The Right to Life

By Wheeler, Charles | The Spectator, February 17, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Right to Life


Wheeler, Charles, The Spectator


FRANK HARGROVE, a pillar of the conservative majority in Virginia's state parliament, the General Assembly, has been a lifelong supporter of capital punishment. Twenty years ago he introduced a Bill providing for public hanging from a gallows to be installed among the azaleas outside the Capitol building in Richmond. His Bill died in committee. But the Assembly went on to enact the most oppressive death-penalty statute in force in America today. Virginia's execution rate is second only to Texas.

Three weeks ago the same Frank Hargrove tabled a Bill to abolish Virginia's death penalty. He no longer believes it to be a deterrent, he told me. He thinks that innocent people have probably been executed. Besides, execution is no longer needed: the alternative sentence of life without parole both satisfies public opinion by keeping murderers off the streets, and avoids the awful finality of putting them to death. Hargrove doesn't expect his Bill to be passed. But he predicts, perhaps rashly, that in three or four years Virginia's death penalty will be history.

Watching Americans pick at the issue of capital punishment, I'm reminded of the 1960s, when southerners who had supported race segregation all their lives quietly came to terms with civil rights. Something similar may be happening again. In 1972 a liberal US Supreme Court struck down capital punishment. Citing race discrimination, the poor quality of court-appointed defence counsel and the risk of executing the innocent, it declared the death penalty to be a violation of the constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Three years later, a more conservative court invited the states to draw up new death-penalty statutes. Thirty-eight did so; 12 did not. Today, nobody expects this Supreme Court, with its pro-- death-penalty majority and reluctance to trample on states' rights, to intervene again. Similarly, no one expects a lead from the President from Texas, George W. Bush. At best, change will come gradually, in the shape of piecemeal reforms at state level.

Illinois has led the way, beginning with a remarkable investigation in the Chicago Tribune of all 285 trials ending in a death sentence since the state reintroduced capital punishment in the late 1970s. According to the newspaper, 33 death-row inmates had been defended by court-appointed lawyers who had been, or were subsequently, disbarred. In 46 cases the prosecutor had used testimony acquired in a deal with a `jailhouse snitch'. And 35 black defendants were sent to death row by all-white juries.

The Tribune series impressed the state's Republican governor, George Ryan, who was already wondering why Illinois was having to exonerate more death-row inmates than it was able to execute - an imbalance of 13 to 12. Ryan was also troubled by the erratic record of the state's appeal courts. No fewer than five men convicted of murder and rape in their late teens and early twenties had been freed after students of journalism had demolished the state's case against them and proved their innocence. Three of the five had spent 18 years on death row. The two others were serving sentences of life without parole and 135 years' imprisonment.

Across America more than 90 death-row inmates have so far been exonerated, and recent cases have attracted widespread publicity. So has Governor Ryan's decision last summer to halt executions in Illinois. He promises that the moratorium will stay in force until a special commission has examined all aspects of the state's capital-punishment system and changes are in place. …

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