The Case against the Death Penalty

The Progressive, February 2000 | Go to article overview

The Case against the Death Penalty


In December, a convicted killer in Texas named David Long attempted suicide by overdosing on anti-psychotic medication shortly before he was to be executed. He was placed on life support and revived, then removed from the hospital against the advice of his doctor. "Placed in intensive care on a ventilator in a Galveston hospital, Mr. Long suddenly presented a politically delicate question for Governor George W. Bush, even as he campaigned for the Republican Presidential nomination today in New Hampshire," said The New York Times. "Would the state of Texas remove an inmate from intensive care so that he could meet his date with his executioner rather than stay the execution for thirty days? The answer is yes."

The case of David Long tops a long list of bizarre and indecent instances of capital punishment in 1999. It was a year for the executioner. Ninety-eight were put to death, the most since states began to dust off the death machinery in 1976.

In Texas, George W. Bush presided over thirty-five executions last year, the most of any state in the country. This brings the total during his tenure as governor to 112. He has granted one act of clemency in that time.

This election year, George W. has plenty of company on the campaign circuit. Every Republican and Democratic candidate for President supports the death penalty. But Bush may be the most gung-ho.

He beat Ann Richards in the 1994 campaign for governor by attacking her execution record as slow. Richards had allowed fifty executions during the four years she held office. Easily besting her, Bush has limited the ability of prisoners to appeal their death sentences. Last spring, as he began his campaign for President of the United States, he opposed a state bill that would have banned the use of capital punishment on those who are mentally retarded. The bill failed.

At times, Bush seems insensitive to the plight of the people he is sending to the death chamber. In an interview with Talk magazine last summer, he mocked convicted double murderer Karla Faye Tucker for her last-minute mercy plea.

We at The Progressive have a long history of opposing capital punishment on moral grounds. We believe every human being deserves the dignity of life. This includes the most brutal of murderers. We simply do not believe that premeditated, state-sanctioned killing is justifiable under any circumstances. The death penalty brutalizes us. It is an indication of how little our government values human life.

But the case against the death penalty does not rest solely on this pillar. Capital punishment is cruel, both physically and psychologically. People have been executed who very well might have been innocent. The death penalty is not applied consistently. And it discriminates against minorities and the poor.

As to cruelty, there can be no question. In 1997, Pedro Medina's head caught fire while he was being electrocuted in Florida. State Attorney General Bob Butterworth commented, "People who wish to commit murder, they better not do it in the state of Florida, because we may have a problem with our electric chair."

In 1999, that state had another botched execution: In June, Allen Lee Davis started to bleed profusely from the nose and appeared to suffer extreme pain during electrocution. After the machine was turned off, he continued to breathe. "Witnesses say his chest rose and fell about ten times before he went still," reported The New York Times. The occurrence prompted the Supreme Court to agree to review Florida's use of the electric chair, and Florida's state legislature has offered lethal injection as an alternative.

Although the electric chair is gruesome, other methods of execution currently practiced in the United States--particularly hanging and the gas chamber--are capable of producing excruciating pain, as well.

Sister Helen Prejean, who was portrayed by Susan Sarandon in the movie Dead Man Walking, counsels death row convicts in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. …

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