— Cardinal Richelieu
The United States has never been choosy about the company it keeps. It is one of the five nations in the world that account for more than 90 percent of global executions.
The other four countries are China, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis! Perhaps the most barbarous, repressive country on Earth.
Even a blood-thirsty regime in revolutionary France proposed the abolition of the death penalty. The murderous Robespierre called capital punishment “a base assassination, punishing one crime by another, murder with murder.”
Yet it took the French National Assembly 190 years to agree with him, abolishing its Guillotine in 1981.
So give America time. The country is just 213 years old. Perhaps in another 100 years it will join civilized nations that have abolished capital punishment.
These gloomy thoughts are prompted by the grim spectacle recently in Georgia. Troy Davis was murdered by the state despite pleas from such prominent people as Pope Benedict and important human rights institutions as Amnesty International.
And despite the fact that seven witnesses, having given false statements under police intimidation, recanted allegations that helped convict Davis of murdering an off-duty police officer.
Bob Herbert, former New York Times columnist, was livid:
“The death penalty in the United States has never been anything but an abomination, a grotesque, uncivilized, overwhelmingly racist affront to the very idea of justice.
“Police and prosecutorial misconduct has been rampant with evidence of innocence deliberately withheld. Juries have systematically been shaped — rigged — to heighten the chances of conviction.
“Prosecutors and judges in death penalty cases have been overwhelmingly white and male, often unfair, bigoted and cruel. Executions have been sustained in cases in which defense attorneys slept through crucial proceedings.
“Alcoholic, drug-addicted and incompetent lawyers — as well as once suspended and disciplined attorneys for misconduct — have been assigned to indigent defendants.”
The death penalty is unjust, arbitrary and immoral. It is no deterrance to murder. Death of the innocent is irrevocable. Botched executions are deplorable.
Death row is torture row. It means an average of 17 years of solitary confinement, sensorary deprivation and isolation in tiny cells.
Under the international Treaty Against Torture, signed by the United States in 1994, torture is defined as “severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental,” inflicted as punishment.
Yet the killing machine goes on. Since the Troy Davis murder three other men have been executed in Texas, Alabama and Florida.
The Supreme Court has been complicit in this Murder Inc.
In 1972 it ruled the death penalty unconstitutional, a violation of the Eighth Amendment bar to cruel and unusual punishment. Despicably, the court reinstituted the monstrosity in 1976.
Justices Brennan and Marshall rightly called it a grievous error.
Brennan wisely noted “the evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” He cited the way “the law has progressed from the rack, the screw and the wheel.”
Marshall denounced the notion held by the “murdering” majority that retribution is a moral justification for “the sanction of death.”
Faith in the judicial system is woefully misplaced. Justices are lawyers, which means attorneys decide the law rather than humanists.
Aside from all the humane and moral reasons for abandoning the death penalty, such a judgment would actually reduce straightened state budgets.
A New York Times editorial put it well: “States waste millions of dollars winning death penalty verdicts, which require an expensive second trial, new witnesses and long jury selections. Death rows require extra security and maintenance costs.”
But let’s face it: Capital punishment is good politics. Thirty-three states find it so. Few politicians dare to be perceived as, or accused of, being “soft on crime.”
Polls constantly show that the public favors the death penalty. Thus, the tyrant, public opinion, rules in a democracy.
During a recent GOP presidential candidate debate the crowd cheered when Gov. Rick Perry said Texas had carried out 234 executions while he was governor.
State officials and prosecutors cater to this lust for vengeance, more concerned with conviction rates than justice.
A few brave politicians defy voter enthusiasm for capital punishment. When former Gov. Bill Richardson signed New Mexico’s repeal of the death penalty two years ago he said his conscience compelled him to do so.
If only other governors had a similar conscience.
As Camus wrote in “Reflections on the Guillotine”: “The death penalty is a revolting butchery, an outrage inflicted on the person and body of man.”
Jake Highton teaches journalism part time at the University of Nevada, Reno.