I’ve never met Eric Robert of South Dakota, but what I’ve read about him makes me wonder whether he is a little too sane for the rest of us. The only safe thing to do is to kill him and claim that we are doing justice. At least that is the course the state of South Dakota is taking. Quick, put him to death before the truth he expresses catches fire and spreads from coast to coast.
Mr. Robert was convicted and sentenced 80 years in prison for kidnapping a young woman in 2005. He wasn’t exactly the sort of person you would expect to go out and commit such a crime. He graduated 18th in his class of 138 in Wisconsin. He went on to college to earn a biology degree. He worked for the Environmental Protection Agency, and then as manager of the Sioux Falls water treatment plant. He was motoring along Main Street, enjoying the middle-class dream we are taught to seek: He had money in the bank, a good job, standing in the community.
Until the wheels fell off of whatever he was driving.
He claims in 2005 he was drunk when he abducted a young woman, and that his intent was to rob her, and not sexually assault her. The state thought otherwise, and threw the book at him. His 80-year sentence made the 49-year-old Robert eligible for parole at 83.
An eighty year sentence for a charge of kidnapping for a man without a criminal record seems obscene from a distance. The sentencing judge clearly intended that Robert die behind bars. Twenty years would not have been long enough to make the point that his behavior one night was not acceptable? We incarcerate more people in the United States than anywhere else in the world, and the sentences we impose here are obscene. The world stares agape at how the land of the free treats those who break the law.
Robert lost hope, and so he did something that we will now kill him for: he turned with savagery on a law than regarded him as little more than chattel. He tried to escape. He beat a guard to death. When he knew his plan was foiled and that he would never be free, he tried to kill other guards. He regrets not killing more.
At trial in South Dakota Robert pled guilty during the guilt phase of his death penalty trial. Then he asked the judge to impose a sentence of death. He told Judge Bradley Zell that he was so hungry for freedom that he would have killed anyone who stood in his way. He wished he had killed another guard. “Brad Zell, if you stood between me and the door of freedom, I would kill you,” Robert said.
Those aren’t exactly winning words at a sentencing hearing. It is never a good idea to threaten to kill the hand that can sign your death warrant.
So Judge Zell obliged. The judge noted that Robert “showed extreme anger to the point of hatred.” Robert was so bent on control that his rage new no limits. Despite all that he had done with his life, justice now requires this killing. “May God have mercy on your soul,” Judge Zell said. God's mercy? We kill and ask God to be merciful? What kind of monster says such a thing?
Commenting on cases from afar is always risky. I’ve never met Zell. I have not read the transcript of the kidnapping trial that landed him an effective life sentence. I don’t know what his pre-sentence report reflects. Perhaps the man is a remorseless monster.
But from afar it looks as though he is a monster we helped to create. He committed a grave offense and for that offense was sentenced to a lifetime of imprisonment. When he decided he wasn’t going to lie down and die, that he’d fight to take his freedom back, he killed a jailer. This is a grave offense.
But press reports that Robert is evil miss the larger point. Even Thomas Hobbes, the seventeenth century author of the Leviathan, a work that vests almost absolute power in the sovereign as a means of protecting the liberty of citizens, argued that when the sovereign sought to take our lives we could resist unto death. Isn’t that what Robert did?
Perhaps Eric Robert is evil. More likely he was just overwhelmed by the irrationality of a criminal justice system than knows no measure, that reacts savagely and without remorse, taking hope from folks who made mistakes, but who have nonetheless not sacrificed their humanity. Perhaps Eric Robert gave the state a little of its own medicine.
Robert does not want to stand in the way of his execution. He wants to die. It is the last act he can perform and still claim some control over his destiny. The state has taken everything else from him.
The South Dakota Supreme Court will appoint counsel to act now on behalf of Robert. He wants to die. But the law holds that suicide is an irrational act, the product of a diseased mind. Yet the trial judge found him sane, and has obliged him his desire to die.
The case is disturbing from afar. It appears that one of the few persons seeing clearly what is at stake in this case is Eric Robert. The state has become a monster. He fought the state, using lethal force, returning, as it were, to the state of nature. And now the behemoth has him in its jaws, and he wants simply to die, rather than to be confined until he someday dies of natural causes.
Is Eric Robert saying “live free or die”? That used to be a patriot’s call in colonial times. Yes, the man is a criminal. He committed an offense requiring punishment. But the state’s seemingly gratuitous savagery invited Roberts to respond with a savagery of his own. I wonder, really, whether he sees clearly, perhaps too clearly, the sorry state of the criminal justice system in this country. Deprive a man of hope, cage him like an animal, and do you really expect him to go quietly into the night? Should he have kissed his jailer’s hand.
I’d like to meet Eric Robert. I think he has a story worth telling.