Because of the growing interest (and horror) over the death penalty, its racism and its class bias have been exposed for all to see. The recent attention that the death penalty has garnered is because Governor George Ryan of Illinois issued a moratorium, a temporary stop, on the state's death penalty. The state released more prisoners than it killed! 13 men who were found innocent after they'd been sentenced to die were released, while the state executed 12! How many weren't so lucky? That's the question the activists involved in the Campaign to End the Death Penalty raised at their demonstrations and at their public forums. Ryan, who is a pro-death penalty Republican, did not just become a saint, he was forced by the political pressure that the movement put on him to declare a moratorium and stop all executions. This marked the turning point for the movement; now Governor Bush is being heckled at every $1,000 plate fundraiser by anti-death penalty activists. The national news comes on with death penalty stories, the New York Times has run editorials questioning the death penalty, in short, the debate has shifted, the forces of the death penalty are on the defensive!! Now is the time for an attack!
But before I incite the masses to fight back, the issues surrounding the death penalty need to be thoroughly examined.
Who's Gonna Die?
In short, the death penalty works like this: "Those without the capital, receive the punishment." The death penalty is racist and anti-poor.
In 1997, 90% of the executions in the United States took place in the former Confederate States. Even though blacks make up only 12% of the population, they make up 43% of those on death row. The race of the victim is also key, according to a study by the General Accounting Office: "[the] race of the victim was found to influence the likelihood of being charged with capital murder or receiving the death penalty, i.e., those who murdered whites were found to be more likely to be sentenced to death than those who murdered blacks. This finding was remarkably consistent across data sets, states, data collection methods and analytic techniques." Although blacks constitute 50% of murder victims, 85% of murder victims in death penalty cases are white.
Since 1976, 84 black defendants have been executed for killing a white person, but only 4 whites have been executed for killing a black person. In our glorious 200-300 years of American history, of more than 18,000 executions only 31 have involved a white person being sentenced to death for killing a white person. Combined with the fact that today, there are now more people on death row than in any other time in American history, makes for the number of potential "accidents" (i.e., innocent people on the row) alarmingly high.
If the racial bias isn't bad enough, the class bias is even worse.
In the entire history of the death penalty in the United States, a rich person has never been executed.
On January 26, 1996, John du Pont gunned down David Schultz, a member of the U.S. olympic wrestling team who was living on his estate. It was one of those brutal, senseless, heinous crimes that usually gets "tough on crime" politicians to utter rabid cries for the death penalty. But du Pont is a member of the wealthy du Pont family; he could afford the best legal team, which argued that he was insane during the murder. As a result, he not only escaped the death penalty, but he ended up in a mental institution. He runs his estate from inside!
Look at O.J. Simpson. Do you think that if he was poor he would've gotten off? With all that evidence, planted or not? He could afford to hire a legal dream team--a crack team of lawyers that pulled all the stops. Not to mention the fact that the prosecutor appointed to the case, Marsha Clark, was relatively inexperienced and totally unqualified to handle a high-profile case.
The system is not only stacked against the poor, it treats the rich with kid gloves. But when the defendant is poor, and especially black, they break out the brass knuckles and call for "an eye for an eye..."
As Justice William O. Douglas put it, "One searches our chronicles in vain for the execution of any member of the affluent strata in this society."
This race and class bias leads to all sorts of problems, like inadequate legal defense, no money for forensic experts, no money to find witnesses and worst of all, innocent people being put on death row.
For example, the case of James Brewer, who was found guilty of murder. His lawyer misjudged when a sentencing hearing would begin, leaving him totally unprepared. The lawyer waived the opportunity to make an argument, presented no character witnesses and no evidence of his client's mental history (he had been treated with shock therapy, had brain damage due to blows to the head and an IQ of 58-67). Is it a surprise that the jury returned with a death sentence?
Lawyers have fallen asleep during trials! In Calvin Burdine's case, the judge ruled on appeal that it was OK because the jury would've found him guilty anyway. In the trial of George McFarland, his defense attorney, John Benn, slept through most of the trial because it was, in his words, "boring". But the Texas state Supreme Court ruled "The Constitution says that everyone is entitled to an attorney of their choice. But the Constitution does not say that the lawyer has to stay awake."
Incompetent legal counsel is not the exception but the rule for those facing the death penalty. In 1993, the American Bar Association described the representation for death row defendants as being in a state of crisis. In 1997, they voted for a moratorium on the death penalty because it is "seriously flawed." In addition to citing new laws restricting the appeals process, increasing the likelihood of killing the innocent, they recommended that "executions should cease until effective mechanisms are developed for eliminating the corrosive effects of racial prejudice in capital cases." The Kentucky Dept. for Public Advocacy found that "one-fourth of those under the sentence of death in Kentucky were represented at trial by attorneys who since had been disbarred or had resigned rather than face disbarment." In Alabama, the average capital case lasts 3 days!! In Louisiana, Keith Messiah was convicted and sentenced to death in one day. The sentencing process took 20 minutes. He still sits on the row today.
The death penalty, in the hands of our rulers, is a political weapon. Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists framed and murdered for their political beliefs come to mind, but so does the case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted "cop-killer". The cops never bothered to test his hands for powder burns, which would've shown that he'd fired a gun recently and according to the medical examiner, the weapon they found on him did not match the caliber of the bullets in the victim. Numerous prosecution witnesses have changed their testimony and one witness has affirmed all along that the police offered her a reward for testifying against Mumia. Mumia was framed for killing a policeman and put on Pennsylvania's death row because of his radio journalism, because he spoke out for blacks and the poor. He earned the name the "Voice of the Voiceless" because of his outspoken opposition to police brutality, anti-poor laws and racism in general.
The death penalty, far from detering people, has absolutely no effect on the crime rate where it is in place (otherwise, Texas would have a murder rate of -3%). In fact, an FBI study has shown that states which have abolished the death penalty have lower murder rates than those states that have not.
Why Should We Fight the Death Penalty?
Why? Because it's racist and anti-poor. The fact that there are innocent people on death row proves that the death penalty isn't about justice or guilt, it's about what color your skin is or how much money you have. There is no such thing as equal justice in our society; "justice" is for those who can afford it.
The death penalty is about wholely and solely about race and class. It is a a mere microcosm of the injustices that minorities and the poor face each and every day; be it the lack of a decent education or denial of quality health care. There is "one law for the rich, and one law for the poor."
Any justice that occurs in the American criminal justice system is purely incidental. In the book, In Spite of Innocence, it is noted that between 1900 and 1992 there have been 416 documented cases of innocent people who have been convicted and given a death sentence. The authors discovered that in 23 of these cases, the person was executed. That's why we have to fight for justice and put an end to the death penalty and its racism, class bias and its role as a political tool for the powers that be.
Illinois - the Turning Point
In Illinois, the contradictions of racism and class bias were exposed, in large part because of the wonderful work of Northwestern University law students. They found case after case after case after case of faulty representation, little or no physical evidence, etc. This, combined with a strong, anti-death penalty movement which protested, held rallies and so on put Governor Ryan on the spot and forced him to act. The state had released people than it killed (13 to 12) and the movement pointed this out, saying "Why?" and "How many weren't so lucky to have students investigating their case?". But without the political movement pointing the political spotlight on Ryan, nothing would've come about on its own. Just look at the Texas State's Supreme Court ruling about the sleeping lawyers.
Some may argue, "well, the fact that they stopped the executions shows that the system works." WRONG! The executions were stopped because of the political movement on the ground that exposed the death penalty for what it is. What if the law students at Northwestern University hadn't done anything? Would anyone found out that innocent people were on death row? And without the political movement on the ground, no one would've even debated the issue.
Thus Governor Ryan issued a moratorium on the death penalty, declaring "The system is broken" and he appointing a committee to "investigate". But if "The system is broken" in Illinois, it is broken everywhere else because it is the same system in every state! The political questions that the moratorium raised sparked a vigorous debate between those for a moratorium and those who are against it, where there was once only the hardline consensus that the death penalty is just.
Illinois was the first major breakthrough for the movement. The flood gates for discussion and activism have been opened. Newspapers and magazines run articles deploring the inequality of the death penalty; tv commentators' scripts questioned the lies they had once obediently mouthed without the slightest difficulty.
The propenents of the death penalty are on the defensive for the first time in 20 years! Now is the time to go on the offensive, and we can't stop until abolition!
the Struggle Around Shaka Sankofa (Gary Graham)
Gary Graham was convicted at age 17 of murdering a man outside a convenience store, after pleading guilty to a string of armed robberies. His lawyer didn't raise any objections or even an argument against the prosecution, and he didn't call on any witnesses, several of whom explicitly contradicted the prosecution's sole witness. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime, and the testimony of the one witness was tainted. The killer was described as being clean shaven, and when the cops showed her, the sole witness to appear at the trial, mugshot photos, Graham was the only clean shaven one. Later on, he was the only one from the mugshots that appeared in the police line up. Several jurors, upon hearing this evidence, said they wouldn't have convicted Graham and they certainly wouldn't have sentenced him to die.
Many pro-death penalty scum have argued "Mr. Graham has gotten over a dozen different appeals, blablabla, so let's kill him." Texas has a statute that says you cannot bring in new evidence after 30 days. 30 DAYS! These reviews were about whether or not the process of the trial itself was valid, not about guilt or innocence or new evidence being brought to light. It was about the details of the trial itself, not the premise that the entire trial was flawed to begin with.
Unfortunately, Gary Graham was executed on June 22nd. He may have died, but his spirit and the struggle for justice goes on! Moratorium now, abolition next!!
The Fire Last Time
From the way the politicians and the media moutpieces talk, you wouldn't have any idea that in 1972, in Furman v. Georgia, the Supreme Court concluded that the death penalty amounted to cruel and unusual punishment because it was applied in an arbitrary (i.e. racist and anti-poor) manner. Thurgood Marshall wrote in the Furman decision: "[T]he American people are largely unaware of the information critical to a judgement on the morality of the death penalty... If they were better informed they would consider it shocking, unjust and unacceptable."
At the time the death penalty was overturned, there was no movement around specifically geared towards ending the death penalty. The movements of the 60s and 70s, the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the black, gay and women's liberation movements were shaking the country - leading to the atmosphere in which the Court made its decision.
Despite the death penalty's defeat, the rightward shift in American politics helped to reinstate it. A new rhetoric, the rhetoric of "law and order", took hold and became an essential part of the programme of the ruling class for the next 3 decades. In 1968, Spiro Agnew, "I am not a crook" Nixon's running mate declared, "When I talk about troublemakers, I'm talking about muggers and criminals in the streets, assassins of political leaders, draft evaders and flag burners, campus militants, hecklers and demonstrators against candidates for public office and looters of cities." The message couldn't be any more clearer.
In 1976, the death penalty was restored in the Gregg v. George case, because the Court felt that states had passed new statutes preventing the application of the death penalty in an arbitrary, racist and capricious way. Of course, these statutes did nothing, as we can see today in Illinois and in Texas. Justice Harry Blackmun, who voted for the death penalty in both 1972 and 1976, changed his mind shortly before his retirement. "From this day forward, I no longer shall tinker with the machinery of death... Rather than continue to coddle the Court's delusion that the desired level of fairness has been achieved and the need for regulation eviscerated, I feel morally and intellectually obligated to concede that the death penalty experiment has failed."
The reinstatement of the death penalty, coupled with the rising income gap and polarization of wealth, the attack on welfare (but not corporate welfare, mind you!), the whittling away of a woman's right to choose, the decline of unions, the one sided debate on affirmative action, the expansion of free trade, and the astounding growth of the prison industrial complex constitute an all-out offensive of the ruling class against the working class. They've taken back as many concessions as they could from the civil rights era and even from the 1930s.
Democrats, the death penalty and the National Convention
Even though George W. Bush and his Republican scum are pro-death to the core (I'll deal with them in a minute), so are the Democrats. Bill Clinton signed the Effective Death Penalty Act, severely limiting the number of appeals a death row inmate can have and cutting the funding for numerous legal resource centers across the country, which served the poor who couldn't otherwise afford legal defense.
Bill Clinton, in the middle of his 1992 election campaign, rushed back to Arkansas to execute Ricky Ray Rector, a mentally retarded man who was convicted of murder, in order to prove how "tough on crime" he was. Rector's IQ was so low, he didn't understand what was going to happen to him; this is demonstrated by the fact that he saved the dessert from his last meal for after his execution.
Al Gore, the democrats' presidential candidate has said about the prospect of innocent people on death row, "mistakes are inevitable", yet he continues to support the death penalty and oppose a moratorium! This shows how callous the democrats really are, and it also shows that they aren't an alternative to Bush's killing spree. In fact, Clinton aided and abetted Bush in his mission to kill by getting rid of the legal resource centers that the poor depended on for a semblance of quality legal representation.
That's why we have to mobilize and get to the Democratic National Convention. Our voices must be heard, and we must expose them for the killers they are. The National Convention is being held on August 14-17, at the STAPLES Center, an indoor arena currently under construction in Los Angeles.
Crashing the Executioner's Ball, the Republican National Convention
George W. Bush is personally responsible for over 300 executions since he took office only 5 years ago. He alone accounts for 1/5 of all the executions since carried out since 1976, when the death penalty was reinstated.
The Republicans are the party that pioneered the "law and order" and "tough on crime" rhetoric. They are clearly a party of the ruling class; they don't hide it in any way.
The convention is going to be held in Philadelphia, the hometown of political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal, at Comcast-Spectacor’s First Union Center from July 30th to August 4th.
Join the Fight!
If this article has swayed you to supporting a moratorium, or if you were already against the death penalty but this article gave you even more reasons, you should join the Campaign to End the Death Penalty.
There is tons more information on this website on local chapters, why you should oppose the death penalty and what you can do to fight it. Get involved and join the fight!. Moratorium now, abolition next!