Capital punishment has remained a highly controversial, yet ultimately untouched corner of US politics since the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1976. Like the issue of abortion, the volatile subject has chiefly been confined to the internal politics of state legislation, leaving the federal government uneasily sidestepping the larger issue at hand.
For those who contend that capital punishment is not now, nor has it ever been, a deterrent to violent crime, the death penalty is the cruelest example of human rights violations in the United States today. Social scientists have long established that the death penalty is injudiciously meted out. An African-American defendant found guilty of the identical crime of a white defendant is statistically at least four times more likely to be given the death penalty. Black people currently comprise more than 40 per cent of death-row inmates.
The implementation of the death penalty in different parts of the United States is widely disparate. Regional differences make it 160 times more likely that a person convicted of a capital offense in the south will be executed than one in the north-east. And, of course, the capital justice system can never guarantee that innocent people will not be executed by the state. For these and other reasons, the US Supreme Court, in the 1972 case of Furman vs Georgia, outlawed capital punishment.
Since the death penalty was reinstated, there has been mounting legal evidence that capital punishment cannot be implemented in a fair and impartial manner. The state of Illinois, for example, currently has 161 people on death row. Since 1977, 12 people in Illinois have been executed, but 13 on death row were proven to have been wrongly convicted. Several death-row prisoners in Illinois were freed after a Northwestern University journalism class provided strong evidence that they were innocent and that others had actually committed the crimes.
The Chicago Tribune recently examined the almost 300 cases in Illinois during the past 23 years in which the death penalty was rendered. About half of the 260 cases that were appealed were ultimately reversed in favour of new trials or sentencing hearings. In at least 30 cases, The Chicago Tribune revealed that defendants in capital cases were represented by attorneys who had been disbarred or suspended from legal practice.
This overwhelming evidence that innocent people were being executed in the state of Illinois prompted Governor George Ryan, a Republican, to halt the use of the death penalty. Ryan is a long-time supporter of capital punishment, but, as he explained to the press, "I now favour a moratorium, because I have grave concerns about our state's shameful record of convicting innocent people and putting them on death row."
The opposite extreme to Ryan on the political spectrum is another Republican governor, George W Bush of Texas. A self-proclaimed "compassionate conservative," the presidential hopeful has been downright vicious in his implementation of capital punishment. In six short years, Bush has presided over the executions of more than 100 people -- and according to him, every single one of them was guilty.
A recent New York Times article by Stephen B Bright, director of the Southern Centre for Human Rights in Atlanta, illustrates how the Texas "assembly-line process" for dispatching people to the "execution chamber" works. Texas has no public defender system, and attorneys are assigned who have little or no experience in the defence of capital cases. They are often unable to retain independent investigators to review the evidence necessary to provide proof of a defendant's innocence. Bright notes, "The Texas courts do not even require that defence counsels remain awake during trials." In several capital cases, defence attorneys actually fell asleep and the defendants were sentenced to death. One of those convicted, Carl Johnson, was executed in 1995.
The struggle to halt the execution of America's most prominent political prisoner, African-American journalist Mumia Abu-Jamal, has helped to spark a grassroots movement to end capital punishment. Legislatures in 16 of the 38 states with death penalty laws have been reviewing moratoriums on executions. Eight cities have called for a halt to capital punishment, of which the most significant is Philadelphia. Last month, in a 12-to-four vote, Philadelphia's city council approved a resolution demanding a two-year moratorium on executions and called for the creation of a new state commission to study Pennsylvania's capital punishment. Democratic City Councilwoman Donna Miller, who introduced the resolution, observed that "90 per cent of the people on Pennsylvania's death row are people who cannot afford legal counsel and 90 per cent of those from Philadelphia are people of colour."
In Congress, US Senator Russ Feingold, a Democrat, has called on the Clinton administration to issue a similar moratorium on all federal executions. "The problems of inadequate representation, lack of access to DNA testing, police misconduct, racial bias and even simple errors are not unique to Illinois. These are problems that have plagued the administration of capital punishment around the country since the reinstatement of capital punishment almost a quarter century ago," explained Feingold. Several months before Feingold's public challenge, Attorney General Janet Reno authorised a review to determine if racial disparities exist in federal capital punishment cases.
These hopeful signs provide encouragement to those of us who have always opposed the death penalty. But we must take the struggle to halt capital punishment to the next level. We should challenge elected officials who are soliciting our votes in the fall 2000 elections to have the political and moral decency to support the death penalty moratorium. In the words of Supreme Court Associate Justice Harry Blackman, we must halt once and for all the "machinery of death."
Manning Marable is a professor of history and political science and the director of the Institute for Research in African-American Studies at Columbia University.
Copyright 2000 Al-Ahram Weekly