ALONG THE COLOR LINE: Halt the Machinery of Death

The cruelest example of human rights violations in the United States today is the death penalty. Everyone knows that the death penalty is not now, nor has it ever been, a deterrent to violent crime. Social scientists for decades have long established that the death penalty is inherently racist. African-American defendants found guilty of the identical crime as a white defendant are statistically at least four times more likely to be given the death penalty. Black people currently comprise more than 40 percent of death row inmates. Regional differences make it 160 times more likely that a person convicted of a capital offense in the South will be executed than one in the Northeast. And of course, the capital justice system can never guarantee that innocent people won't be executed by the state. For these and other reasons, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1972 case of Furman v. Georgia, outlawed capital punishment.Since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, there has been mounting legal evidence that capital punishment cannot be implemented in a fair and impartial manner. The state of Illinois, for example, currently has 161 people on death row. Since 1977, 12 people in Illinois have been executed, but 13 on death row were proven to have been wrongly convicted. Several death row prisoners in Illinois were freed after a Northwestern University journalism class proved that they were innocent and that others had actually committed the crimes.The Chicago Tribune recently examined the almost 300 cases in Illinois during the past 23 years, in which the death penalty was rendered. About one half of the 260 cases that were appealed were ultimately reversed in favor of new trials or sentencing hearings. In at least thirty cases, the Chicago Tribune uncovered that defendants in capital cases had been represented by attorneys who were disbarred or suspended from legal practice.This overwhelming evidence that innocent people were being executed in the state prompted Illinois Governor George Ryan, a Republican, to order a halt on the use of the death penalty. Ryan is a long-time supporter of capital punishment. But as he explained to the press, "I now favor a moratorium, because I have grave concerns about our state's shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row."The opposite extreme on the political spectrum from Ryan is represented by another Republican, Texas Governor George W. Bush. A self-proclaimed "compassionate conservative," Bush has been downright vicious in his implementation of capital punishment. In six short years, Bush has presided over the executions of more than one hundred people-and according to him, every single one of them was guilty.A recent New York Times article by Stephen B. Bright, the director of the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, illustrates how the Texas "assembly-line process" for dispatching people to the "execution chamber" works. Texas has no public defender system, and attorneys who have little or no experience in the defense of capital cases are assigned. They are often unable to retain independent investigators to review the evidence necessary to provide proof of a defendant's innocence. Bright notes, "The Texas courts do not even require that defense counsels remain awake during trials." In several capital cases, defense attorneys actually fell asleep, and the defendants were sentenced to death. One of those convicted, Carl Johnson, was executed in 1995.The struggle to halt the execution of America's most prominent political prisoner, African-American journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, has helped to spark a grassroots movement to end capital punishment. Legislatures in 16 of the 38 states with death penalty laws have or are reviewing moratoriums on executions. Eight cities have called for a halt to capital punishment, of which the most significant is Philadelphia. Last month, in a 12 to 4 vote, Philadelphia's City Council approved a resolution demanding a two-year moratorium on implementing the death penalty, and called for the creation of a new state commission to study Pennsylvania's capital punishment. Democratic City Councilwoman Donna Miller, who introduced the resolution, observed that "90 percent of the people on Pennsylvania's death row are people who cannot afford legal counsel, and 90 percent of those from Philadelphia are people of color."In Congress, Democratic U.S. Senator Russ Feingold has called on the Clinton administration to issue a similar moratorium on all federal executions. Feingold explained that "the problems of inadequate representation, lack of access to DNA testing, police misconduct, racial bias and even simple errors are not unique to Illinois. These are problems that have plagued the administration of capital punishment around the country since the reinstatement of capital punishment almost a quarter century ago." Several months before Feingold's public challenge, Attorney General Janet Reno authorized a review to determine if racial disparities exist in federal capital punishment cases.These hopeful signs provide encouragement to those of us who have always opposed the death penalty. But we must take the struggle to halt capital punishment to the next level. We should challenge elected officials who are soliciting our votes in the fall 2000 elections to have the political and moral decency to support the death penalty moratorium. In the words of Supreme Court Associate Justice Harry Blackman, we must halt once and for all the "machinery of death."

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