America: the capital of punishment

The Age

GEORGE Bush, as is the custom here, saved a couple of turkeys from Thanksgiving death last week and the turkeys ended up leading the Thanksgiving Day parade at Disneyland.

Saving two turkeys may not be a big deal when many millions of the birds are slaughtered for Thanksgiving feasts that mark the Pilgrims’ first harvest in North America after their arrival at Plymouth in Massachusetts in 1620.

Still, those two turkeys got a reprieve from Bush, which is two more acts of mercy than he was prepared to offer the 152 people who were executed when he was governor of Texas. Even those who support capital punishment would, you’d think, have been given pause by Bush’s apparent absolute certainty that not a single one of these 152 souls deserved to be spared death by lethal injection, which replaced the hangman’s noose in Texas a couple of decades ago as the preferred execution technique.

For all the commercial excess that surrounds Thanksgiving — it has surpassed Christmas as the most lucrative retail sales holiday period of the year in the US — it remains a time of reflection for many Americans, though it is doubtful that many of them remember that it was proclaimed a national holiday by Abraham Lincoln in 1863 at the height of the Civil War, America’s bloodiest war.

It is not clear whether the reprieve of the turkeys is a custom that is somehow meant to reaffirm the sanctity of life in the midst of death — perhaps that’s how Lincoln saw Thanksgiving — but if this holiday is about reflecting on American values, the value of state-sanctioned executions is one that deserves urgent reflection.

America is fast approaching what should be a shameful milestone: the thousandth execution since 1976 when the US Supreme Court reversed an earlier ruling and decided that capital punishment did not constitute cruel and unusual punishment.

That honour could well go to Stanley “Tookie” Williams, the founder of the notorious California-based Crips street gang who is scheduled to die on December 13.

Williams was convicted in 1981 of murdering four people in the space of several days in February 1979 and has been on death row for more than two decades.

He was, by all accounts, a bad and violent man and a cold-blooded killer. According to the coalition of religious leaders and opponents of the death penalty who are working desperately hard for Williams not to become a significant statistic, he is not the man he was almost a quarter of a century ago.

Williams, 51, has written several award-winning children’s books warning young people off joining gangs and has made a dozen or more videos that have been widely distributed in the run-down crime and gang-infested inner city areas of America’s big cities.

Only Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger stands between Williams and his quick death by lethal injection. Officials in Schwarzenegger’s office have given no sign that Williams should be optimistic about being alive in a couple of weeks’ time.

There were 120 men and five women sentenced to death in America last year, with 59 executions in 12 states. The keepers of these grim statistics expect about the same number of death sentences and executions this year.

These executions rate a few paragraphs in the newspapers and 15 seconds on the television news and perhaps a candlelight vigil outside the jails by the usual anti-death penalty suspects. This is despite the fact that improved DNA testing has led to the release of more than 100 death-row inmates and the decision in 2003 by George Ryan, Governor of Illinois, to remove all 167 inmates on death row and declare a moratorium on death sentences.

Last week, the Houston Chronicle, after a lengthy investigation, published a story that cast serious doubt on the guilt of a man executed a decade ago for a murder he was accused of committing when he was 17.

The details are not important here but the fact is that Ruben Canto professed his innocence even as he was being strapped onto the gurney and even as the poison was being injected into his arm.

Canto had been denied the jelly beans he had asked for as his last meal and what was shocking about that was not so much the refusal of his last wish, but that Canto would ask for jelly beans, as if he had been frozen in childhood during his decade-long incarceration on death row.

This story was a one-day wonder in Houston and was not picked up by any of the major television networks or the great liberal newspapers like The New York Times or the Los Angeles Times. It seems that state-sanctioned life-taking no longer excites debate and is no longer seen as a sort of litmus test of American values, even by liberal Democrats.

No major American politician has taken up the anti-capital punishment cause. Not Hillary Clinton, not Howard Dean, not any of the north-eastern Democrats who represent states where, according to opinion polls, a majority of people support the repeal of the death penalty. And certainly not those conservative Republicans who are constantly on about the sanctity of life, which surely can only mean — if sanctity has any meaning — that life is God-given and only God’s to take.

It is not just a coincidence that while there is no political support for the repeal of the death penalty, the powerful National Rifle Association recently scored a major victory when Congress voted overwhelmingly to outlaw lawsuits against gun manufacturers brought by victims of gun violence.

From the distance of Washington, it seems that a majority of Australians are appalled at the Singapore Government’s determination to hang Nguyen Tuong Van. In part, this must reflect a widespread revulsion of capital punishment. It is certainly unimaginable that Australia would ever again turn to capital punishment, even for the worst offences.

Imagine if America wasn’t hooked on the death penalty, wasn’t up there in fourth place behind China, Iran and Vietnam on the ladder of state-sanctioned killing.

Imagine if America, having outlawed the death penalty, used its enormous influence to plead with the Singapore Government for the life of Nguyen Tuong Van.

Michael Gawenda is United States correspondent.

This entry was posted in Veterans for Common Sense News. Bookmark the permalink.