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.
Mrs. Cuomo, daughter of Robert F. Kennedy, told the Post that she believes her husband, Andrew, a contender for the Democratic nomination for governor, shares her views. “To tell you the truth, on the death penalty, it’s not as big an issue in the state as it was a few years ago.” Mrs. Cuomo’s father-in-law, Mario, repeatedly vetoed death-penalty measures during his years as governor.
In line with Kerry Kennedy Cuomo’s spineless stance, many liberal or what are now cautiously called “human rights” groups have also found it politic to sideline capital punishment as an issue. No better illustration is available than the recent tussle over John Ashcroft’s nomination as Attorney General. Scores of groups flailed at him on choice, racism and hate crimes, but not on the most racist application of hatein the arsenal of state power: the death penalty.
Return for a moment to the fight to save Lingar’s life. Privacy Rights Education Project, the statewide Missouri gay lobby group, endorsed Holden in his gubernatorial race. PREP, however, was quite muted on Lingar’s fate, taking little action except to send a letter to the governor the day before the execution. Another gay organization, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, the folks who want to shut down Dr. Laura, is a national group but happens to have an office in Kansas City, Missouri. Surely what prosecutor Callahan did to Stanley Lingar is well beyond defamation. Where was the Gay and Lesbian Alliance on this case? Not a peep from them. Noisy on hate crimes but silent on the death penalty is the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay-advocacy group.
The issue of capital punishment is drawing much more attention these days. Just when help could really make a difference, where are all these (ostensibly) liberal and progressive groups? The Anti-Defamation League (all right, strike the word “ostensible”), whose national director, Abraham Foxman, pulled down $389,000 in 1999, was busy writing letters for Marc Rich. The death penalty? The ADL endorsed Bill Clinton’s appalling Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996.
The impetus given by Ryan last year could fall apart. Governor Ryan himself faces difficult re-election prospects in 2002, and a successor could rescind the moratorium. Liberals should abandon their absurd and dangerous obsession with hate crimes and muster against this most hateful excrescence on the justice system. Let them take encouragement from the district attorney of San Francisco, Terrence Hallinan, who told a San Francisco court on February 6 that he would not participate in the capital sentencing of one Robert Massey since “the death penalty does not constitute any more of a deterrent than life without parole” and, among other evils, “discriminates racially and financially, being visited mainly on racial minorities and the poor…. It forfeits the stature and respect to which our state is entitled by reducing us to a primitive code of retribution.”