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Bewildering Stories

Challenge 842 Response discusses...

The Last Word

with Gary Clifton

Gary Cifton explains that The Last Word is based closely on a true story; the crimes were actually committed as described. The names have been changed, of course, and the character of Maggs Williams is fictional. The author kindly answers some questions and sheds some light on police and judicial procedures in Texas and elsewhere.

The cases against Hook and Oscar are ironclad: witness, weapon, forensic evidence. Could their legal counsel have avoided the death sentences by having them plead guilty?

[G.C.] A life sentence to avoid the death penalty is a plea bargain. In Texas and all other states, the prosecution does not have to accept a plea, nor does the defense. Often, in this state, if the crime is heinous enough, the state declines the defense plea and proceeds with a capital murder trial. Of course, not all states have a death penalty. We had a second capital murder case as backup. Experience dictated that when the jury saw the death photos, the two defendants would be screwed.

What do the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution provide? Maggs accepts the Eighth Amendment, but would she prefer earlier 18th-century law?

[G.C.] The 4th and 5th Amendments pertain to searches and self-incrimination, respectively. The 8th includes freedom from cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court has ruled that properly predicated (will the defendant be a continuing threat to society; does his past history show a pattern of destructive violence; severity of the crime), the death penalty is acceptable within the policy of the prosecuting authority.

As to the Maggs threat, that comment was made, except Maggs is a fictional insert.

When Maggs and McCoy capture Hook and Oscar, why do they not torture and kill them, hide the bodies and let the murder cases go cold?

[G.C.] When we ran the pair to ground, we had a relative of one in tow, plus the presence of four or five cops from more than one agency. I’m sure quick justice was on the minds of all of us, but such acts are much less likely than some would contend.

[Don W.] Thank you, Gary. I tried to come up with questions that readers may have, especially if they live in other parts of the world. The story makes a number of things quite clear:

An FBI agent conducting a routine background check once mentioned to me, “There are some very bad people out there.” I replied, “I’m glad you’re on our side.” The story confirms both our statements.

The story reveals that the police are — for better or, sometimes, worse — human beings. Like any normal person, Maggs and McCoy feel loathing and fear at Hook’s and Oscar’s crimes. And the feeling motivates her and McCoy to do what an indifferent robot could not: pursue the case with determination and due diligence.

Maggs has her “last word” twice: at Hook’s execution and in her reply to the reporter’s question about justice. Maggs emotionally — and quite understandably — prefers a punishment that would have been common in the Middle Ages and even in recent centuries. But Maggs does not have the last word; law does.

The principle of “an eye for an eye” was a civilization advance. By establishing equal retributive justice it outlawed the vendetta, namely feuds that often ended only with the extermination of whole families.

The abolition of cruel and unusual punishment, including vigilantism and torture, is another advance in civilization. Maggs’ feelings are authentic, but she does not take revenge. In abiding by the law she enforces, she proves that she and her partners are better than the criminals they have brought to justice.

Copyright © 2020 by Gary Clifton
and Bewildering Stories

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