti marinara. Marinara sauce here means just plain to-MAY-to topping maybe with an ‘erb or two. (Tip: anglicize all French pronunciations eg the cathedral not-tra-dahm is pronounced no-der daim, but be sure to drop the "h" from herb you colonial philistine). Another one that really bugs me is that these Northern Hemisphere types use the word "year" when they mean the "academic year" which actually goes from August to May. (Actual conversation transcript: American: "do you guys really call Christmas time 'summer'?"). So when some academic dude asks in August 2000 "Did that happen last year?" they could well mean "Did it happen in May 2000? or "Did it happen in May 1999". Confusion ensues. Australian academic standing drops. Even if we do say "fortnight" and "Autumn" which according to a friend here is "pretentious and positively Shakespearean".


Similar irritating little nuances will confront one trying to practice criminal law over here. In Australia if someone walks around with a domino strapped to his forehead and tells you he is a judge who is going to be reincarnated as a giant flying turtle and rule heaven; or if another spends his spare time talking only in numbers and rolling his own faeces into small balls and arranging them decoratively on his mantelpiece, we would call them "insane" "nuts" or maybe "utterly and completely bonkers". In America the term is "competent to be executed". The people in those particular examples are now referred to as "carkers" "6 feet under" "no longer with us" or "just plain dead".

OK I did lure you in with a Bill Bryson-style excursus on linguistics just for another rant about human rights in the US but this one I think is particularly interesting. The US has had to confront the troubling issue of executing the retarded and mentally ill and they are making a complete mess of it. You may think "who cares if the yanks knock off a few murderous nut bags, good riddance for the rest of us". An American would reply "Huh?", I would reply "Call me hippy-dippy, say I sit around campfires singing kumbaya, but I believe the way we treat the mentally ill and retarded is a true mark of the humanity and compassion of an evolved society". But that’s boring, the really interesting thing is that for once, Americans almost agree with me.

The most famous case in the last decade was Ricky Ray Rector, a retarded man who shot himself after killing two people, causing the equivalent of his own frontal lobotomy. Rector lost all his court appeals and Governor Bill Clinton, who at the time was running for the Democratic nomination for President, flew into Arkansas to personally supervise the execution. At the time many thought this was a ‘Wag the Dog’ type stunt to distract the public from Bill’s political scandals involving Gennifer Flowers and draft dodging. After the execution it was revealed that Rector had set aside the dessert portion of his last meal. He told guards he was saving it for later.

I don’t know if this was the tipping point but since that time opinion poll after poll suggests that up to 86 per cent of Americans just are not comfortable with zapping, gassing, injecting or otherwise executing people who are mentally retarded or seriously mentally ill. Now some states prohibit killing the retarded or mentally ill, some make it a mitigating factor when the jury decides between life imprisonment and execution and other states just take a case by case approach. Not only are the tests different in each place, it is not entirely clear what the reservation about killing the mentally ill stems from. I mean the Americans love their electric chair. One political candidate even proposed speeding things up by replacing it with an electric sofa (would it have little embroidered electric cushions?) It does not seem to be executing the disadvantaged that bothers most people (most people on death row have had terrible lives). Or even the notion that mental illness or damage makes people less responsible for their crimes (some retarded people have the mental age and judgment of small children but this is a country where the death penalty has been proposed for 11-year-olds). But there does seem to be some kind of consensus that if you are so mad or damaged that you don’t really get what the execution is about, it is kind of poor form to kill you. "Not cricket" as some other foreigner here might say.

Now I am not suggesting for a moment that American courts are full of old softies and that evidence of being a tad behind your grade level in reading will get you off the hook … or the electric sofa. In fact it is almost impossible. There are two times when mental illness or damage is particularly relevant. The first is before you stand trial when it must be determined that you are "competent to be tried". A defendant is supposed to be able to know what’s going on around him or her and be able to advise their lawyer - not so much on all the minutiae of tactical strategy, but at least get the gist and assist in their own defence. In reality it’s notoriously difficult to be found incompetent to stand trial. I know of one case where a defendant attempted suicide by slashing his neck and wrists on the morning of his trial. He was sent to ER where they bandaged him, dosed him up on pain killers and bundled him straight off to court. He spent the morning, still suicidal, drifting in and out of consciousness. The judge didn’t even bother to hold a competency hearing, even after a potential juror complained that the defendant was asleep. The Judge thought the defendant looked just fine and assured his lawyer that one could "barely notice the bandages" on his wrist and collar. (Well as long as he looked good).

After conviction and sentence, a mentally ill or damaged person gets another shot at avoiding death (assuming they have a lawyer and the lawyer is willing and able to try it). The test at this stage, whether you are "competent to be executed", revolves around whether you know you are being executed and why. Getting a finding that you are incompetent can be pretty darn tricky. Take the flying turtle guy, Varnall Weeks.


Varnall Weeks

Pretty much everyone who had met or examined Weeks had found him a few sandwiches short of a picnic. The technical description was paranoid schizophrenic, mentally retarded and suffering from serious delusions and hallucinations. But despite the opinions of both the psychologist hired by the defense and the one hired by the prosecution that Weeks was "insane" a judge found him not only competent to be executed but "highly intelligent" with "signs of genius".

How? Reluctant to rely on the technical mumbo jumbo of the experts the judge called Weeks to the witness stand for a chat and discovered he was completely aware of his surroundings and the basis of the hearing: Weeks knew who his lawyers were (although he only told information about his case to another death row inmate whom he considered his real lawyer); he knew who the Judge was and what job he performed (although Weeks stated he was also a judge, and God,and he could kill the presiding judge if he chose to); and he knew he was going to be executed by the state on a particular date (of course he was immediately going to rise again and rule heaven as a giant flying turtle). Then came the statement by Weeks, sitting there with his domino strapped to his head (it’s a bit long but bear with me):

Well, as creation is desired, you got the adults and you got the children. You’ve got two adults, and you’ve got a child. And you’ve got a man on one side and a woman on the other side, and you’ve got the child which would be the one in the center. Okay? But as creation is concerned, it is the child that causes the parents to come together. You see? I haven’t … The child is causing the parents to create, you know, the child. Well, in the creation of God it works to the same way. The parents … the child is the creator of the parents but the parents is to bring forth the child, you see.

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About the Author

Kirsten Edwards is a Fulbright Scholar currently researching and teaching law at an American university. She also works as a volunteer lawyer at a soup kitchen and a domestic violence service and as a law teacher at a juvenile detention centre but all the community service in the world can’t seem to get her a boyfriend.

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