SAN QUENTIN, Calif. -- The moon, a bit more than half full, glowed in a sky of stars and darkness. Only a faint breeze was blowing across the San Francisco Bay. A few yards from the dark water's edge, vans from local TV stations lined the road ending at prison gates. The state was ready to kill.
The premeditated murder went smoothly. Six minutes after midnight, a lethal injection began. Eleven minutes into the morning, observers reported, Darrell Rich's face changed color. The official time of death was 12:13 a.m., March 15, 2000.
The Associated Press quickly sent out a 270-word report that began: "A serial killer who threw an 11-year-old girl more than 100 feet to her death was executed by injection early Wednesday..." The dispatch did not mention that several hundred people had gathered at the gate to protest the death penalty.
By now, when the government takes a human life, it's usually not much of a national story -- maybe a few inches in the newspaper or a fleeting mention on a newscast. With 3,625 people on death row in the United States, and more arriving all the time, a macabre rhythm has taken hold.
The trend is toward injecting deadly chemicals. Grisly electric chairs, which can go awry and smolder or even burst into flames, are out of favor. These days, we prefer killing them softly.
We may even hear that the process is gentle. A television correspondent who witnessed the execution of Rich at San Quentin was on a San Francisco radio station hours later, describing the event as "clinical and merciful." Such media coverage encourages us to assume that the death penalty is on high moral ground.
But one problem is that innocent people are among those who await execution. The Republican governor of Illinois, George Ryan, confronted that reality on Jan. 31 when he announced a moratorium on the death penalty. Ryan was responding to clear evidence that 13 innocent men were on death row in his state.
Across the nation, the racial biases of the court system are clear. Columbia University professor Manning Marable points out that "African-American defendants found guilty of the identical crime as a white defendant are statistically at least four times more likely to be given the death penalty."
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While blacks comprise 13 percent of this country's population, 42 percent of the people on death row are black. The General Accounting Office examined research data and discovered that "in 82 percent of the studies, race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving a death penalty sentence."
Meanwhile, the economic tilt is extreme. People who can pay a lot of money for their legal defense are much more likely to go free. When a defendant's life hangs in the balance, unfairness routinely tips the scales.
Two million people are now living behind bars in the United States. Few affluent Americans are among them. The booming "correctional" industry is filling our jails and prisons with low-income people. Instead of a war on poverty, the government is waging a well-financed war on the poor.
The prison-industrial complex encounters little skepticism in medialand. The dominant scenarios of crime and righteous retribution offer the kind of climaxes that scriptwriters crave. The legal system's revenge is dramatic -- and in the case of capital punishment, absolutely final.
It scarcely seems to matter that, as Marable correctly notes, "the death penalty is not now, nor has it ever been, a deterrent to violent crime." The death-penalty ritual of extinguishing a life is supposed to show that we revere life. When the state murders a murderer, we are told the action underscores the shimmering truth that murder is unacceptable.
Declining to go along with such notions, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo said: "I have concluded that the death penalty is wrong, that it lowers us all, that it is a surrender to the worst in us, that it uses a power, the official power to kill by execution, which has never elevated a society, never brought back a life, never inspired anything but hate."
The current Illinois moratorium on executions has prompted other states to consider similar measures. As spring gets underway, we seem to be on the verge of a revitalized media debate about capital punishment. But in most regions, the official death chambers are staying busy, and silence harmonizes with the executioner's song.