Of Death’s Dominion

A capital moment to rethink capital punishment. 2001

I T’S EASY TO UNDERSTAND WHY 80 % OF AMERICANS THOUGHT Timothy McVeigh deserved to die. McVeigh’s case was unique in that it refuted the most common arguments against the death penalty. His crime was horrific, so the severity of the punishment wasn’t an issue. He had excellent lawyers, so legal representation wasn’t an issue. He was white, so racism wasn’t an issue. And he admitted his own guilt, so reasonable doubt wasn’t an issue.

But now that he’s dead, and the federal government is once again executing criminals—Juan Raul Garza is scheduled. to die, June 2001, Tuesday—Americans, once again, must confront the tough questions about capital punishment that McVeigh’s exceptional case allowed us to ignore.

Is capital punishment just? Should the world’s leading democracy be in the business of executing criminals? One would think the answers to these questions go hand in hand. They do not. About two thirds (66%) of Americans say they support the death penalty. But support has been declining in recent years, and today nearly 70 % say capital punishment is unfair because innocent people are sometimes killed. ..The view is buttressed by scholarly studies that show a system rife with mishandled evidence and incompetent defenders... Just last Sunday, Joaquin Martinez, a Spanish national convicted of a double homicide,.returned to Spain after spending.3 years on Florida’s death row...Why was he freed? A team of high-priced lawyers funded from his homeland found serious prosecutorial mistakes. Martinez won the right to a second trial and this time was found not guilty. His saga might help explain why the Spanish were out in force last week protesting President Bush’s first trip to their country. But the Spanish aren’t the only critical voices. Across Europe, there were denunciations of the McVeigh execution and American capital punishment. The Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly said that despite his heinous crime, putting McVeigh to death was “sad, pathetic, and wrong.

A RELIC . How can two cultures that share so many values stand so far apart on a basic moral question? Part of the answer is political posturing in European capitals

But the rhetoric there also reflects the fact that capital punishment is a withering aspect of modern democracies. Even some fledgling democracies consider the death penalty a relic of their totalitarian pasts. Few countries execute as many criminals as the United States. Last year, there were 85 executions on American death rows-- enough to place us third in these unsavory standings, right behind Saudi Arabia (123) and just ahead of Iran (75). And there’s more. The United States is one of just seven nations since 1990 to execute defendants for crimes they committed before turning 18. The others were Congo, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi, Arabia, and Yemen.

Of course, it is disingenuous to compare the U.S. to countries that have compiled lengthy résumés of human-rights atrocities. But our executions create real diplo-matic tensions abroad. Adversaries continually use the American death penalty to deflect criticism of their own records—and to undermine our efforts to promote human rights abroad . China, for one, never tires of discussing the death penalty —how it, unlike America, does not permit execution of the mentally retarded. Just last week a group of respected former diplomats filed a Supreme Court brief pressing for an end to execution of retarded inmates, saying the practice puts us at odds with the rest of the world. President Bush said last week that he also opposes these executions.

Yet despite all these moral and diplomatic claims, a case like McVeigh’s seems to cry out “an eye for an eye.” So the moralists on both sides have strong arguments. But even they don’t exhaust the issue. Are executions in America racially biased? Today, 19 people sit on the federal death row; 17 are black or Latino, while just two are white. The numbers, understandably, raise eyebrows among skeptics. Yet Attorney General John Ashcroft recently released a report that concluded the Justice Department is more likely to press capital charges for eligible white defendants than for blacks or Hispanics. Justice has announced that a more comprehensive study will follow. The issue, obviously, is far from resolved.

Then there are the geographic discrepancies.. Of the 718 total executions carried out since 1976—the year the death penalty was effectively reinstated—more than 80.% have occurred in the South. About 46 % were carried out in Texas and Virginia alone. Though the death penalty is deeply rooted in our history, it remains an issue that Americans struggle with. As Congress and state governments debate legislation that could change the nature of capital punishment in America, the time is right for us to renew the debate over the death penalty.


As part of our continuing World at Large series,

                                                   we invite your thoughts on the important subject.

                                                             We can be found at: letters@usnews.com



June 25, 2001. (pg. 14)

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