Common Sense: Vol. #16
"No man is an Island, entire of it self; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod be washed away by the Sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a Promontory were, as well as if a Manner of thy friends or of thine own were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee." John Donne b. 1631
The recent execution of former gang member Stanley "Tookie: "Williams has once again sparked the debate concerning whether or not capital punishment is a legitimate and effective deterrent to crime and whether or not an advanced society has another recourse to serve justice. We have come a long way since the middle ages when the execution of people was not only practiced but encouraged. During the fourteenth century the black plague swept across Europe. At the time the belief was that if you carried on a good relationship with God, he would reward you with good health. With about one third of the population dying from this plague, the church had to find someone to blame it on. It was easy. It was the Jews. In villages all across Europe, religious people persecuted and tortured the Jews until they "confessed" The problem was that no matter how many Jews they tortured and killed, the plague kept on. This becomes some really strange logic when you understand the Jews were dying along with everybody else. Well if it wasn't the Jews, it must be witches. Between the 14th and 17th centuries at least a half million women were put to death by burning. Some estimates have it as high as nine million women!. As Dr. Joan Borysenko points out, eventually man realized that being on God's right side was not an adequate health insurance program.
Why is America alone amongst western nations that still holds on to this idea of death as a form of punishment? If for no other reason it should be looked at for the simple fact that it is not administered evenly across the 50 states. There are 31 states that administer the death penalty but six states performed over 80% of the executions. Nearly one half of the people executed in 2000 were done so in Texas, an average of one execution every two weeks! Texas has executed more than one-third of the men and women put to death since 1976, as well as 19 of the 59 inmates executed this year including the only women and five who committed their crimes while they were juveniles. With no more executions scheduled there this month, the state's total this year will fall well below its eight-year average of 28. It would appear that Texas loves to see justice served in this manner because 36% of those put to death, were done so in Texas. More than the next five states combined.
There is some hope for those opposing the death penalty and more and more people in the United States are expressing doubts about it. Public opinion polls show that nearly two-thirds of Americans support the death penalty, but that is a significant drop from the peak, in 1994, when 80 percent of respondents told Gallup pollsters they were in favor of capital punishment. When asked if they would endorse executions if the alternative sentence of life without parole were available, support fell to 50 percent.
Death sentences have declined to their lowest level in three decades, with juries sentencing 125 people to death last year, compared with an average of 290 per year in the 1990s. The number of inmates executed last year was the lowest since 1996, and the Supreme Court has twice in the past three years limited who can be punished with death.
Members of the New Jersey Senate have overwhelmingly passed a bill that would suspend executions in the state and create a new death penalty study commission to examine New Jersey's death penalty. The bill, S-709, passed by a vote of 30-6 and now moves to the New Jersey Assembly for consideration in January. Should the bill become law, New Jersey would become the first state in the country to legislatively impose a moratorium on the death penalty. The bill would require the formation of a death penalty commission composed of 13 members. The commission would review the state's death penalty and submit its findings by November 15, 2006. Among the issues the commission would examine are racial and geographic bias, cost and whether alternatives exist that will both ensure public safety and address the needs of victims' families.
In Virginia, which has executed more people since 1976 than any state but Texas, Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) commuted the death sentence of Robin M. Lovitt recently because the state had thrown out what may have been conclusive evidence, making this the first year since 1983 that Virginia will not have had an execution. The New York legislature this year stopped short of renewing the state's death penalty law, which a court had declared invalid. North Carolina, where condemned prisoner Alan Gell was acquitted in a retrial with the help of evidence that was initially suppressed, created a commission to study how the death penalty operates. California, home to the nation's largest death row, with 648 inmates, did likewise. Legislation on the desk of Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle (D) is designed to improve witness-identification procedures, require electronic recording of interrogations and ensure the preservation of DNA evidence. If the interviews are not recorded, juries are to be told that police violated the law. One place to observe the recent push and pull is Illinois, where outgoing Gov. George Ryan (R) commuted the sentences of the state's 167 death row inmates in 2003, calling the state's death penalty "arbitrary and capricious." A 2000 moratorium on executions continues in Illinois, but 10 more defendants have been sentenced to die since Ryan acted. At the same time, the state legislature has reformed death penalty rules, provided more money for defense lawyers and required police to videotape the questioning of homicide suspects.
Ruben Cantu is long gone, executed by Texas authorities in 1993 after he was convicted of murdering a man during a San Antonio robbery when he was 17 years old. To the end, Cantu insisted he had been framed, and now his codefendant and the sole surviving witness both say he was telling the truth. Prosecutors presented no physical evidence linking Cantu to the 1984 nighttime attack in San Antonio. Nor did they call the 15-year-old codefendant, who had pleaded guilty to the lesser crime of robbery and identified Cantu, an admitted thief, as his partner. The principal witness was Juan Moreno, the wounded worker. The jury did not believe Cantu, who said he had been in another city that night, and ordered him to die. He was executed on Aug. 24, 1993. A state legislator called for an investigation this week as prosecutors moved to study the 20-year-old case. Opponents of the death penalty suspect that Cantu may be what they have long expected to find: an innocent person put to death. Gov. Rick Perry (R) has signed a law that offers juries a chance to sentence capital defendants to life without parole. He also created a Criminal Justice Advisory Council, which has a committee that will focus on the death penalty.
Former San Antonio District Attorney Sam Millsap, who once proclaimed himself a "lifelong supporter of the death penalty," now opposes capital punishment. Millsap says his decision to oppose the death penalty was recently affirmed as evidence surfaced that Texas may have killed an innocent man when it executed Ruben Cantu, a San Antonio man who was sentenced to die while Millsap was DA. "It is troubling to me personally. No decision is more frightening than seeking the death penalty. We owe ourselves certainty on it," Millsap stated in an interview during which he used words like "painful," "horrible," and "haunting" to categorize Cantu's case. Millsap said that he used to have confidence in the death penalty "when I was in my 30s and knew everything." Now, he says the revelations about Cantu's case are painful to him because the case happened on his watch. He said that if Cantu was innocent, that means the person who committed the murder remains free and that "the misconduct by police officers could be addressed today."
During a recent meeting of the European Union's full assembly, European Parliament president Josep Borrell called on the 76 countries around the world that continue to retain the death penalty to discontinue use of capital punishment. He noted that the United States is the only democratic state that makes "widespread use" of the death penalty and that the European Union has a duty to convince Americans to end the practice. "Most unfortunately, in the U.S. the 1000th execution was carried out. The fact that it almost coincided with Human Rights Day makes this fact particularly poignant," Borrell told the assembly. "But there is a glimmer of hope. U.S. society is changing its views on the death penalty." Borrell then added, "For us in Europe, the right to life is an inalienable right. No one ever loses their right to life, no matter what they have done." According to Amnesty International, executions were carried out in 25 nations last year. China, Iran, Vietnam and the United States accounted for 97% of all executions that took place in 2004. Capital punishment is not allowed in Europe, where no execution has been carried out since 1997.
As the 1,000th execution was occurring, over 1,000 religious leaders from more than a dozen religious faiths have issued an open letter calling for an end to capital punishment in the United States. The letter reaffirms the leaders' moral opposition to the death penalty and reiterates the groups' belief in the sacredness of life and the human capacity for change. The faith leaders called on public officials to reexamine capital punishment and to seek better ways to help communities heal from violence. The letter states: We join with many Americans in questioning the need for the death penalty in our modern society and in challenging the effectiveness of this punishment, which has consistently been shown to be ineffective, unfair, and inaccurate. The death penalty not only applies disproportionately to the poor and to people of color, but also continues to make fatal mistakes, with 122 people now freed from death rows across the country due to evidence of wrongful conviction. As the number of executions increases, the likelihood that we have, or that we will, execute an innocent person becomes a near certainty. The United States continues to be one of the top executing nations in the world and is out of step with the majority of its global allies on this issue. We would be a better society by joining the many nations that have already abolished the death penalty.
There are other factors to be considered when administering the death penalty as it is currently practiced in the United States. The most poignant amongst these is the execution of those who are mentally retarded. The U.N. Commission on Human Rights stated that "In many, but not all, states the defendant cannot be held responsible if he reacted to an 'irresistible impulse' or is incapable of acting responsibly by reason of mental or emotional disability. Many people with mental disabilities, however, are not legally insane. Some persons with mental disabilities have been found legally capable of resisting impulses and acting responsibly."
Between 1976 and 2000, at least 35 mentally disadvantaged individuals were executed in the U.S.; six of them were in Texas jails. Some of the most recent mentally retarded inmates to be executed were murdered in late 2000: Tony Chambers, a black man who has been convicted of raping and murdering an 11 year-old girl in 1990. Although DNA evidence has proven that he is not the perpetrator, he confessed to the crime and will probably be executed shortly. The only thing remarkable about the case is that it took police 11 hours to extract a confession from Tony. His IQ is in the 50's and he has a mental age of six. (Normal intelligence is a 100) It should have taken only a few hours for a competent police force to extract a confession of any crime from murder to bank robbery from a person with an IQ at that level.
Johnny Penry, a white man, who was convicted of murdering a 20-year old woman in 1979. "He has been mentally retarded since childhood, possibly as the result of organic brain damage. He has the mind of a seven year old, with an I.Q. somewhere between 50 and 63. Like a child, he has grave difficulties in communication, learning, foresight, logic, attention, memory and understanding consequences. He is limited in his ability to learn from experience, to control his impulses, to understand causality. Penry's development was also dramatically affected by the vicious, relentless beatings and abuse he endured as a child at the hands of his mother, a woman who even made her son eat his own feces."
Some experts estimate that as many as 15 percent of the 3,000 men and women on the nation's Death Row suffer from mental retardation.
Many people feel that although the crimes of mentally impaired individuals are equally as serious as those committed by persons of normal intelligence, that the former should be treated more leniently because "they are incapable of fully comprehending either the nature of their crimes or the nature of their punishment." 3
Jamie Fellner is an Associate Counsel at Human Rights Watch and an author of the fifty-page report, "Beyond Reason: The Death Penalty and Offenders with Mental Retardation." Fellner said: "Executing adults with the minds of children is nothing short of barbaric... Polls show most supporters of the death penalty agree. It is time for legislators to outlaw this senseless cruelty." 4,5
According to Human Rights Watch: "... mentally retarded people are incapable of understanding - much less protecting - their constitutional rights; how their characteristic suggestibility and willingness to please leads them to confess - even falsely - to capital crimes; and how they are unable to understand the legal proceedings against them and assist in their own defense." 4,6
The executions of mentally impaired offenders is prohibited by 18 U.S. states and by the Federal Government. Some other states were considering legislation to follow suit: AZ, FL, MO, NV, OK, TX. Texas Senator Rodney Ellis unsuccessfully introduced a bill to prohibit execution of mentally retarded criminals in Texas. Governor George W. Bush did not support the legislation. Governor Mike Easley of North Carolina signed a bill forbidding execution of mentally retarded persons on 2001.
The U.S. supreme court ruled in 1989 that execution of individuals with mental retardation was acceptable. They "concluded that the 8th Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment did not preclude execution of the mentally retarded. It ruled there was insufficient evidence that the national 'standard of decency' had evolved far enough to reject such executions." 4 Only two states had banned the practice at the time.
In 2002, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the execution of mentally retarded murderers is unconstitutionally cruel. Justice John Paul Stevens wrote the majority report. He stated that mentally retarded individuals should still be tried and punished when they "meet the law's requirements for criminal responsibility. Because of their disabilities in the areas of reasoning, judgment, and control of their impulses, however, they do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct." The court voted 6 to 3 in the case of Daryl Atkins who was found guilty of shooting an Air Force enlisted man for beer money in 1996. According to his lawyers, he has an IQ of 59 and has never link to portland.indymedia.org on his own or held a job. Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Justice Antonin Scalia, and Justice Clarence Thomas voted against the ruling.
If America is to change it's approach to capital punishment it has to be with the support of the government, however a look at the record of George W. Bush while he was governor of Texas does not give us much hope or promise. During his five plus years as governor of Texas — far more than any other U.S. governor since World War II and more than one-third of all execution in the United States during his terms as governor. Of those executions :All were poor, 50 were African Americans, 21 Hispanic,Two were women, Included were teenagers at the time of their offense, mentally retarded persons, and foreign nationals executed in violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations Incidentally, By the end of 1987, the execution of murderers who were children at the time of the offense — i.e. under the age of 18 — had been abandoned in all developed countries, except for the United States. Many western democracies severely criticized the United States for this practice.
Although at one time in our history, the execution of children was not uncommon, there have been some changes in 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court banned the execution of murderers who were under the age of 17 and in March of this year, the court reduced the cutoff age so that 16 and 17 year-old offenders could not be sentenced to be executed. What is particularly bothersome is that as in most rulings related to ethics and morality, the vote was close: 5 to 4.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the American Convention on Human Rights, and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child prohibit the execution of a person who has committed a crime while a child (under the age of 18). The United States Senate ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1992, conditional on the continued right of individual states to impose the death penalty on juvenile murderers - those aged 16 or 17 at the time that the crime was committed. The U.S. is the only federal government in the world to have not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. There are only six countries in the world at this time that allow the execution of those who have committed a crime as a child. These are Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States . Yemen had enabling laws in the 1990's, but has since abolished them. Great company we are keeping.
... ..send not for whom the bell tolls,
it tolls for thee... .
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