Remorse is a tricky word.
Defined as “deep regret or guilt for a wrong committed,” it is easy to claim in, say, a Death Row interview with a reporter. But it is difficult to actually prove.
Feeling remorse is not the same thing as actually “reforming,” which involves the active process of making changes, or amends, for past actions.
This all figures in with a question I was asked this week about Richard Cobb, the Death Row inmate the state of Texas executed Thursday.
A British freelance journalist emailed me, seeking my thoughts about Cobb. She wanted to know what kind of person Cobb had become after nearly a decade on Death Row -- if he had actually reformed.
“I'm getting a lot of anonymous feedback from his supporters which is obviously positive, but having conducted his final interview and knowing the awful crime he committed, I'd be so interested to know what kind of man you saw, and whether you think this last decade has led him to reform?” she wrote.
Despite having recently interviewed Cobb on Death Row, I really didn't know how to respond.
After all, there's no getting around the horror of the crime Cobb, 29, committed with co-defendant Beunka Adams.
These two were finishing a two-week robbing spree when they kidnapped mentally-challenged Kenneth Vandever and clerks Nikki Ansley Daniels and Candace Driver from a Rusk convenience store on Sept. 2, 2002.
Adams and a shotgun-wielding Cobb and took the three to a remote Cherokee County field, where Adams sexually assaulted Daniels. Adams and Cobb forced all three to kneel on the ground, and shot them all from behind.
Vandever was killed and the two clerks left for dead in the field. But they both survived and fled in opposite directions to nearby homes to get help.
Beunka Adams, was caught, tried, and convicted. He was executed for the crimes almost exactly a year ago.
This week, it was Cobb's turn. He became the 496th inmate to be executed in Texas since 1982 and the fourth this year.
Cobb died a lonely death. None of his family members attended his execution.
But was he remorseful? During his March 6 jailhouse interview with me Cobb indicated he was.
“The damage, the regret, the remorse,” Cobb said on Death Row before he died. “I wish I could go back and make this never have happened. Just change it all.”
But that just could have been lip service. Nikki Ansley Daniels' family certainly didn't believe Cobb was sincere.
During our interview, Cobb said he felt his life had come to nothing but failure. But that seemed more like a shame spiral — like he was feeling sorry for himself more than expressing actual contrition for the crime.
His behavior in jail over the years certainly didn't indicate he was apologetic about anything. Cobb had a growing reputation among Death Row guards as a troublemaker, and was said to be a constant thorn in their sides. At one point he even managed to sneak a cell phone into jail.
Then, of course, there was Cobb's now-infamous behavior the last minutes of his life Thursday. Which certainly didn't indicate remorse.
As he lay strapped to a gurney with needles in his arm and a microphone dangling over his head, Cobb rattled off a pre-approved statement vaguely alluding to his feelings about the crime.
“ … Life is too short,” Cobb recited, almost monotone. “ … I hope anyone that has negative feelings towards me will resolve that. Life is too short to harbor feelings of hatred and anger.”
But Cobb mentioned none of his victims by name in that statement. And he never said “I'm sorry.”
Instead, at the very last instant, Cobb abruptly veered his head to the right — almost excitedly with a huge smile — and uttered an exclamation in the general direction of Nikki Ansley Daniels, one of his victims, who was observing the execution behind a plate glass window covered with bars.
“That is great,” Cobb said, his smile narrowing into a sneer. “That is awesome. Thank you warden. Thank you, (expletive)ing warden. Wow.”
Was Cobb taunting Ansley? Or was he having some kind of reaction to the lethal dose flowing through his veins?
To her credit, Nikki Ansley took control of what could have been a last moment of terror at the hands of the man who had hurt her so badly. She told reporters she was glad hers was the last face he saw as he died.
If not a taunt, the outburst was at the very least extremely disrespectful, the families of the victims agreed.
Nikki Daniels has said she would have been willing to forgive Cobb if he had just asked. But he didn't. He was too busy having the last word.
The British journalist who wrote me acknowledged this case is difficult to understand.
“Getting to know Richard, as well as the details of this case, has really tested me,” she said. “ … Richard Cobb's supporters are fiercely loyal and won't reveal too much about how prisons changed him — or if it even has for that matter.”
As odd as it was to hear that someone on Texas Death row has “supporters,” I was intrigued by this almost parallax view other people in the world have about the death penalty.
Everyone knows there is a lot of pro-death penalty sentiment here in Texas, just as in other parts of the world the opposite is true.
Is it possible to be too emphatic about the death penalty? It's possible. Victim Nikki Ansley Daniels and her family indicated after the execution they have been criticized for advocating the death penalty too strongly.
But after what they have been through, who can blame them?
Reform and remorse are powerful words. Hard to live by. Difficult to fully embrace — because to fully embrace them, one must sacrifice ego.
Remorse is synonymous with “repentance” and “penitence.” I do not believe Cobb exhibited either during his last months or even his last minutes on Earth.
So, did Cobb truly regret his actions? Had he reformed? Did he really, trust truly show remorse?
All things considered, I'm going with "No."
A reformed person driven by true remorse would have spent his final moments on earth begging the specific forgiveness of his victims and addressing them by name.
Not ignoring them while gleefully riding a wave of of pentobarbital into the afterlife.
Reformation, remorse and the execution of Richard Aaron Cobb
Remorse is a tricky word.
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