Executioners’ Swan Song

Executioners’ Swan Song

Capital punishment will be one of the defining issues of the coming year.


Evidence is mounting that the coming twelve months hold the best opportunity for a fundamental change in death-penalty politics since the Supreme Court reinstated capital punishment in 1976. You wouldn't know this from the sclerotic policies of the nation's pre-eminent political leaders. George W. Bush will take the oath of office bearing the all-time record for signing off on executions: forty in Texas this past year. President Clinton, meanwhile, leaves office playing politics with death as surely as he did in the case of Rickey Ray Rector in 1992. Faced with the first federal execution in forty years, Clinton had the chance to impose a moratorium and instead punted with a six-month stay, sticking George W. Bush with the troublesome case of Juan Raul Garza and thus in all likelihood leaving Garza to face lethal injection.

None of these men seem to have noticed how profoundly and rapidly the public's attitude toward capital punishment shifted in 2000. Thanks in part to the Illinois death-penalty moratorium imposed last January by Governor George Ryan, a majority of Americans now seem ready to consider whether capital punishment might be, as Robert Sherrill writes in this issue, a bad bargain in every way. In August an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 63 percent of Americans now favor a suspension of executions until the fairness of capital trials can be studied. This followed earlier Gallup polls showing that overall support for capital punishment has fallen by about 15 points in the past few years and that nearly half would abandon executions altogether if given the option of life imprisonment without parole. Even Texas's record number of executions bucks a national trend: Executions fell nationwide last year by 13 percent.

Forces and trends that will make capital punishment one of the defining issues of the coming year are converging from several directions. Bush's record in Texas will focus new attention on the Garza case. Even some previously silent Congressional Democrats may see cold political currency in seizing the initiative. Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. and Senator Patrick Leahy plan to reintroduce their national death-penalty-moratorium proposals, which will likely surface just as the Garza case approaches its deadline. Their bills will be propelled by a raft of credible recent studies on flawed convictions.

At the grassroots, capital punishment has suddenly caught fire: Thirty-eight municipalities and more than 1,200 organizations have passed resolutions or referendums calling for a national death-penalty moratorium, including cities on such traditional death-penalty terrain as North Carolina and Georgia. And in the media, the Chicago Tribune, whose revelation of systematic flaws in Illinois death-row justice prodded Governor Ryan to his moratorium, has expanded its ongoing inquiry into capital injustice to the national stage, most recently (December 18) detailing the 1998 Florida execution of Leo Jones, who may well have been an innocent man.

The death penalty has long isolated the United States among Western industrial nations, but Bush's elevation seems certain to escalate tensions. Protests about the plight of Mexican nationals on Texas's death row–people who often spend years without proper consular access–have recently driven a wedge between Washington and Mexico City. In Europe, US executions routinely attain a front-page status rarely accorded them on this side of the water. The European Union, which does not hesitate to sanction its own members for human rights violations, is looking for new avenues to pressure the United States. On December 19 United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan endorsed the call for a moratorium.

The year 2001 could be the one in which America calls a halt to its long love affair with capital punishment. But the people must make it loudly clear to politicians that the death trip is over.

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