Human Rights

Alone in the World: The U.S. and the Death Penalty

Despite international pressure and changing public opinion, the U.S. continues to be the world's leading executioner.
So President W. Bush is eager to go to war with Iraq, killing thousands of Iraqis as well as U.S. troops, without the support of the European Union and most of the international community. We shouldn’t be surprised. Ever since he was governor of Texas, he’s been killing people, via the electric chair and lethal injection, despite international outcry and the pleas of foreign governments.

In 1997, when he was Texas governor, Bush executed Mexican citizen Ireneo Tristan Montoya despite the demands of then-Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo that he should be spared since he had not been allowed to consult with his consulate as mandated in the Vienna Convention. According to the Mexican brief to the court, Bush said Texas did not have to obey the Vienna Convention because it was the U.S. government, not Texas itself, which had signed it.

Last year President Vicente Fox canceled a trip to Texas in protest over the execution of another Mexican citizen. And last month the Mexican government filed suit against the U.S. in the World Court, the United Nations body for resolving disputes between nations, demanding the U.S. commute the death sentences of the 51 Mexican nationals on death row. The suit argues that the men's rights to consular assistance were violated, and notes that many of them were interrogated and convicted in English despite their not having a good grasp of the language.

On Feb. 5, the 15-member court ordered the U.S. must stay the execution of the three Mexicans whose executions were most imminent. The court ordered the U.S. to prove it is implementing the orders, given that in 1999, the state of Arizona ignored the World Court's order for a stay and went ahead and executed German national Walter LaGrand, who had not been informed of his right to consular assistance.

This pattern continued last week when, on Feb. 4, British citizen Jackie Elliott was executed in Texas by lethal injection for the 1986 gang rape and murder of a woman. This despite his legal team's pleas that DNA evidence could clear him, and despite the efforts of British foreign secretary Jack Straw and a petition signed by 134 MPs in the House of Commons seeking to halt the execution. Conservative MP John Gummer told the BBC it was "a sad day for American justice."

Even Pravda, the Russian newspaper not known for its soft-heartedness, recently weighed in on international outrage at the use of the death penalty in the U.S., and in Texas in particular. "International investors are more and more concerned about the human rights situation in Texas," editorialized the paper. "The Canadian Coalition Against the Death Penalty has called for a tourist boycott of Texas and many government leaders asked the United States and Texas to revoke the death penalty and respect human rights on this issue."

The U.S. has executed at least 15 foreigners since reinstating the death penalty in 1976, and 97 foreigners currently sit on death row around the country, according to Amnesty International. The U.S. and Japan are the only so-called "civilized democracies" which still practice the death penalty. According to the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP), the U.S. ranks third in the world in executions behind China and Saudi Arabia. Other countries that regularly use the death penalty include Iran, Nigeria, the Congo, and, our current enemy-de-jour, Iraq.

“Bush is ignorant inside and outside the country,” said NCADP communications director David Elliot. “He doesn’t care what our allies think of our use of the death penalty.”
But Bush’s hard-headedness aside, international pressure and opinion is slowly but surely having an influence on U.S. policy and sentiment regarding capital punishment.

When former Illinois Governor George Ryan made his historic speech commuting the sentences of everyone on the state's death row on Jan. 11, he credited former South African President Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu and Mexican President Fox with influencing his decision. All three had contacted him in the days before the announcement to express their support for pardons and commutations, and the Pope also sent word through an underling.

"Today the United States is not in league with most of our major allies: Europe, Canada, Mexico, most of South and Central America," said Ryan. "These countries rejected the death penalty. We are partners in death with several third world countries. Even Russia has called a moratorium." Ryan's commutations included three Mexican citizens, Juan Caballero, Gabriel Solache and Mario Flores. He reduced Flores's term to 40 years, meaning he will likely be out in 2004, when he will be deported to Mexico.

The Mexican consulate in Chicago had actively defended all three men, arguing that Solache and Flores are innocent and that Caballero had an unfair trial due to police misconduct and abuse. The consulate hired counsel for the men and contracted a California investigator, Dr. Thomas Streed, who wrote a 30-plus page affadavit on their behalf about systematic misconduct and torture being carried out by Chicago police officer Reynaldo Guevara and others in the city's Area Five district.

"The consulate definitely helped, especially in Mario's case," said Ruth Pena of the Comite Exigimos Justicia, an organization of family members of the wrongfully convicted in Chicago's Latino neighborhoods. "I know for a fact that the Mexican government had a lot to do with Mario's commutation. They weren't even allowed to contact their consulates. There's no way anyone would get away with doing that to Americans in another country! What's good for the goose is good for the gander."

Ryan's decision, like most of the current debate in the U.S., focused largely on questions of innocents on death row and arbitrariness and racism in the system. Various studies show a growing skepticism toward the death penalty in the U.S., but in most cases it is based on these factors rather than flat-out opposition to capital punishment. The U.S. differs from the international community in this respect -- in Europe and other "civilized" countries around the world, opposition to the death penalty generally extends beyond questions of process to an overarching belief that the government should not kill its own citizens.

"British people aren't concerned about the question of innocence, they're concerned that we're putting people to death," said Elliot. "Innocence is more a concern in the U.S. - people aren't as worried about the moral question." In Latin America and other heavily Catholic countries, the church's staunch opposition to capital punishment also has deep significance, as opposed to in the eye-for-an-eye U.S. "We're a very young country, a country built on guns and violence," noted Elliot. "And we're a very religious country. There are more church-going people than in Europe, and people remember the Old Testament more than the New Testament and take support for the death penalty from that."

Jane Bohman, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against the Death Penalty, also sees world history and culture as shaping opinions about capital punishment. "Europeans have had the experience of fascism, World War II, the use of killing as a tool of repression that makes them more suspect when the government wants to kill," she said. "We haven't had that experience."

Some death penalty abolitionists worry that all the recent exposes of innocent people on death row will actually detract from the larger question of whether capital punishment is a just and moral practice, even for the inarguably guilty. They fear legislative efforts being focused on reform rather than flat-out abolition of capital punishment. But Bohman and others see the two issues as inextricably linked, especially when considering the near impossibility of truly reforming a system that has likely already executed innocent people.
"There has never been a case of someone being proven completely innocent after they were executed, but if you look at the numbers it's common sense" that it has happened, according to Elliot. "Since 1976, we've executed over 800 and over 100 have walked free. Scholars estimate we've killed about 25 innocent people. One reason more people aren't proven innocent after they're executed, is that once the execution is over we move on to saving another life."

Elliot predicts that 2003 will be "the year of death penalty reform," with over 200 death penalty related bills on the table in state legislatures, and "positive" bills outnumbering negative ones by three to one. Death penalty reforms are also being made on the judicial level, where the beliefs of individual judges as opposed to mass public opinion can mean speedier changes. At least twice in the past year, federal district judges ruled the death penalty unconstitutional. In July, New York U.S. district judge Jed Rakoff declared the 1994 Death Penalty Act unconstitutional, and then in September Vermont U.S. district judge William Sessions ruled that the death penalty violates the sixth amendment right to a fair trial.

So far U.S. Supreme Court decisions have been something of a two steps forward, one and a half steps back process: last June it ruled to prohibit the execution of the mentally retarded, yet in October it allowed the execution of juveniles to continue with a split decision on the matter. In Florida, where Bush’s brother Jeb is governor, the state Supreme Court upheld the death penalty’s constitutionality in an October ruling. Overall, many death penalty opponents feel that the Supreme Court is moving away from capital punishment.

"There's been a lot of speculation that Supreme Court justices have been influenced by their contact with leading jurists from around the world, who have expressed great dismay that we continue to execute juveniles and the mentally ill,” said Bohman. As with the war, it remains to be seen how much international pressure as well as U.S. public opinion will actually shape government policy.

Kari Lydersen is a reporter at the Washington Post Midwest bureau in Chicago and the assistant program director/ instructor for the Urban Youth International Journalism Program. This article is part of the ongoing series, "And Liberty for All," which she writes weekly for AlterNet.


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