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Sick Joke

Or 'Dead Constitution Walking'

By Bob Harris

THE AMERICAN BAR Association just voted overwhelmingly to support a moratorium on executions until the death penalty can be administered with fairness, due process, and minimum risk that innocent people will die.

That day will never come.

There are 3,100 people on death row. Virtually all are poor. Most are minorities. Many are mentally ill or minors. Some are innocent. Azikiwe Kambule is a 17-year-old South African boy, convicted of a murder in which he was essentially a bystander. He had no criminal record or history of violence and cooperated completely with the police. Mississippi intends to execute him.

The only other countries that execute minors are Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen. The United States executes more minors than all those other nations combined. The six governments that lead the world in executing their own people are China, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Florida, and Texas.

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights recently noted that Maurice Andrews, Robert Brecheen, Willie Clisby, Anthony Joe Larette, Mario Marquez, and Luis Mata were all on death row in spite of mental incapacity. The commission also noted that Larry Griffin, Nicholas Ingraham, Jesse Jacobs, Gregory Resnover, and Dennis Waldon Stockton were very likely innocent.

All 11 have now been executed.

If you must kill someone, be white. Being black quadruples your risk of a death sentence. And make sure you kill a black person. Kill a white, and you're twice as likely to be executed.

The 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection and due process for all. The death penalty is a sick joke on the Constitution.

There is no credible evidence that executions deter crime. Crime correlates far better to population density, wealth inequity, and the concentration of young males than to law enforcement factors. Capital punishment also costs two or three times more than life without parole. Few defendants plead guilty to a capital charge, so most every capital trial becomes a jury trial.

We're wasting tens of millions of dollars. Secure prisons already exist: in California, not one prisoner sentenced to life without parole has been released since the option was created in 1977. Allowed to live, inmates can be put to work, with the proceeds benefitting the victim's family. Given this sentencing option, 70 percent of Americans prefer it. Besides, if the accused is later exonerated, the jail door can open.

You can't raise the dead.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Ever witness an execution? They're plenty cruel and unusual. Hangings often slowly strangle the victim, who can remain conscious for much of the process. Electrocutions can take up to 10 minutes, as can the gas chamber. Some lethal injections have taken more than 20 minutes. (And yes, they really do swab your arm with alcohol first, just so you don't die with an infection.) No other Western industrialized nation does this to its own people.

It gets worse.

Your habeus corpus rights are supposed to be your federal guarantee that local officials respect the Constitution. If a state court jails you wrongly, you have--or had, sorry--the right to appeal the legality of your conviction in federal court.

How often is this necessary? In the last 20 years, nearly half of the state court decisions in capital cases have been overturned. State judges are often elected, which means justice becomes secondary to looking strong for the voters.

Willingness to kill is not equivalent to moral strength.

In a similar display, in 1996 Congress passed, the president signed, and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the "Antiterrorism and Death Penalty Act," which imposed an unprecedented one-year time limit on habeus corpus appeals.

And what happens if your proof of innocence emerges after the first year has passed? Simple: you die. In Leonel Herrera vs. Collins, the Court has held that the Constitution does not protect state prisoners from execution, even given new evidence of innocence. Chief Justice William Rehnquist actually wrote that "entertaining claims of actual innocence" would have a "disruptive effect . . . on the need for finality."

In other words, your actual guilt or innocence just doesn't matter that much. Leonel Herrera, who was probably innocent, was executed shortly thereafter.

Capital punishment is quickly transforming the Bill of Rights itself into a Dead Man Walking. The ABA has taken an important step in acknowledging that the death penalty doesn't work.

The next step is to accept that it never will.

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From the February 27-March 5, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent

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