Dear Uncle Sam...

Long a self-styled legend of human rights and equal justice, the United States is fast becoming a human rights pariah due to its stubborn support for capital punishment. As more counties around the world limit the death penalty and adopt moratoria on executions, the U.S. is heading in the opposite direction. The recent gesture of Judy and Dennis Shepard in sparing the life of the murderer of their son, Matthew, clearly is the exception rather than the rule. Within five days of their appeal to "stop the cycle of violence," executions took place in Missouri and Virginia. More than 100 individuals will be executed by the end of 1999, well above last year's U.S. record of 74. As a powerful new study by the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) in Washington, D.C., shows, this will include killing foreign nationals, mentally retarded and mentally incompetent defendants, and those who were teenagers at the time of their crime -- practices which are "increasingly positioning [the U.S.] as a human rights violator on this issue," DPIC concludes ( The signs of that alienation are everywhere: * In Norway, members of Amnesty International write letters to President Clinton, urging him to stop states from executing juvenile offenders and the mentally impaired. In Spain, demonstrators chant and wave signs in front of the American embassy, protesting the impending execution of a Spanish citizen in the U.S. In Geneva, the 15-member European Union recently submitted an anti-death penalty resolution to the UN Human Rights Commission, a less-than-subtle slap at the last western democracy still executing prisoners -- the USA. This year Amnesty International included the U.S. on its list of human rights violators, putting us in the company of Algeria, Cambodia and Turkey for, among other things, our increased number of executions. Consider: * The U.S. is now the most flagrant transgressor of the international ban on executing juvenile offenders. In 1999, Oklahoma executed Sean Sellers, who was 16 at the time of his crime. Texas has executed seven juvenile offenders since 1985. Michigan is proceeding with the capital prosecution of 13-year-old Nathaniel Abraham, who was 11-years-old when he shot another boy. * Twenty-six U.S. states allow the execution of mentally retarded defendants. * In 1997, the UN Rapporteur on human rights found that "race, ethnic origin and economic status appear to be key determinants of who will, and will not, receive a death sentence." Almost nothing has been done to correct this. * Fourteen foreign nationals from eleven different countries have been executed, and another 82 remain on death rows in the U.S., despite wholesale disregard of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations. U.S. law enforcement agencies have routinely failed to inform foreign nationals of their rights under this Convention, violations which place U.S. citizens in peril of similar oversights. Bulgaria's recent ban brought the number of countries that have stopped implementing the death penalty to an all-time high of 105. Russia recently commuted the death sentences of all 700 of its condemned prisoners to life. Some of the world's most respected leaders have called for an end to the death penalty -- including Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson. All this seems to fall upon the tin ears of American legislators, jurists and prosecutors, however. Speaking at a public Mass in St. Louis, Missouri last March, Pope John Paul II brought worldwide attention to America's practice of executing offenders. "Modern society has the means of protecting itself, without definitively denying criminals the chance to reform," the Pope said in his appeal to end state-sanctioned killing. Then, attempting to inspire rather than humiliate his hosts, he concluded by saying, "Radical change in world politics leaves America with a heightened responsibility to be for the world an example of a genuinely free, democratic, just and humane society." The world is still waiting. This year's pace of 100+ executions is eerily consistent with the pace kept from 1930 to 1967, when 3,859 prisoners were killed -- an annual average just over 100. Even the mainstream press is growing impatient, with major news organizations like the Kansas City Star, Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Examiner opposing capital punishment. "Executions are barbaric, discriminatory, arbitrary and more costly than life imprisonment," editors of the St. Louis Post Dispatch opined recently. "They do not deter crime. They do not resurrect victims. They teach vengeance and hatred, while ostensibly punishing those very sins. They force us to play God, and make choices that no individual, and no government, has any business making." Nevertheless, the U.S. Supreme Court recently refused to hear the appeal of Exzavious Lee Gibson, an African-American man with an IQ of between 76 and 82 (retardation is considered below 80). Gibson represented himself at a habeas corpus hearing in a Georgia courtroom in September, 1996 as he was too poor to afford a lawyer. While transcripts of the hearing shows that he was clearly out of his depth -- offering no evidence, examining no witnesses, making no objections -- the court dismissed his appeal and the U.S. Supreme Court let that decision stand without comment. The U.S. also has defied consecutive unanimous rulings from the International Court of Justice, the world's highest judicial body, which called for an end to the execution of minors.The increasing pressure from international bodies, foreign governments, and individual citizens is welcome, as a moratorium on capital punishment in the U.S. will probably never happen without it. Politicians are not known for courage, so as long as a majority of the American public supports capital punishment in opinion polls, the killing is certain to continue. Though times are changing. As crime drops, the percentage of people even in strongly pro-death penalty states who support capital punishment is inching downwards. In Virginia, second in the rate of executions to pace-setting Texas, 74 percent of respondents support capital punishment -- the lowest level this decade. The tragedy is, none of this anguish over state-sanctioned killing is necessary. A viable and far less brutal alternative exists in at 38 states and the District of Columbia -- Life Sentence Without Possibility of Parole (LWOP). In California, more than 2200 murderers have been sentenced to LWOP since 1977, including one of the state's most notorious serious killers, Angelo Buono, the "Hillside Strangler." Not one has been freed. LWOP protects public safety, while sparing us the barbarity of killing our own -- and the continuing wrath of world opinion. This seems like a far more attractive way to go than sharing the stage with human rights violators like China, Pakistan and Yemen. Jeff Gillenkirk is a journalist and member of the Board of Directors of Death Penalty Focus, a coalition working to abolish the death penalty.

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