Minority Report

By Hitchens, Christopher | The Nation, March 2, 1992 | Go to article overview

Minority Report


Hitchens, Christopher, The Nation


Bertie Wooster's Aunt Dahlia once warned him sternly against having anything at all to do with girls who spelled ordinary names in extraordinary ways: "No good can come of association with anything labelled Gwladys or Ysobel or Ethyl or Mabelle or Kathryn, but particularly Gwladys." Presuming this to extend to any Gennifers of the species, it seems that a failure to profit by Aunt Dahlia's counsel is the harshest verdict we are allowed to pass on Governor Clinton's ethical "judgment." All right, so these are lax times. That is why the name Gennifer Flowers is notorious and the name Rickey Ray Rector-surely just as euphonious-is not.

When Dostoyevsky wrote about the horrific torture of telling a man the date of his own death, and then keeping him waiting, he said that a man would endure any privation to escape that trap. This wouldn't be applicable in Rickey Ray Rector's case, since he was lobotomized as a result of a selfinflicted-bullet wound. So I suppose it could be said that Governor Clinton was sparing him some of the agonies of the condemned when he refused to grant executive clemency and had him destroyed by lethal injection on January 24. This was the big 60 Minutes weekend for the Governor, and you can well imagine that the last thing he felt he needed was idle talk about his softness on crime.

One is tempted to be pontifical about this moral contrast-a temptress on one side and an execution on the other, and the mob turning from the medicalized gibbet to the exposed love nest-but actually the Rector case tells us nothing that we do not already know only too well. The lessons are that capital punishment is cruel and unusual, that especially in the South it is applied in a racist manner, that humane and defensible alternatives to it are within easy reach, and that Bill Clinton is a calculating opportunist.

The first point is easily established. As well as degrading the medical profession in a more intimate way than the use of gassing, hanging, shooting and electrocution, "lethal injection" is just as barbarous as the sub-modern methods. As the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit was constrained to observe in 1983: "There is substantial and uncontroverted evidence . . . that execution by lethal injection poses a serious risk of cruel, protracted death. . . . Even a slight error in dosage or administration can leave a prisoner conscious but paralyzed while dying, a sentient witness to his or her own asphyxiation."

Point number two is as old as America, and older than Europe. It's well put by Clinton Duffy (another good name, by the way), who as a San Quentin warden was witness to more than 150 snuffings. Capital punishment, he said, is "a privilege of the poor." Is there any thinking person who does not know what this means in a state like Arkansas? The latest and the driest phrasing of the problem comes from the General Accounting Office, reporting to the Senate and House judiciary committees this very month:

Our synthesis of the 28 studies shows a pattern of evidence

indicating racial disparities in the charging, sentencing and

imposition of the death penalty. …

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