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Time To Stop Tinkering With the Machinery of Death | The Nation

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Time To Stop Tinkering With the Machinery of Death

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Remarks of Senator Russ Feingold to the Ninth Annual Awards Dinner of the Death Penalty Focus, held in Santa Monica CA on April 18, 2000

About the Author

Sen. Russ Feingold
Russ Feingold is a US Senator from Wisconsin.

When Anthony looked at the calendar, he could see that he had only two days to live. Where must your thoughts run when you taste your own death in your mouth?

Do they turn, to paraphrase Jonathan Larson, to sunsets, to midnights, to cups of coffee? To inches, to miles, to the roads you will not travel? To laughter, to strife, to the smiles you will not see? To mothers, to loves, to the children you won't embrace? To 2,000, 800, eighty minutes? Of what do you ponder, when you think of your last two days on earth?

Anthony Porter came to that place in September 1998, on death row, in Cook County, Illinois. Sadly, in the United States at the turn of the twenty-first century, the organized citizenry of thirty-eight states and our nation itself will almost certainly this year put one hundred people in that same place, wondering of what to think, with two days to live. And sadder still, Anthony was innocent.

At the dawn of a new millennium, after 5,000 years of recorded history, the time has come to reconsider whether government-sponsored killing should stop.

For Anthony, with two days to live, the Illinois Supreme Court stayed his execution. A team of journalism students then tracked down the truth, that another man--who confessed on camera--actually committed the crime. An judge ordered Anthony released, after nearly seventeen years in prison.

Since 1973, Illinois has executed twelve people, and has lifted the death sentence from thirteen. The manifest uncertainty with which Illinois sentenced people to die led Governor George Ryan to impose a moratorium while he examines the system.

Nationwide, since 1973, courts have freed eighty-five people from death rows--one for every seven executed. Just as the proverbial thirteenth stroke of a clock calls into question not only itself but the twelve other chimes that preceded it, this scandalously large number of demonstrated errors calls into question the entire enterprise of killing.

Because as long as there are executions, fallible humans will never to a certainty be able to avoid executing the innocent, the killing must stop.

In 1972, the Supreme Court held that the imposition and carrying out of the death penalty in the cases before it violated the Constitution's prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishments." But then in 1976, the Court reinstated the death penalty.

I remember the day in 1979 when the first involuntary execution took place. That morning, I finished my last law school exam. Later that day, I turned on the television to see that Florida had just executed John Spenkelink. I was overcome with a sickening feeling. The legal education I had just completed had filled me with the belief that our legal system was advancing inexorably. Instead, I beheld a throwback to the electric chair, the gallows and our nation's violent past. I will never forget that day.

It used to be that on capital punishment the United States stood with only the Soviet Union and South Africa in the industrialized world. But Boris Yeltsin stopped Russian executions in 1996. And South Africa's Constitutional Court declared the death penalty unconstitutional in 1995 and then its parliament abolished it.

In 1998, the United States was one of just four countries that together accounted for 86 percent of all executions worldwide. We now stand with China, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Iran.

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