Stop the Killing Machine

The Progressive, August 2001 | Go to article overview

Stop the Killing Machine


Anyone who pays attention to the death penalty can feel it. A sea change is under way. Support for the death penalty has fallen to its lowest point in years. It now stands at 63 percent, down from 77 percent five years ago, according to the latest available poll. However, that drops to 46 percent when life in prison is offered as an option. Last September, a bipartisan study showed that 64 percent would favor a moratorium on further executions until "issues of fairness can be resolved."

But the numbers tell only so much. The cultural shift on the death penalty is going on in kitchens and neighborhoods and factories and offices and press rooms across the country, where people are talking about it as they have not since 1976, the year the Supreme Court lifted its ban on executions. Many are looking at capital punishment with newfound horror and sudden doubts.

Among the doubters, some surprises:

Pat Robertson, the rightwing Christian conservative and former Presidential candidate, has called for a federal moratorium on the death penalty. Robertson's reason? He says that capital punishment is discriminatory, unfairly affecting minorities and those who are too poor to pay for good lawyers.

George Will, the conservative columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post, warns that "careless or corrupt administration of capital punishment" appears to be "intolerably common."

Even President George W. Bush seems to have had second--or first--thoughts on the subject. On June 11, Bush said, "We should never execute anybody who is mentally retarded." As numerous papers reported, the statement led to some confusion about what Bush really believed. As governor of Texas, he opposed bills that would have stopped executions of mentally retarded people, and at least a few of the 152 people whose deaths he oversaw had very low IQs.

While the American public examines its conscience, the U.S. capital punishment system is an enormous embarrassment overseas.

Until recently, U.S. executions got much more attention abroad than they did here. "An average person in France," reported The New York Times, "could not help but be familiar with the case of Betty Lou Beets," who was executed in Texas in February of last year for killing her fifth husband. "Her story, with particular attention to her assertion that she was abused by her father and husbands, has been on the front page of many newspapers."

The same was true, said the Times, of Odell Barnes. French editorialists had penned columns questioning whether Barnes was innocent, and the mayor of Paris even traveled to Texas to meet him. Barnes was executed in March of last year.

In the past few months, the moral isolation of the United States has grown more glaring almost by the day. In April, the United Nations Human Rights Commission called for a global moratorium "with a view to completely abolishing the death penalty." The proposal was put forward by the European Union. The vote was 27 to 18, with the United States, along with Japan, China, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia, voting against.

Then, in late June, the Council of Europe, the continent's forty-three-nation human rights group, voted to remove Japan and the United States as observers unless they call a moratorium on executions "without delay" and begin a formal repeal of the death penalty.

"The debate at the Council of Europe is further evidence that the credibility of the U.S. on human rights issues has reached a new low point," said Ajamu Baraka, acting director of Amnesty International USA's Program to Abolish the Death Penalty. "The U.S.'s reputation continues to be tarnished by its defiant and puzzling commitment to a punishment that has no deterrent effect and that the majority of the world's nations has abandoned as barbaric and outdated."

A few days later, the World Court ruled that the United States had violated the Vienna Convention in a death penalty case involving Karl and Walter LaGrand, both German nationals who were executed in 1999. …

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