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Death Watch | The Nation

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Death Watch

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When the history of this year's presidential campaign is written, the addiction of both Bush and Gore to the obsolete politics of capital punishment will rank high in the annals of moral insensibility and cowardice. In the final debate they fell all over each other agreeing that the death penalty serves as a deterrent to murder. Never mind the polls showing a steadily eroding public support for it and growing alarm about tainted convictions. Even Janet Reno admitted a few months ago that "I have inquired for most of my adult life about studies that might show the death penalty is a deterrent, and I have not seen any research that would substantiate that point."

Just how remote the capital-punishment rhetoric of this campaign is from reality is suggested by a ruling from the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in the case of Calvin Burdine, who sits on death row in Huntsville, Texas. Burdine's court-appointed lawyer, Joe Cannon, slept through long stretches of his trial, a practice frequently ratified by Texas courts [see Bruce Shapiro, "Sleeping Lawyer Syndrome," April 7, 1997]. Federal District Judge David Hittner threw out Burdine's conviction, but on October 27 a Fifth Circuit appellate panel reinstated it. The two-judge majority--including Judge Edith Jones, a favorite Republican prospect for the Supreme Court--claimed that the record failed to show whether the lawyer's naps came during "critical" phases of the life-or-death proceeding. The panel's lone dissenter, Judge Fortunato Benavides, wrote that the circumstance of Burdine's trial "shocks the conscience."

What is conscience-shocking is not just Sleeping Joe Cannon but the entire capital-justice apparatus. Recently the Quixote Center of Maryland released a dramatic study documenting sixteen people executed in six states, despite late-appearing evidence questioning their guilt or the exposure of massively unfair proceedings. A typical case in the report is that of Brian Baldwin, executed in Alabama in June 1999, even though his confession was coerced, his court-appointed lawyer never conducted an investigation, a co-defendant later confessed and exonerated Baldwin, and an Alabama court found that the prosecutor routinely practiced "deliberate racial discrimination."

Clearly, we need a national timeout on executions. Thirty-five cities nationwide--most recently Greensboro and five other municipalities in conservative North Carolina--have endorsed such a moratorium. As legal scholar Anthony Amsterdam said in October in his keynote address to the American Bar Association's annual convention, the system is "fatally unjust and prone to error." And that also applies to the federal court system, in which a recent study showed widespread racial bias in death sentences. The first federal execution since the Kennedy years is set for December unless President Clinton intervenes, as he certainly should. Senators Carl Levin and Russ Feingold and Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. have introduced legislation that, in varying ways, would put executions on hold. Their bills deserve vigorous support.

A postscript to the Bush-Gore deterrence theory: According to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports, released in October, while violent crime is declining nationwide, it is up in the execution capital of the country, Texas.

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