Almost every week, it seems, we get to read about some state execution, performed or imminent, wreathed in the usual toxic fog of race or sex prejudice, or incompetency of counsel, or prosecutorial misconduct.
Take the recent execution in Ashcroft country, February 7, of Stanley Lingar, done in the Potosi Correctional Center in Missouri, for killing 16-year -old Thomas Allen back in 1985. In the penalty phase of Lingar’s trial, prosecutor Richard Callahan, who may now be headed for the seat on the Missouri State Supreme Court recently vacated by his mother-in-law, argued for death, citing Lingar’s homosexuality to the jury as the crucial factor that should tilt poison into the guilty man’s veins. Governor Bob Holden turned down a clemency appeal and told the press he’d “lost no sleep” over signing off on Lingar’s fate.
Is there any hope that the ample list of innocent people either lost to the executioners or saved at the eleventh hour will prompt a national moratorium such as is being sought by Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin?
A year ago it seemed possible. On January 31, 2000, Illinois Governor George Ryan suspended imposition of the death penalty in his state on the grounds that he could not support a system “which, in its administration, has proven so fraught with error.”
By June a Field Poll reported the sensational finding that in the state with the most crowded death row in the nation, Californians by nearly 4 to 1 favored stopping state executions to study how the death penalty was being applied. The Field Poll respondents were told about wrong convictions, also about appeals to Governor Gray Davis by religious leaders for a moratorium. A poll at the end of last year, in which California respondents were not offered this framework, put support for a moratorium at 42 percent, just behind those opposed to any such move. A national poll last fall found 53 percent for a moratorium.
The discrepancy in the California polls actually affords comfort to abolitionists, since it shows that when respondents are told about innocent people saved from lethal injection, often at the last moment, support for a moratorium soars. It’s a matter of public education.
But where are the educators? Many eligible political leaders have fled the field of battle, convinced that opposition to the death penalty is a sure-fire vote loser. In the second presidential debate last fall Al Gore wagged his head in agreement when George W. Bush declared his faith in executions as a deterrent.
A few years ago Hillary Clinton spoke of her private colloquys with the shade of Eleanor Roosevelt. Their conversations left La Clinton unpersuaded, since she stands square for death, as does New York’s senior senator, Charles Schumer.
Indeed, the death penalty is no longer a gut issue, or even a necessary stand, for those, like Schumer, who are associated with the Democratic Party’s liberal wing. On February 12 the New York Post quoted Kerry Kennedy Cuomo, long known as a leading death-penalty opponent, as saying that “it would be futile” to try to repeal capital punishment in New York.