The Disturbing Death of Charles Singleton
On January 6, 2004 the state of Arkansas executed 44-year old Charles Singleton, who was convicted of stabbing a grocery store clerk to death in 1979. He was on death row longer than any other Arkansas inmate. The Singleton case was not unusual in and of itself. Singleton was black and his victim, Mary Lou York, was white. The execution ended in the usual way with attorneys trying in vain to spare their clients life, and outside agitation from the usual suspects -- Europeans pleading with an American governor to stop an execution. The execution took place in a southern state, where the overwhelming majority of murders and executions take place.
But the Charles Singleton case raised another important issue for the American criminal justice system. Singleton was a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic. His last words were an incomprehensible ramble that made sense to no one but himself.
The blind think Im playing a game. They deny me, refusing me existence. But everybody takes the place of another. As it is written, I will come forth as you go.
In 1986 the Supreme Court ruled that execution of the mentally ill constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The state of Arkansas concluded that if Singleton were given anti-psychotic medication he would be sane and therefore eligible for execution. Lower courts ruled in Singletons favor, but the decision was later overturned, and the United States Supreme Court let that decision stand.
Another black Arkansan who suffered from mental illness, Ricky Ray Rector, became world-famous upon his execution in 1992. Then-governor Bill Clinton left the campaign trail in January of that year to sign the warrant for Rectors execution. Rectors mental capacity was such that when taken from his cell as a dead man walking he told a guard to save his pie. He thought he would return to finish his dessert. I try to remember this story when I am told that all black people love Bill Clinton or that he should be considered the first black president. Clinton wasnt black when Rector needed him. He was just another politician who didnt want to be labeled soft on crime.
While the number of executions, death row populations, and support for capital punishment have all dropped in recent years, 64 percent of Americans still support the death penalty. That strong level of support is why the punishment still exists. Most politicians are like Bill Clinton on the presidential campaign trail. An accusation that a candidate is soft on crime or coddles criminals can be enough to finish a political career.
But as with every other issue in America, race is never far from discussions of the death penalty. Blacks are just 12 percent of the overall population but 42 percent of residents on death row. Whites are 50 percent of murder victims but represent 80 percent of victims in death penalty cases. The death penalty is used to punish people of color who kill whites. Black victims of black killers get short shrift from the criminal justice system and the media, unless there is a lurid story line or celebrity involvement. Otherwise, our all too common intra-group victimization goes unnoticed.
Despite a declining national crime rate, too many of us are convinced of the need for the state to become a killer. If America is to be rid of the travesty that is capital punishment we have to ask, What is the appeal of state sanctioned murder? Massachusetts has one of the lowest murder rates in the nation, ranking 37 out of 50, and yet its Republican Governor, Mitt Romney, is in the process of devising death penalty legislation. One of the inconsistencies of those who advocate capital punishment is that they ordinarily do not trust government and belittle it whenever possible. The same people who castigate government at every opportunity suddenly become trusting of the institution when it has to decide who should live and who should die. In the conservative mind government is incompetent at best and evil at worst. And yet the same incompetent or evil bureaucrats who shouldnt be trusted to collect taxes ought to be able to make life and death decisions in capital punishment cases that require the wisdom of Solomon.
If Americans were honest they would admit that they support the death penalty because they want revenge. By now most honest people concede that the deterrent effect of execution is non-existent and few are unaware of an increasing number of death row exonerations. But apparently it is too diffcult to give up the thirst for retribution, especially in a society where racism still looms so insidiously large.
None of the current Democratic presidential candidates has signed an execution warrant a la Clinton, but that is because there is only one governor in the race; Howard Dean, and his state, Vermont, is among those without a death penalty statute. Kucinich and Sharpton stand out as being the only candidates opposed to the death penalty. Given the opportunity, most of the 2004 candidates would act as Bill Clinton did back in 1992.
The year 2004 did not begin well for Charles Singleton or for the rest of us either. In the 21st century too many of us are still wedded to the notion that cruel and unusual punishments must be maintained to keep us all safe. It is time to stop the killing of paranoid schizophrenics on our behalf. We cant depend on politicians for leadership when they are following the worst instincts of American voters. It is only a matter of time before another Ricky Ray Rector becomes a trophy for a winning candidate.
Margaret Kimberley is a freelance writer living in New York City.