Dissecting the Death Penalty

The reality of capital punishment.

| Tue Feb. 9, 1999 4:00 AM EST

In a culture where:

a) TV police chases culminating in the killing of the suspect are so routine and popular that a pager service now exists to alert you when a new one is on,

b) Rupert Murdoch and the Fox network would shock anyone by turning Faces of Death into a miniseries only if it was a musical comedy, and

c) politicians continue to constantly call for longer sentences (which would be a lot more impressive if they were actually capable of forming a few),

principled opposition to capital punishment is harder to hear through the din than a strangled gasp in the middle of a lynch mob.

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But principled oppositon exists. You just have to listen closely.

Death Penalty Focus is a non-profit group which calls the death penalty "an ineffective and brutally simplistic response to the serious and complex problem of violent crime."

Are they right? OK, let's just see how some of DPF's arguments against the death penalty, in italics, hold up against a quick scan of just a single week's headlines:

Innocence

DPF: Studies show that in this century, at least 400 innocent people have been convicted of capital crimes they did not commit. Of those 400, 23 were executed. The wrongful execution of an innocent person is an injustice that can never be rectified.

Item:
CHICAGO - After 16 years on death row, Anthony Porter, 43, walked out of the Cook County Jail on Friday after journalism professor David Protess and his class gathered evidence that he was wrongly convicted of two 1982 murders. Porter, who has an IQ of 51, came within two days of execution by lethal injection last September before the Illinois Supreme Court decided that his case required another look. Since then, a key witness has recanted his testimony, saying police had pressured him, and on Wednesday, another man finally confessed on videotape that he had killed the two victims. The case was not the first in which the professor and his students saved a life. In June 1996, four men who had spent 18 years in prison for murder were released after Northwestern students discovered new evidence. Two of those four had also been on death row awaiting execution.

Racism

DPF: Race is an important factor in determining who is sentenced to die. In 1990 a report from the General Accounting Office concluded that "in 82 percent of the studies ... those who murdered whites were more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks."

Items:
INDEPENDENCE, Va. - After being given a life sentence Friday for his role in the death of a black man who was burned alive and beheaded, Emmett Cressell, 38, apologized to the man's family but refused to accept blame. The victim was doused with gasoline and set afire after an all-night drinking party at a trailer in rural Grayson County. Authorities found the victim's charred corpse in a pile of debris with his severed, burned head in a freshly dug hole nearby.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Prominent musicians performed a sold-out concert to raise money for the defense of death row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal, a black activist radio reporter sentenced to die for the 1981 death of a white Philadelphia police officer. Amnesty International has expressed "serious doubts about the fairness of the trial procedures" in his case: "prosecutors inappropriately used Mumia Abu-Jamal's political affiliations to elicit a death sentence." Gov. Christine Todd Whitman urged fans of the bands to stay home.

Other Countries

DPF: The vast majority of countries in Western Europe, North America and South America -- more than 95 nations worldwide -- have abandoned capital punishment. The United States remains in the same company as Iraq, Iran and China as one of the major advocates and users of capital punishment.

Items:
HOUSTON - A Canadian awaiting execution in Texas has failed in his attempt to have the U.S. Supreme Court consider whether his case violated international law. After pleas by Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright unsuccessfully sought a reprieve for Faulder. Canada has no death penalty.

WASHINGTON - The United States has assured France that former U.S. counterculture leader Ira Einhorn would get a new trial and not face the death penalty if he was extradited, a senior U.S. official said Thursday. France has no death penalty.

BONN - Germany has asked the U.S. government to try to stop the execution of two German brothers sentenced to death in Arizona. German Justice Minister Herta Daeubler-Gmelin urged Reno to make a plea for clemency to Arizona Gov. Jane Dee Hull. Germany has no death penalty.

HAVANA - Two men convicted of killing two Italian tourists have been sentenced to death, the Cuban government confirmed Thursday - a move that followed calls by President Fidel Castro to crack down on growing crime.

TEHRAN - Anti-drug agents seized several tons of drugs in eastern and southeastern Iran, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported Sunday. Hundreds of drug traffickers have been hanged under a law that mandates the death penalty for anyone caught with more than a small quantity of narcotics.

The Bible

DPF: Although isolated passages of the Bible have been quoted in support of the death penalty, almost all religious groups in the United States regard executions as immoral.

Item:
VATICAN CITY - Pope John Paul II said Thursday he was delighted that Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan had heeded his personal appeal for clemency and commuted the death sentence of a triple-murderer. Darrell Mease, 42, had confessed to the 1988 shotgun killings of his former drug partner, the man's wife and their handicapped teen-age son.

Randomness

DPF: Politics, quality of legal counsel and the jurisdiction where a crime is committed are more often the determining factors in a death penalty case than the facts of the crime itself. The death penalty is a lethal lottery: of the 22,000 homicides committed every year 300 people are sentenced to death.

Item:
POTOSI, Mo. - Meanwhile, Missouri's next Death Row inmate says he doesn't expect the Pope's intervention. James Edward Rodden is scheduled to die by lethal injection at the Potosi State Correctional Center on February 24th. His execution was scheduled one day after the Carnahan administration commuted the sentence of Darrell Mease.

 
Hoo-boy. Five for five, and in just a single week of news. And DPF has other reasons to oppose the death penalty that are just as good, but you get the idea.

Death Penalty Focus is clearly pioneering a novel concept: a political opinion which is actually corroborated by real world events.

These people have no future in TV news.

Hey, if you live near L.A. and you'd like info concerning my live stand-up, radio, and music appearances, send a blank e-mail to BobHarrisLA-subscribe@listbot.com. You'll get updated info on where I'm performing once a month or so, depending on the schedule.

I got swamped with over 100 e-mails from kind people responding to last week's column on Chicago closing off Lower Wacker to the homeless. This was the warmest reaction I've received for anything I've ever written. Including mash notes to girlfriends, I think. Thanks very much, and I'll return all your letters as soon as I can. Meanwhile, let's make sure we hang on to the energy we put into those letters and apply it in our neighborhoods as well (and I mean myself, too).


Bob Harris is a radio commentator, political writer, and humorist who has spoken at almost 300 colleges nationwide.

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