Three Executions, One Thought

Wednesday Aug. 14 was a very strange day, even by death penalty standards.

Three executions were scheduled in three states. This, in and of itself, is not highly unusual. Since reinstatement in 1976, three inmates have been executed on the same day approximately nine times. (One statistical oddity is that most of the time when this happens, it involves the states of both Missouri and Texas. And twice when it happened, it involved just Arkansas, which twice has put to death three people the same evening.)   What made this particular day a little bit different is both the outcome of the scheduled execution dates and the controversy that each one provoked. All in all, on Wednesday, Aug. 14, one could find several quite substantial reasons to oppose the death penalty.

The first scheduled execution was for 12:01 a.m. CST Wednesday in Missouri. Some time between midnight and 1 a.m., however Governor Bob Holden intervened and announced that he was very temporarily staying the execution. A friend of Daniel Basile's had come forward and sworn in an affidavit that she was with Basile when the crime for which he was convicted occurred and that he therefore could not have committed the crime. 

Basile was convicted of the contract killing of Elizabeth DeCaro. DeCaro's husband, who reportedly arranged the killing, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. Basile's trial attorneys failed to present mitigating evidence on his behalf during the punishment phase of his trial, including evidence that he suffered from brain damage and a developmental disorder.

Gov. Holden announced that he would stay the execution until that same evening to give the courts time to decide whether to put in place a more permanent stay. From the Missouri Supreme Court to the Eigth Circuit Court of Appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court, the judiciary declined to intervene --- and Basile was executed at 10:05 p.m. that evening --- meaning he had to wait in his holding cell for 22 hours to find out whether he would live or die. Cruel? Unusual? Was the affidavit legit? Now we'll never know.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, Walter "Buck" Fugate III was scheduled to be executed at 7 p.m. for the 1991 murder of his ex-wife, Pattie Fugate. Fugate's lawyer, noted anti-death penalty attorney Stephen Bright, was standing outside the prison with the media and with death penalty protestors when he received a phone call at 6:20 p.m. informing him that the Georgia Supreme Court had stayed the execution. Under Georgia law Fugate could still be executed, on the same death warrant, any up until Wednesday Aug. 21.  

Fugate's case drew notoriety for a number of reasons. First, Fugate, who had no prior criminal record, maintained that the gun used in his ex-wife's death went off accidentally. His court-appointed lawyers failed to investigate the case before trial and failed to introduce mitigating evidence during sentencing. Even if Fugate purposefully shot his ex-wife --- and he may or may not have -- it is rare for a person with no prior convictions whatsoever to receive a death sentence, much less be executed.  

In addition, Fugate personally invited Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes to witness his execution. "Please consider this as a means to show the world you have the courage of your convictions and attend my execution," Fugate wrote. "For the very first time you can witness the results of our state's decision and have the courage to look me in the eye in my dying moments knowing I am being sacrificed only because I was too poor to afford decent lawyers and because I live in the middle of the 'death belt.'"

(After two narrow escapes, Fugate was executed Aug. 16. Fugate was the third condemned inmate to be put to death this year in Georgia and the thirtieth overall since the state resumed capital punishment.)

The third execution on Aug. 14 was set for Texas at the exact same moment as the Georgia execution -- 6 p.m. CST. Texas being Texas, this was the only one that went off as scheduled -- no rain outs, no game delays, nothing. Up for execution was Mexican national Javiar Suarez Medina, who killed an undercover Dallas police officer.

This was Medina's fourteenth execution date. Cruel? Unusual? Oh, never mind. Suarez's case drew publicity not because of a debate about his guilt or innocence -- that was never much at issue -- but rather because Texas authorities did not advise Suarez of his right to contact his country's consulate when he was arrested, thus depriving him of the expert legal counsel that his government could provide. This was in violation of Article 36 of the Vienna Convention, which the U.S. has signed.

Among those protesting Suarez's execution was Mexican President Vicente Fox, who promptly cancelled a four-city tour of Texas which would have included a visit to George W. Bush's Crawford ranch. White House officials publicly acted surprised by the cancellation; privately, they must have seen it coming a mile away because Fox's press people had been telegraphing their intentions for several days prior to the execution.

In recent years, international attention has narrowed in on the practice of the death penalty in the U.S. arguably to the detriment of U.S. foreign policy interests. The United States finds itself operating in a vacuum. It is time to relegate this barbaric practice to the dust bins of American history.

David Elliot is the communications director at the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

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