I used to get these letters all the time, when I was doing forensic DNA analysis (and testimony) for defense attorneys. Inmates would somehow find out about me, and write me letters asking for help. They were always pathetic, pleaded that they were innocent (something that has to be considered if they’re asking for DNA evidence), and I never had the time to do anything but (occasionally) respond by saying “no,” as I had a day job and my hands full with other cases.
The letters were umistakeable. They’d always come in a stamped envelope with my name and address scrawled in bad handwriting, like this one that came yesterday. (The address, by the way, is wrong, but it found its way to me anyway. I’ve also left out the return address and name.)
And I knew that if I turned the letter over, I would find it rubber-stamped like this:
But this letter was different: it was from an inmate who has been reading books about evolution (including mine and several of Dawkins’s), was a former M.D. and seemed intelligent. He had a couple of questions about whether there was enough time for evolution to occur (i.e., “What mathematical evidence is there that evolution had time to proceed from a one-cellular replicator to man in 4.5 billion years?” [JAC: it wasn’t quite that long]), and what I thought the best existing fossil evidence was for a transition from one species to another. Those aren’t bad questions for a layperson.
So I looked the guy up. He was in for murder, and the sentence was life without parole. He killed his wife and tried to pretend that somebody else did it. It was not a pretty story. It was, however, sort of a crime of passion. I won’t divulge details, but I suspect that’s why, in a state that has capital punishment (e.g., Timothy McVeigh), he isn’t on death row.
My question is this? Should I answer his questions? The downside is that I’m busy, that it may engage me in a correspondence I don’t want, and the guy did something horrible.
On the other hand, he’s in for life without parole, which surely must be one of the worst possible ways to live one’s life. (And yes, I know he was convicted for taking away the life of another.) I also don’t believe in moral responsibility, that is, I don’t think the guy had a choice about whether to kill his wife or not. Yes, he needs to be punished, to deter others and keep him out of society (rehabilitation is not an option for someone who will never get out). But that doesn’t mean that he’s not a human being, or that his life could not be a tiny bit bettered by a response from a scientist.
I just keep thinking what it must be like to live in a small cell, knowing that the only way out is in a coffin. Yes, I know the guy did something unconscionable, but that doesn’t make him inhuman. My impulse is to answer, but I thought I’d pose it as a general question.